52 pages 1 hour read

Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Fiction | Short Story Collection | Adult | Published in 1892

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Summary and Study Guide


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1859-1930) The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was published in 1892 as a collection of 12 short stories. The texts detail some of the earliest cases of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes as narrated by his friend and collaborator, Doctor John Watson. The stories appear in the order in which they were originally published in The Strand Magazine.

Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh to Catholic parents, the second of 10 children. The family’s situation was fraught due to his father’s alcoholism and eventual commitment to an asylum. With the help of wealthy relatives, however, Conan Doyle received an education at several schools in England and Austria, and later completed a medical degree at the University of Edinburgh. During his time at medical school, Conan Doyle began writing short stories. His earliest known text is the manuscript “The Haunted Grange of Goresthorpe” from the late 1870s, while his first published story is “The Mystery of Sasassa Valley” (1879).

Sherlock Holmes appears in a total of 56 short stories and several novels. The detective was inspired by Conan Doyle’s university instructor Joseph Bell, considered one of the pioneers of forensic science. Bell was able to observe minute details about his patients and use them to deduce their condition. Conan Doyle began submitting short stories to the newly inaugurated The Strand Magazine. The detective’s adventures quickly become popular, boosting the journal’s circulation.

Conan Doyle, however, had an ambivalent attitude toward his creation, as he believed the Holmes stories overshadowed his other writing. The author tried various strategies of getting out of writing about the consulting detective, such as increasing his fees and even killing Holmes in “The Final Problem” (1893). However, public demand forced him to revive the detective.

Conan Doyle is also known for his passion for the occult in his later life. Despite his scientific training, the writer developed a lasting interest in spiritualism after World War I, possibly in reaction to his son’s and younger brother’s deaths. He championed several occultists and mediums who were later proven to be fake, damaging his credibility with the public.

This study guide is based on the 1960 Popular Library edition.

Plot Summary

The book consists of 12 unrelated stories narrated by Doctor John Watson. The narrator often alludes to some of the other stories in the volume, as well as the earlier novels featuring Sherlock Holmes.

“A Scandal in Bohemia” features Irene Adler, a character who becomes a prominent figure in many contemporary adaptations of Sherlock Holmes. She is a beautiful and intelligent retired opera singer who has obtained a compromising photograph of her former paramour, the hereditary king of Bohemia. The king is about to be married and has attempted multiple times to get hold of the picture to no avail. He comes to Holmes for help as a last resort. The consulting detective is able to discover where Adler keeps her blackmail material with the help of a clever ruse, but by the time the men return the following morning to retrieve the picture, it and the woman are gone. From that point on, Sherlock deeply admires Adler and refers to her as the woman.

“The Red-Headed League” deals with an attempted bank robbery. A red-headed pawn shop owner is hired by a mysterious league to copy the encyclopedia for a few hours each day. The work is nonsensical, but the pay is very generous, so when the office closes down after several months the man is anxious to find out what has happened. Holmes realizes that the job was a ruse meant to get the man out of his shop, so that his assistant, a criminal mastermind, could dig a tunnel to the bank vault bordering the shop. The detective discovers all this on the day of the intended robbery, so Holmes, Watson, the bank manager, and a police detective are able to apprehend the criminal in the act.

The story “A Case of Identity” concerns a young woman’s unfortunate love story. Miss Mary Sutherland is a relatively well-to-do woman whose fiancé disappeared on their wedding day. The young woman lives with her mother and stepfather and provides them with her significant inheritance. However, she wants to have a family of her own. Holmes deduces that to prevent her from marrying, her stepfather, who is only a few years older than Mary, disguised himself, got her to fall in love with him, and made her swear on the Bible that she would always remain faithful to him. In this way, even after her fake fiancé’s disappearance, Mary would remain at home.

“The Boscombe Valley Mystery” is the first story in the book that takes place outside of London. It focuses on the long-standing adversarial relationship between two men who met in Australia long ago. The now-wealthy landowner John Turner used to be a highway robber and murderer who made his wealth after an especially bloody theft. Charles McCarthy, his arch nemesis, was one of the few survivors of that robbery and, after recognizing Turner years later, begins blackmailing him. Turner has a daughter who would be devastated to learn of her father’s past, so he gives in to all of McCarthy’s demands, except for the blackmailer’s desire to marry his son to Turner’s daughter. In a fit of rage, Turner kills McCarthy. However, the blame falls onto McCarthy’s son, and Turner’s daughter requests Holmes’s help in clearing up his name. The detective solves the case but does not inform the police of his findings. Turner writes out a confession to be used as a last resort since he is terminally ill. However, with Holmes’s help, the young man is proven innocent without the truth coming to light.

“The Five Orange Pips” is the second story in the collection dealing with international politics. A young man comes seeking help from Holmes, as there seems to be a curse on his family. His eccentric uncle who used to live in America dies soon after receiving a letter with five orange pips. The estate is inherited by the young man’s father, who also succumbs to a fatal accident after receiving a similar letter. Now, the young man has gotten the same missive and is afraid for his life. The letters are signed with the initials “K.K.K.” Holmes believes the threat to be real and plans on tackling the case the very next morning. He implores the young man to be extremely careful while returning home. Unfortunately, the next day, there is a newspaper article announcing the young man’s death. The detective feels guilty for not being able to prevent the murder and sets out to punish the criminals. As it turns out, K.K.K. refers to the Ku Klux Klan. Holmes is able to determine that the captain of an American ship and his two mates are the culprits. He sends a letter with dried pips addressed to them in Savanna as well as a telegram to the police there. However, before they can be brought to justice, the ship and its crew sink during a storm.

