Weber StudiesHome , Archives , Reading Room , Search , Editorial Info , Books , Subscribe ,  West Links
Spring/Summer 1995, Volume 12.2



Frances Wilson

A Case of Identity: Tracking Down Sherlock Holmes

Frances Wilson (Ph.D. U of Sussex) is a lecturer in Literary Studies at the University of Greenwich, Woolwich campus in London. She has edited
Glensroom by Caroline Lamb. (Everyman1995). Her essays on Henry James are forthcoming in 1996 in two collections published by Longman and Cambridge UP.


In cases as early as A Study in Scarlet, Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes mystery, the study of Holmes is presented as a "knotty problem" to the unanalytical and unimaginative Watson:

"You must study him [Holmes], then" Stamford said, as he bade me good-bye. "You'll find him a knotty problem, though. I'll wager he learns more about you than you about him. Good-bye" (19).

It is with Watson that the reader of Conan Doyle's stories is supposed to identify and with whom many critics can be seen to over-identify in their similarly blind and reverential attitude to the Baker Street detective. Holmes, Stamford suggests to Watson, will reverse the position of mastery, making the object of study observe the pupil, and he will thus learn "more about you than you about him" during the analytic process.

Concealing himself in the very act of revealing himself, Holmes is conforming to a definition of power explored by both Freud and Foucault, where mastery is that which, though out of sight, controls the visual, an absence that is felt as an all-pervading presence.1 For Foucault, "Power is only tolerable on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself," (86) while John Rajchman argues that the workings of power "become acceptable because one sees of it only what it makes visible" (105).

This study is concerned with Holmes's power and its relation to his ubiquitous visibility as a cultural icon and his curious invisibility as an object of study. Holmes's critics obsessively track down and miss the object of investigation, critical attention always strangely falling on someone else who is taken to be Holmes in disguise. As such, Holmes has systematically managed to avoid anyone's learning anything about him. In this way—remaining invisible while seeing what others miss—Holmes has maintained his early promise of mastery. The more he clarifies and exposes his methods of deduction to Watson, the more opaque they become:

I could not help laughing at the ease with which he explained his process of deduction. "When I hear you give your reasons," I remarked, "the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled, until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours." (Doyle, "A Scandal in Bohemia" 162)

As a Private Eye Holmes has kept well out of the public eye whilst simultaneously achieving a world-wide reputation and fame based almost entirely on the exposure of his methods and on what he looks like. His appear ance has become synonymous with English male rationality and law-keeping, his magnifying-glass signifying that he sees what to others is invisible, and that there is no disguise through which he cannot see. While he manages to avoid becoming the object of profound scrutiny in the books and articles written about him, he often appears in Conan Doyle's stories physically and literally in disguise, which, as part of the formula, always manages to fool Watson:

It was close upon four before the door opened, and a drunken-looking groom, ill-kempt and side-whiskered with an inflamed face and disreputable clothes, walked into the room. Accustomed as I was to my friend's amazing powers in the use of disguises, I had to look three times before I was certain that it was indeed he. (167)

By avoiding being seen, Holmes not only turns the tables on Watson but also on his other would-be interpreters. What this study is concerned to investigate is this battle for visible and invisible mastery between creator and created, and the blindness of Holmesian criticism around the problems of disguise in the circulations of masculine identity, desire and identification. I will look first at the defenses of Holmesian criticism and its evasive, anxious and identificatory relation to constructing its subject, and then at the role of anxiety and identification in the construction of masculinity which, like Holmes, must also be seen as unconstructed, as an independent and self-evolving entity. Finally I will examine the evasions and anxieties of Conan Doyle's obsession with the dead and with Spiritualism, and his strange relation to the immortal Sherlock Holmes mysteries. All three—Holmes, masculinity, and ghosts—resist rational analysis and represent a power that is everywhere absent while everywhere felt.

We are given no information, other than the surface details of his now legendary appearance, his antagonism with Moriarty and his idolatry of his brother Mycroft, with which to interpret Holmes. Holmes, needless to say, would argue that this is all one needs to see and make a satisfactory deduction. Celebrated as indestructible (even Conan Doyle failed to kill him off) and impenetrable, Holmes is resistant to all vertical plunges into the mysteries of his past and the motives behind his peculiar set of neuroses: cocaine addiction, misogyny, hyper-activity and melancholy. And yet his character is drawn up precisely as a set of tantalising dark secrets, profound reactions and obsessions, and while he happily demonstrates to Watson the ease of interpretation from empirical data as resting in a kind of immediate 'seeing through,' from symptom to cause and from cause to 'true' identity, Watson and the critics of Holmes fail in their attempts to apply these same analytical tactics to him.

The unsolvable mystery in Sherlock Holmes stories lies in the history and identity of Holmes himself, who is presented as a "knottier problem" than any of the other conundrums he faces in his work as "consulting detective". Like Freud's hysteric, he is unable to tell his own tales, of past or present, while like Freud himself, his success depends on his interpretations of his clients' tales. Those around Holmes, meanwhile, are unable to stop reconstructing his life history. From Watson onwards, Holmes has inspired countless biographers, spin-off novelists and film-makers to fantasize events in his past and to disclose facts concerning his "private life".

Holmes's resistance to interpretation and the general assumption that there is nothing to interpret in this figure, that he exceeds writing, exceeds representation altogether and just is—as vital a part of English culture as cricket and as long-established a monument as Galahad—suggest an anxiety toward his status as a construct within writing and toward masculinity as representation that comes to a head in the figure of the detective. For the heterosexual male has an identity without need of a label, whose stability goes beyond question and whose identity represents the stability that makes all else waver. He must be recognized as a universal fact rather than a construction. Jonathan Dollimore puts it thus:

identity is a construction and as such it involves a process of exclusion, negation and repression. And this is a process which, even if successful, results in an identity intrinsically unstable. This is bad news for masculinity, one of whose self conceptions is stability, and whose function is to maintain it socially and psychically. (6-7)

Holmes's treatment is typical, W.H. Auden argues, of "all characters who are products of the mythopoetic imagination," who become mythic because they are released from their creator and go into circulation. They become

instantaneously recognizable by the fact that their existence is not defined by their social and historical context . In consequence, once they have been created, they cease to be their author's characters and become the reader's; he can continue their story for himself. Anna Karenina is not such a character . Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, is: every reader, according to his fancy, can imagine adventures for him which Conan Doyle forgot, as it were, to tell us. (407)

The main anxiety of Holmesian criticism concerns Holmes's dependent relation to Conan Doyle and Conan Doyle's obviously disparaging relation to Holmes: "Don't mention that name to me! I forbid it! I hate him!" (Rosenburg 40). By re-writing Holmes, his critics have un-written him: Holmes was quick to become a public figure, freed from the restrictions of his jealous author:

it was a relief to feel that though it was possible for the author to kill him with one stroke of the pen and revive him with another, he could never with all the pens in the world expunge him from memory, or make him vanish from the world as though he had never been. (Asquith 9-10)

But ceasing to be his "author's character" ironically only serves to strengthen the identification between Holmes and Conan Doyle, while Holmes becomes the character of many authors bent on challenging Conan Doyle's claim to authority by replacing this aspect of Holmes's "social and historical context" with an independent and therefore "stable" identity and address (Sherlock Holmes is synonymous with 221b Baker Street). "Sherlockiana" is the name sometimes given to this vast bulk of literature (including hundreds of periodicals) that has accumulated around Holmes since 1902 when the first discussion of the detective appeared in the Cambridge Review. Simultaneously the American periodical, Bookman, published an article discussing The Hound of the Baskervilles as if it were fact and not fiction. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes by Vincent Starrett, published in 1933, three years after Conan Doyle's death, was the first biography of Holmes, while Ivan Cooke's The Return of Arthur Conan Doyle, published in the same year under the title "Thy Kingdom Come," purports to be ghost written by Conan Doyle who had an urgent message to impart concerning his experiences on the other side: " 'He is not dead.' He lives on in these pages. Here is his final message" (Cooke 10). Neither Conan Doyle nor Holmes are allowed to die and one is invariably seen as incarnated in the other.

A brief survey of some of the titles of Sherlockiana, most of which comprise biographies of Conan Doyle, reveals this assumed collapse between writer and subject, creator and created: The Casebook of Sherlock Doyle, Sherlock Holmes Letters, The Quest for Sherlock Holmes, The Quest for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes: Fact or Fiction?, The True Conan Doyle, The Real World of Sherlock Holmes: True Crimes Investigated by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Man who was Sherlock Holmes, The Original of Sherlock Holmes, and A Literary Symbiosis. Ross Macdonald voices the desire that lies behind all these studies:

A close paternal or fraternal relationship between writer and detective is a marked peculiarity of the form. Throughout its history, from Poe to Chandler and beyond, the detective hero has represented his creator and carried his values into action in society. (179)

Conan Doyle's relationship to Holmes was "paternal" or "fraternal" only in so far as he had an urgent desire to get rid of him and have done with Holmes's overshadowing presence in his life. Conan Doyle became invisible like Holmes, a mere scribe under the control of his subject matter. Holmes may have broken free from Conan Doyle, but Conan Doyle did not break free from Holmes, who removed from the writer any control over his own life and deprived him of his own literary mastery: 

I believe that if I had never touched Holmes, who has tended to obscure my higher work, my position in literature would at the present moment be a more commanding one.

It is as if Holmes, as the Un-dead, vampiristically drains Conan Doyle of visibility so as to make his own invisibility more masterful, resulting in this critical search that wants to find its object not-there. Presenting itself as either a search for Holmes's "true original", Conan Doyle's "real self" (the "Holmes" within him evidenced by his own criminal detections), or a mock-scholarly investigation of the whereabouts of 221b Baker Street, or else sources for and cross-connections within the stories themselves, Sherlockiana appears as a celebration of anti-interpretation, a writing that learns from Holmes that pure mastery cannot be challenged, only followed. Holmes's mastery was something that Watson also watched with pleasure, but without seeing anything:

there was something in his masterly grasp of a situation, and his keen, incisive reasoning, which made it a pleasure for me to study his system of work, and to follow the quick, subtle methods by which he disentangled the most inextricable mysteries. (Doyle, "A Scandal in Bohemia" 167)

Holmes's critics, from Watson onwards, function like body-guards defending his authority, veiling the protector of society and upholder of traditional masculine values from sight, while revealing all they possibly can about him. Learning from Holmes, his critics campaign to rid his "study" of its complexity and ambiguity, to keep it simple and empirical, and, like Holmes, Sherlockiana aims to show that false identities disguise true identities: "According to his son Adrian, Conan Doyle admitted when he was dying: 'If anyone is Sherlock Holmes, then I confess it is myself'"—(Doyle, "Writer as Detective Hero" 181). But this reversal, where the object of study controls the writing and its investigation, is only one of the many examples of reversal that occur in the peculiarities of reading Conan Doyle's Holmes stories.