“The Man with the Twisted Lip” is the third story centered on disguise. An amateur actor and reporter discovers that he can make more money by begging than by working as a journalist. He uses a clever disguise to make himself look pitiable and rents a small apartment over an opium den as his dressing room. One day his wife sees him in the apartment’s window and calls for the police. In his panic, unwilling to explain his true occupation, the man quickly puts on his disguise and lets himself be arrested on the suspicion of murder. Holmes is hired by the wife to discover what happened to her husband, as the police believe the fake beggar to have killed him. The detective strips the man of his disguise while he is in jail and makes him promise to stop begging in exchange for secrecy.

In “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” the blue carbuncle is a priceless diamond, stolen from its owner’s hotel room. The suspect is a plumber with a criminal record. On Christmas Eve, a police commissionaire intervenes in a street altercation during which a man loses his hat and his goose. The policeman leaves the hat with Holmes and takes the bird home for dinner. However, the following day he returns, as his wife has discovered the diamond inside the bird. Holmes puts out an ad in the newspaper about the lost hat and goose and soon a man comes to claim them. He is clearly innocent but tells the detective where he got the bird. Holmes and Watson follow the leads until they finally arrive at a market stall and find another man interested in discovering the whereabouts of a certain goose. He turns out to be the hotel attendant, who is the real thief. He took the diamond, knowing that the plumber would be suspected, and hid it inside one of the geese his sister grows on her farm. However, he lost track of the bird and has been trying to track down the whereabouts of the right one. Holmes decides to let him go in exchange for not testifying against the plumber.

“The Adventure of the Speckled Band” is another story set outside of London. A young woman comes seeking Holmes’s aid, as she is afraid for her life. She lives with her abusive stepfather but is soon to be married. However, when her twin sister was in a similar situation a few years ago, she died inexplicably, after hearing strange whistling and clanking sounds for several days. Now the young woman has been forced to move into her sister’s room and has started hearing similar sounds. Holmes believes the situation to be very dangerous and together with Watson goes to the manor that same day. After examining the rooms carefully, he figures out that the stepfather has acquired an exotic poisonous snake, which he releases through a small air vent into the bedroom next door. The snake eventually will bite the person in the bed, causing a painful and quick death. That night, Holmes and Watson stay in the room. When the snake crawls down, the detective hits it several times, causing it to quickly retreat and bite its owner. The stepfather’s death is deemed an accident.

“The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb” details the misadventures of a young engineer whose thumb is hacked off. The man is hired for a consultation on a hydraulic machine. However, the conditions of the job are extremely strange. He is required to come to a country house at night and not mention anything to anyone. The job is suspicious, but the pay is too good to pass, so the man does as he is told. Once at the house, he is taken to a huge press, which is malfunctioning. He is able to quickly discover and fix the problem. At that point, his employer attempts to kill him, but a German woman, residing at the house, helps him escape through the window. While hanging from the ledge, the man cuts off the engineer’s thumb. The man, Holmes, Watson, and a police inspector make their way to the house where the machine is located. However, the building is burning down and there is no trace of the people the engineer encountered the previous night. They are most likely known forgers who used the press to mint fake money.

“The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor” is focused on the mysterious disappearance of an aristocrat’s bride. The young woman is an American heiress whose father made his fortune from gold mining. She was secretly married to another miner but thought he had been killed by Native Americans. To make her father happy, she agrees to marry an English aristocrat. However, during the wedding, she sees her husband among the attendees. Not wanting to create a scene, she goes through with the ceremony, but slips out afterward during the celebration. Everyone believes she was lured out and killed by the aristocrat’s lover, as her clothes were later found in a nearby canal. Holmes is able to discover the hotel in which the married couple is staying and convinces them that they need to confront the aristocrat and explain themselves. All involved meet at Holmes’s lodging that evening.

“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet” tells of a banker’s predicament when storing a priceless artifact at his home. Having received the coronet as a guarantee for an enormous bank loan, the banker decides to take it home and keep it in his bureau. He confides in his family: his son, a young man given to gambling and wasting money, and his niece, a quiet, dutiful woman. In the middle of the night, he wakes up to find his son holding the coronet and several jewels missing. The banker is certain his son stole the jewels to pay off his debts, but the young man is offended by the accusations and refuses to say anything. The older man requests Holmes’s help in recovering the missing jewels. The detective examines the house and deduces that the son is indeed innocent. It was the niece who stole the coronet and passed it to her secret lover. The son saw everything and attempted to stop the theft, but in the struggle, a piece was broken off. Holmes is able to trace down the lover and buy back the jewels. In the meantime, the niece elopes with her lover.

“The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” is another story set outside London. A young woman comes to Holmes for advice on whether to accept a strange but well-paying position in the countryside. Her employers want her to take care of their young son, but also to fulfill some strange requests, such as cutting off her beautiful hair, wearing a specific dress, and sitting by the window for a long time. Holmes suspects something is amiss but does not believe there to be danger. The young woman accepts the job and after a few weeks telegraphs Holmes to come and help her. While living in the manor, called the Copper Beeches, she has discovered that someone is being kept locked in one of the wings. The detective concludes that it is the family’s older daughter, who has the right to a large part of the estate when she marries. Her father did not want to lose any money, so he locked her up. The governess resembles her and was hired to fool the fiancé into thinking that the daughter changed her mind and no longer wants to marry him. When Holmes, Watson, and the governess arrive back at the manor to attempt a rescue, they discover that the daughter has already fled with her lover.