Conan Doyle, like Holmes, has baffled his thirteen biographers. In their search for Sherlock Holmes they have found the writer an evasive, almost non-existent figure, impossible to analyze and verging on the fictional. Outside his identification with Holmes he is featureless, and the more the grounds for that identification are challenged, the more urgent becomes the critical task to save Holmes from the hands of his so-called creator:

Conan Doyle has always been an enigma. His autobiographical writings did not answer the questions that critics and scholars found most intriguing about him. They have always been confounded that Sherlock Holmes was created by a man as seemingly unHolmesian as Arthur Conan Doyle. (Lellenburg 10)

Because Conan Doyle and Holmes have been collapsed into one another like parasitical ghosts, each can be seen to complicate rather than clarify the other's identity. Therefore Sherlockiana endlessly finds behind Holmes other literary and historical precursors, discovered like lost relations, who can endow him with a personal history: "Behind Holmes lurk the figures of nineteenth century poets, Byron certainly, probably Baudelaire, who translated Poe…" (Doyle, "The Writer as Detective Hero" 181). And Freud, R.L. Stevenson, Nietzsche, Dupin, Napoleon, Bunyon, Wilde, Browning, Flaubert, George Sand, Plato, Socrates and Mary Shelley have also been included in the family album.2

But whilst these fathers and ancestors relieve Holmes of the terrible anxiety of inheriting nothing from the "seemingly unHolmesian" Conan Doyle and of therefore being too original and isolated a genius, they also have the reverse effect and succeed in usefully erasing him as the object of observation and analysis. Discussions of Holmes tend to end up being discussions of someone else. He always manages to slip out unnoticed and reappear, to everyone's astonishment, in disguise.3 Advocates of the Conan Doyle family-line strongly argue for Conan Doyle's tutor, Joseph Bell, as the true father of Holmes, thus making him seem more "natural" and "real" than "fictional":

Thus is the character of Sherlock Holmes easily and naturally accounted for, and the absurd fiction that Conan Doyle drew upon Poe for his ideas is silenced forever. (Jones 1)

And Conan Doyle felt that by crediting Bell with the inspiration for Holmes, he could hand to him the responsibility of identifying with the detective. Thus at the same time as denying that he wrote Holmes, Conan Doyle could deny that Holmes was written at all. When asked how he had "evolved, apparently out of his own inner consciousness, such an extraordinary person as his detective Sherlock Holmes," Conan Doyle recoiled with horror:

Oh! But, if you please, he is not evolved out of anyone's inner consciousness. Sherlock Holmes is the literary embodiment… of my memory of a professor of medicine at Edinburgh University… He would tell [his patients] their symptoms, he would give them details of their lives and he would hardly ever make a mistake. (Blathwaigt 17)

Joseph Bell was equally unhappy with this burden on his "inner consciousness" and handed it back to Conan Doyle, stating not that Conan Doyle should merely be identified with his creation but that he had become it: "You are yourself Sherlock Holmes!" (Hardwick 11)

Unable to look at Holmes, his readers look behind him in order to see him at all, as if identity were always carried in the person of another. This is also the case for other of Conan Doyle's characters, who are seen to evolve not from writing itself but from the figures of writers—"literary embodiments":

Could it really be that behind Professor Moriarty lurked Fredrich Nietzsche? That Irene Adler actually disguised none other than George Sand—the legendary Madame Dudevant, authoress and transvestite?4

It is urgent that Holmes's identity has no relation to "inner consciousness", to any psychological life—either his own or Conan Doyle's—and that he evolves out of direct identifications with others; he is always someone else and other people are always him.

Both endowing Conan Doyle and Holmes with, and depriving them of, identity, Sherlockiana's search for the "true selves" of Conan Doyle and Holmes recognizes identity as an unfixed process dependent on identification with others and thus continually in circulation, at the same time as it insists on the unquestionably singular and independent establishment of Holmes.


If there is something in the visible which will always be missed,5 Holmes is evidence of this blind-spot as well as master of its interpretation. For Holmes, proof and evidence are invisible to most seeing eyes: " 'You see, but you do not observe,' " he reminds Watson (Doyle, "A Scandal in Bohemia" 162). Holmes's appeal to empirical self-evidence is shown to be based on pure rationality, on analyzing surfaces rather than penetrating behind them—a way of seeing almost impossible for anyone else to achieve:

…I took a good look at the man and endeavoured, after the fashion of my companion, to read the indications which might be presented by his dress of appearance. I did not gain very much, however, by my inspection. Our visitor bore every mark of being an average commonplace British tradesman. Sherlock Holmes's quick eye took in my occupation, and he shook his head with a smile as he noticed my questioning glances. "Beyond the obvious facts that he has done some time in manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else." (Doyle, "The Red-Headed League" 177)

Veiling himself from sight while remaining prominently in the foreground: "You are to watch me, for I will be visible to you" he tells Watson (Doyle, "A Scandal in Bohemia" 170), Holmes is endowed with masks and disguises. The desire to unmask Holmes only results in his being further disguised; his "true identity" being found in someone else's "false" one and his power remaining intact. Holmes reveals himself in his ability to shed the power structures around him of disguise, and thus also of power: 

Then, with a gesture of desperation, the man tore the mask from his face and hurled it upon the ground. "You are right," he cried, "I am the king. Why should I attempt to conceal it?" (165)

No criticism mirrors and desires its text more than that of detective fiction, where the detective is the interpreter of events told to him by a figure who has no understanding of them, much as Watson will retranslate these events to the reader, showing as little grasp. Both the detective and the reader trace a narrative that occurred before the narrative itself began, thus knotting narrative and interpretation together in a relation of identification and reversal. The interpretation seems to precede the narration of the "real" event, which is only disclosed at the end along with the revelation of the identity of the criminal. And while Holmes is busy identifying the author of the crime, working on the formula that no crime is original, his critics are trying to identify the original of Holmes, working on the formula that he must not be original. Behind Holmes's identity lies not a history or a psyche, but another identity.

Does the focus of so much Sherlockiana on tracing Holmes's true identity and original reveal a fear that the master of the on-the-spot "deductive" interpretation of identity and original causes might himself be without either? If so, he would render meaningless the reassurance he offers to the world that all identity is readable on an empirical and "elementary" level, and that all actions can be traced back to the scene of the crime. It is as if Holmes and all he represents must be fixed biographically, for fear of the values that he upholds—masculine stability and unquestionable mastery—appearing up-rooted or literally out-of-place and therefore slipping away. Or else for fear that without being pinned down with a past and a future—a readable history—he will represent nothing at all. His absence would have to be disguised by filling his lack up with someone else:

I thought that a world without Sherlock Holmes would have a serious gap in it, a void which sooner or later would somehow have to be filled…. (Asquith 9-10)

There is something in the curious power of these 60 stories that has resulted in these strange critical echoes and practices, in which the reader is unconsciously drawn into the scene from which he is trying to maintain a masterful distance. Holmes is analysed on his own terms, as the man who holds the key to all interpretation, and the formula of the narratives are compulsively repeated in the criticism as if identification with them were the only possible response to these tales. The vast body of Conan Doyle critics have turned the study of Holmes and Conan Doyle into mysteries themselves, organized around disguised identities whose originals must be traced: "The great mystery, which has as yet never been cleared up, is whether Holmes ever really existed" (Jones 1). To the question of whether Conan Doyle was Holmes, Michael and Mollie Hardwick respond that "The tracing of these possibilities is a fascinating detective exercise in itself, with plenty of clues along the way," (11) while another book "reads like a detective story itself… unravel[ling] clue after clue about Sir Arthur himself and discover[ing] the real meaning behind the Sherlock Holmes mysteries" (Rosenburg pp). Interpretation has become a bizarre kind of obsessional detection and anti-detection, bent simultaneously on proving that Holmes has nothing to hide; that he is unique and original and cutting off his "false" relations with the "fraudulent" Conan Doyle, while also obsessively trying to establish the identity of Holmes's real father. Whilst Holmes is both the first of his kind on the scene and bitterly belated, Sherlockiana's knotting together of these two theories complements the many other knots that can be found in studying attempts to study Holmes.


The greatest area of anti-interpretation or interpretive blindness in our culture surrounds the identity of the father. The critique of masculinity is itself concerned with identity in disguise and the knotting together of contradictory features that create a critical block. What holds true for Holmes holds true for masculine identity in general, which must also be seen to be established and everywhere visible whilst simultaneously protecting itself from exposure and from the discovery that it can nowhere be found. Masculinity appears as a desired identity for the subject who sees and identifies with the phallic symbolism all around him, in the image of the father, of the law and the controller of the look. It is an identity precariously adopted by the subject who is caught between the visual ubiquity of masculine representations and their insistence on the subject's identification, and its need to mask itself off and be everywhere invisible. As Jonathan Rutherford argues:

It is an identity that is in continual struggle to assert its centrality in cultural life, yet it attempts to ensure its absence, and to evade becoming the object of discourse. (22)

Holmes's cultural centrality and discursive evasiness are responsible for his immediately mythical status. Two contradictory forces have constructed his identity: his simultaneously powerful relation to both fact and fantasy result in our fantasy that he is factual, born of our desire to validate all he represents. On the one hand he represents unquestionable stability: he holds within him the power of undisturbed reason, the position of the law, the censoring of all illicit desire and the sheer force of a mastery established through a willful withdrawal from the public. But on the other hand he represents a fantasy, and if Holmes represents nothing but the fantasy of an ideal of pure, unchallengeable power, then what of the status of masculinity itself and the mastery of knowledge and interpretation that he embodies? The relation of masculinity and mastery to fantasy is one of our great unconscious and cultural disguises.

The characteristics that align Holmes to the mythical and that have been mirrored in most subsequent male detectives are the traditional features of heroic masculinity: pathological loneliness and hostility, neurotic inability to sustain any form of sexual relationship, repressed homoerotic friendships with men he deems his inferiors, a lackluster and bored attitude to existence, reasoning powers that over-ride any ability to empathize emotionally with the victim, competitiveness resulting in a self-inflicted isolation, depressive nature, obsessional behavior, inability to discuss the past, and lack of linguistic access to his emotional life. The question to be asked is why do any of these hysterical features when found in femininity lend themselves to an analysis of a crisis in language, sexuality and identity, and evidence the feminine's frustration with its traditionally limited representation within these structures, but when found in masculinity render it literally unanalysable and elevate it to mythical heights of sexual power?6 For the sexually repressed hysterical male is more powerful, more conservative and more masculine than his married Watson-like counterpart. And while being the supreme bearer of the look, it is a look liberated from the structures of desire. The pleasure that Holmes gets from looking is maintained entirely on the symbolic level and is protected from having any erotic basis. His look reveals the private life of its object rather than the desires of the gazer:

"What a very attractive woman!" I exclaimed, turning to my companion.

…"Is She?" He said languidly, "I did not observe."

"You really are an automaton—a calculating machine," I cried. "There is something positively inhuman in you at times."

He smiled gently.

"It is of the first importance," he cried, "not to allow your judgments to be biased by personal qualities. A client to me is a mere unit, a factor in a personal problem." (Doyle, "The Sign of Four" 96)

The appeal of the hero, Rutherford confirms:

is his freedom from women: the snares and entrapments of dependency and vulnerability…. He presents us with a sexual identity free of doubt while he masters and controls his surroundings. Yet somewhere in the story there will be the nostalgic memory of a previous life of domestic happiness: a woman in his past . (Doyle, "Who's that Man?" 47)

In trying to reconstruct this past and resurrect these memories, the so-called "frivolity" of Sherlockiana has itself become a disguise for a deep anxiety concerned with originality, masculinity, identity, and authorship. How do the kinds of mastery, masculinity and melancholy that Holmes embodies defend themselves from analysis and why, as opposed to discussing the extraordinary phenomenon of Holmes's establishment as a cultural fantasy, does Sherlockiana instead participate in that fantasy, arguing in the same breath that he is "real" and "established" and "above reality"?:

Sherlock Holmes is a real character who is above reality; a person living in a distinct place and at a distinct period . As the critic tends to fall into the fancy of Holmes's existence, straight criticism is difficult but some have attempted it. (Green 2)


While Sherlockiana has wanted to be rid of the authority of Conan Doyle, Conan Doyle desperately wanted to be rid of the mastery of Holmes. He found himself very literally becoming possessed by him, and the public were appalled at his attempts to terminate Holmes's life in the hope of gaining control once again over his own. Indeed, when Conan Doyle attempted to murder his detective he was afraid of the overpowering and debilitating effect that Holmes was having on his life and reputation, but he also suggested that Holmes was ghost-writing him:

I saw that I was in danger of having my hand forced, and of being entirely identified with what I regarded as being a lower stratum of literary achievement. (Starrett 23)

Holmes made not only Watson, Lestrade, Dupin, and Lecoq appear to be low achievers—"Dupin was a very inferior fellow Lecoq was a miserable bungler" (Doyle, "A Study in Scarlet" 24-25)—but Conan Doyle too.7

John Masefield, who was Poet Laureate when "The Final Problem" was published, wrote of "the indescribable feeling of loss when one had thought that Holmes would be no more" (Hardwick 9), just as when, after Hallam's death, Victorian England went into mourning. Ironically, the achievements for which Conan Doyle preferred to be remembered and which Holmes hid from view were his contributions to the study of life after death and spiritualism, his theories of automatic writing and of the possession of persons by unwanted ghosts. His involvements with this other area of semi-visible mastery were likewise denounced as fraudulent,8 but he refused to recognize any relation between Holmes and Spiritualism, as have his critics.

Conan Doyle's interest in Spiritualism is seen as too irrational for the man who created Holmes; there must be some mistake as to the real father:

But many who look to Sherlock Holmes as the supreme literary spokesman for rationalism feel dismay and bewilderment about his creator having become a leading champion of a doctrine that seems at odds with his education and literary ideas. (Lellenburg 11)

This problem is accentuated because if Conan Doyle was easily duped, then he categorically could not have been Holmes's original—a solution which nicely frees Holmes from the "inner resources" of his author whilst also freeing the critic from challenging his own simplistic conception of the creative process:

If Arthur Conan Doyle was essentially a simple soul, then someone other than the creator of Sherlock Holmes must have been the character's model. Surely Sherlock Holmes could not have been created out of Conan Doyle's inner resources. (12)

In order to help fund the inner resources of the spiritualist cause, Conan Doyle did eventually have his "hand forced" and reluctantly he brought the detective back from the dead in 1903, explaining that Holmes had in fact not died in the arms of Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, but had been in disguise as a "Norwegian named Sigerson" for the last 8 years (Doyle, "The Empty House" 488).

George Burton's famous observation that "All detective fiction is based on two murders of which the first, committed by the murderer, is merely the occasion for the second, in which he is the victim of the pure and unpunishable murderer, the detective" (Todorov 44), can be seen to have excluded the third vital murder: that of the author. Once killed, he comes back to life in the person of the detective, and even then there is a confusion over the bodies:

But one must drop at last the happy pretense and admit that Sherlock Holmes is dead…. He died July 7, 1930… in the person of the man who had created him. For true as it may be that the model for the immortal detective was Dr. Joseph Bell….there is no doubt that the real Holmes was Conan Doyle himself…. (Starrett 162)

Despite Conan Doyle's attempted exorcism, the return of Sherlock Holmes was to last for another 30 years, although he made a frail attempt to end Holmes's life more gently by naming the penultimate series of adventures "His Last Bow." This need for exorcism is seen by some as natural for the writer and reader of detective stories:

Of course, Poe's detective stories gave the writer, and give the reader, something deeper than such obvious satisfactions. He devised them as a means of exorcising or controlling guilt or horror. (Doyle, "The Writer as Detective Hero" 180)

Another critic wondering why "Doyle drag[ged] Holmes to Switzerland in order to kill him?" suggests that it was not to kill Holmes at all but to kill instead the figures with whom he identified Holmes and himself, and, as he put it, "to exorcise the ghostly influence of Nietzsche" and his "passionate (and secret) identification" with Dr. Frankenstein, whose monster also wouldn't die and pursued him to his death.9  

It would seem, however, that it was Conan Doyle who was exorcised from the public imagination, and his body that disappeared down the Reichenbach Falls only to return in disguise, rather than Holmes.10 Holmes was left an autonomous entity freed from the restrictive behavior of this embarrassing impostor. After Holmes's death it was the absence of Conan Doyle, lost in his work on Spiritualism, that was covered up rather than the absence of Holmes, and it is he who was increasingly presented as a fictional character: Watson's ghost writer. Critics note "The curious manner in which Conan Doyle has been relegated to the status of a nearly invisible ghost writer… [and] Dr. Watson [designated] as the author of the Sherlock Holmes adventures" (Rosenburg, 8). But while Holmes came back from the dead with a vengeance, Conan Doyle had to wait until 1933 until he could come into his own with the narration of his after death adventures, "Thy Kingdom Come."


"Sigerson," Holmes's "after-death" pseudonym and disguise, is also the name of the neurologist who translated Charcot—Freud's "original" and equivalent of Joseph Bell—into English shortly after Freud translated him into German. Freud, as the other great Victorian detective who educates you about yourself while you are trying to learn about him, has often been seen as one of the identities behind Holmes11 and he himself read Conan Doyle (Gardiner, 135). In Freud's case histories, however, while identity and history are also observed by an unseen eye they are found to be far more problematical constructs than Holmes suggested. Freud challenged the mastery of the visible that Holmes confirmed. He too looked behind visible evidence, but instead his subject was the desiring structures of unconscious language. Unlike Freud, Holmes believed that identity can be mastered, that there is one unequivocal meaning that is hidden but perfectly readable when revealed—a view confirming Sherlockiana.

Freud discovered sexuality and mastery themselves to be fantasies, along with the distinction between truth and fiction. The distinction between fantasy and reality is paradoxically broken down in the person of Holmes; the figure who spent his whole working life making deductions based on their unalterable difference is memorable precisely because of their collapse. In his famous letter to Fliess in which he admitted to "no longer believ[ing] in [his] neurotica," the tales of incestuous seduction told to him by his hysterical female patients, Freud wrote that" …there are no indications of reality in the unconscious, so that one cannot distinguish between the truth or fiction that is cathected with effect" (Laplanche, 7). Having thus discounted, in the Holmesian vein, the prima facie evidence, Freud was also ready to take his search for identity beneath deceptive surfaces.

It is at this point that femininity is acknowledged as being an interpretive stumbling block. Its relation to fantasy is too close and its relation to the truth value of its own speech is too complex: femininity becomes the reminder of the dubious birth of identity around desire and henceforth true masculinity must resist the desire of the feminine in order to fantasize its own stability. As a lover therefore, Holmes would be swerving from his relation to the truth:

as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions save with a gibe and a sneer. (Doyle, "A Scandal in Bohemia" 161)

Femininity and the responses it inspires are not to be gazed at but observed, to keep masculinity from both seeing and out of sight. Resisting femininity's Medusa-look helps to maintain the semi-visible status of masculine power.

[Women] were admirable things for the observer-excellent for drawing the veil from men's motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. (161)

Desire for femininity represents the loss of masculinity, as if desire for will collapse into identification with.

Holmes's identification with Professor Moriarty, for example, complicates his status as unique, unchallenged and on the side of the law, and their dying in one another's arms appears to be the desperate price to pay for acknowledging the desire disguised in identification. Holmes's opposite is also his doppleganger:

I was forced to confess that I had at last met an antagonist who was my intellectual equal. My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration at his skill. (Doyle, "The Final Problem" 471)

Holmes and Moriarty, like Holmes and Conan Doyle, discover an identification so great that the death of one is the only available action.

Because for Holmes there are only identifications and no true originals, most crimes, families and people are the same, and so not much in the way of evidence is needed to get things straight and "reveal" what is hidden:

They lay all the evidence before me, and I am generally able, by the help of my knowledge of the history of crime, to set them straight. There is a strong family resemblance about misdeeds, and if you have all the details of a thousand at your finger ends, it is odd if you can't unravel the thousand and first. (Doyle, "A Study in Scarlet" 24)

It is this strangely uniform "family resemblance" of experience that led Freud to first conceive of the force of fantasy in psychic lives and to conclude that identity was far from being a straight forward issue of elementary simplicity. While Holmes's genius in A Case of Identity lies in his deducing that the identity of the young girl's seducer is her father in disguise, Freud believed that desire itself is disguised, resulting in the unrecognisability of the father, and thus problematising identity. Freud would have deduced from this case that to be seduced was the daughter's incestuous fantasy:

With the connivance and assistance of his wife, he disguised himself, covered those keen eyes with tinted glasses, masked the face with a moustache and a pair of bushy whiskers, sunk that clear voice into an insinuating whisper, and doubly secure on account of the girl's short sight, he appears as Mr. Hosmer Angel, and keeps off other lovers by making love himself. (Doyle, "A Case of Identity" 200)

Freud's case histories demonstrated that the key moments in the construction of sexuality and desire are caught in the irrational pains and pleasures of the primal scene, fetishism and castration, all of which displace the subject from the centre of his own world, while fantasies of exclusion and absence accompany interpretations of origin. The child can fantasize his own conception in the primal scene while fetishism strikes up an identification between a desired sight and its displacement or disguise (underwear for female genitalia) so that the original sight is masked. Castration is the deadly view that results in the fetishistic look. The child in these scenes learns more than he knows from observing, but what is seen is seen through a vision that exposes sight as at once partial, driven, psychically invested and potentially annihilating. While Freud was demonstrating that the power of the look both defined and untied identity in a single interpretive moment, rendering masculinity and femininity both disguises, Holmes was reconstructing the gaze as a confirmatory act that resolves disguise and ambiguity to confirm the status quo.


The same critics who see writing as a straightforward identification between writer and work present identification and writing as anything but straightforward. In the first instance, the process of identification is reversed, much Sherlockiana suggesting that, true to form, Holmes learned more about Conan Doyle than the writer learned about his subject:

Is it too fanciful to suggest that if Sherlock Holmes could have written himself, the result might have been Arthur Conan Doyle? (Hardwick 10)

Secondly, writing is also shown to identify with irrational practices, and the relation between spiritualism and Holmes is denied. Conan Doyle's spiritualism is dismissed less because it is an embarrassing connection for the great detective to have than because it is too close, too easily identified, with the Sherlockian scene of writing. For both Sherlockiana and Spiritualism are obsessively concerned with the controlling power of the semi-visible, with shadow-lands where unseen identities speak through the guise of another, much as the detective speaks for both the client and criminal and Watson speaks for Holmes. Both Sherlockiana and Spiritualism construct mediums to enable the object of their desire to have an address.

And masculine identity likewise functions in reverse. Externally defined by power structures with which it is asked to identify, unable to project its power out, masculinity is projected onto, making it not-at-all the bedrock of a fixed and self-contained stability. While masculinity absorbs identities it gives the false impression of having something to hide. Perhaps this is a reason why there is a critical and cultural urgency to establish Holmes—to endow him with a past, a future and a fixed address, regardless of whether he is there or not. The Abbey National, now housed at 221 Baker Street, employs a full-time secretary to deal with the plethora of post that still arrives for Holmes, and the letters are published by Penguin Books. These letters, addressed to a (still unlocated) house identified with its inhabitant, symbolize the fantasy of fixity around Holmes and masculinity: while he may not be seen, while he may just exist as an ideal to aspire to, there will always be a place at which he can be addressed. So while Holmes may represent the dangerous possibility of identification run riot as a figure identified with so many "originals" and so over-identified with by his society that he seems always to be vanishing into and behind other people, this is precisely how his power becomes acceptable. By making himself visible only through others, Holmes is protected from shocking revelations of identity and address, such as those he made to Lord St. Simeon whose bride vanished into her "original self" on her wedding day: "Lady St. Simeon is a myth. There is not, and there has never been, any such person" (Doyle, "The Noble Bachelor" 296).



1Freud saw in the early days of psychoanalysis that being the unseen observer behind the patient secures for the analyst a position of strength, and he describes the key moments in the formation of identity as organized around scenes where the seer is unseen. For Foucault's discussion of the disciplinary use of Bentham's Panopticon, where all becomes visible to an unseeing and surveilling eye, see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish.

2See especially Naked is the Best Disguise: The Death and Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes.

3Conan Doyle is interestingly one of the few writers of detective stories who does not use a pseudonym, unless 'Watson' counts as one. The quantity of writers who reserve a false name and disguise for their detective stories suggests not only the felt difference between the self-who-is and the self who writes detective stories, but also that loss of identity and submersion into another character who takes over the writing are an assumed part of the genre.

4From the dust-jacket to Naked is the Best Disguise.

5See Jacques Lacan's description of the scopic field and scopic drive in "Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a," The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.

6For a discussion of the threat of the feminine in Holmes mysteries, see Catherine Belsey, "Deconstructing the Text: Sherlock Holmes": "the presentation of so many women as shadowy, mysterious and magical figures precisely contradicts the project of explicitness, trangresses the values of the texts, and in doing so throws into relief the poverty of the contemporary concept of science." Popular Fiction: Technology, Ideology, Production, Reading. ed. Tony Bennet (Routledge, 1990):283

7This same scenario of discrediting the writer in favor of the detective and of forcibly getting rid of the writer, either by totally distancing him from his detective or by collapsing him into his work, can be seen in other Detective fiction. Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse and P.D. James's Adam Dalgliesh are, like Holmes, incurable depressives and romantics, artists manqué who sell themselves short in a profession that sees them as maverick and un-lawful. Dalgliesh however, is a poet-on-the-side, and this desire to write is seen as his "madness," comparable to Holmes's cocaine habits and Morse's drinking. Once their novels had been adapted for television, both writers adjusted their representations of their detectives to suit the appearance of the respective actors, John Thaw as Morse and Roy Marsden as Dalgliesh: there is a notable shift in Dexter's novels from a Morse described with green eyes to a Morse described with blue, and P.D. James admits that she now bases Dalgliesh on Roy Marsden's depiction of him. It is as if the actor is now writing the detective, it is he who is now being possessed by the authority of the detective, who has now collapsed into the representation.

8See Joseph McCabe, Is Spiritualism based on Fraud? The evidence given by A.C. Doyle and others drastically examined (1920), James Wilson, Life after Death, with replies by Sir A.C. Doyle (1920), and Arthur Conan Doyle, Spiritualism and Rationalism: with a drastic examination of Mr. Joseph McCabe (1920).

9Naked is the Best Disguise, (52). If there is an identification between Conan Doyle and Frankenstein it is that Frankenstein is also confused in popular culture with his creature. Hammer Horror films always assume that the monster is Frankenstein, while the creator remains nameless.

10Two of the best spin-off novels, The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, by Michael Dibdin and The Seven Per Cent Solution, by Nicholas Meyer, begin at the point where Conan Doyle kills Holmes and reinterpret the death as a cover-up to disguise Holmes's real identity as respectively, Jack the Ripper (Dibdin) and a hopeless cocaine addict suffering from delusional paranoia focused on Moriarty, who is eventually successfully analysed by Freud (Meyer). It is as if authorial control were relinquished in "The Final Problem," leaving Holmes as common property and Conan Doyle as an absence to be explained away. Meyer notes in a footnote:

A Study in Scarlet, written by Watson after the case took place in 1881, was not published until December, 1887, when it appeared in Beeton's Christmas Annual under the pen-name A. Conan Doyle. (The Seven per-cent Solution, 1)

Dibdin creates an elaborate situation whereby Conan Doyle (A.C.D.), a struggling doctor, befriends Watson and begs to be the official biographer of Holmes, working from Watson's notes and crediting Watson with the work (15-16) 

11See especially Peter Brooks Reading for the Plot, Stephen Marcus The Culture of Psychoanalysis, Michael Shepherd Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Sigmund Freud, and Carlo Ginzburg "Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes" in Popular Fictions.



Asquith, Herbert. The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Compiled by Richard Lancelyn Green. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

Auden, W.H. The Dyer's Hand and other essays. London: Faber and Faber, 1963.

Blathwaigt, Raymond. "A Talk with Dr. Conan Doyle." Bookman. Asquith 17.

Cooke, Ivan. The Return of Arthur Conan Doyle. Liss: White Eagle Publishing Trust, 1975.

Dollimore, Jonathan. "Homophobia and Sexual Difference." Oxford Literary Review. Vol. 8,1986.

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. "A Study in Scarlet." The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes. Preface by Christopher Morley. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

. Thy Kingdom Come. 1933.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon, 1977.

. The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon, 1978. 86.

Gardiner, Muriel. The Wolf-man and Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth, 1971. 135.

Green, Richard Lancelyn, ed. The Sherlock Holmes Letters. London: Secker and Warburg, 1986.

Hardwick, Micheal and Mollie. The Man who was Sherlock Holmes. London: John Murray, 1964.

Jones, Dr. Harold Emery. The Original of Sherlock Holmes. Windsor: Gaby Goldsheider, 1980.

Laplance, Jean and J-B Pontalis. "Fantasy and the Origins of Sexuality." Formations of Fantasy. Ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan. London: Methuen, 1986.

Lellenburg, J.L., ed. The Quest for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Thirteen Biographers in Search of a Life. Forward by Jean Conan Doyle. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.

Macdonald, Ross. "The Writer as Detective Hero." Detective Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robin W. Winks. Englewood Cliffs, London: Prentice-Hall, 1980.

Rajchman, John. "Foucault's Art of Seeing." October: 44 1988.

Rosenburg, Samuel. Naked is the Best Disguise: The Death and Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes. London: Arlington Books, 1975.

Rutherford, Jonathan. "Who's that Man?" Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinity. Ed. Rowena Chapman and Jonathan Rutherford. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1988.

Starrett, Vincent. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. London: Allen and Unwin, 1961.

Todorov, Tzvetan. "The Typology of Detective Fiction." The Poetics of Prose. Trans. Richard Howard. Forward Jonathan Culler. Cornell: Cornell UP, 1977.


Back to Top