Around twelve or thirteen I became obsessed with Sherlock Holmes, and after seeing a Basil Rathbone feature, I fell in love. Sherlock Holmes has been the ultimate word in intelligence since the first tales came out in The Strand Magazine. As England underwent a rapid change during the 18th century, people began to become more aware of what the urban and the technological had brought to the table – not only the positive (convenience, for example), but also negative elements (isolation, corruption, mechanization of humanity). Streets were fill with unfamiliar faces. Turning a corner, one could get lost in the “wrong neighborhood”. Against the backdrop of such a rapidly modernizing society, Sherlock’s link to the machine is idealized because he is a figure of efficiency and knowledge, and therefore power. In “A Scandal in Bohemia”, we can see how this empowerment enables him to navigate the metropolis, fathom and predict human behavior, maintain perspective in conflict, handle modern societal problems, balance thought and action, and become a chaotic force for order. Yet, I believe the initial assertions on the part of Watson regarding Holmes as a “detecting machine” was written in order to highlight the following narrative as a subtle warning to Doyle’s audience.
In the first paragraph of “A Scandal in Bohemia”, Watson describes Sherlock Holmes as being “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen”. Emotions are “abhorrent” to him and are likened to “grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses” (Doyle, 3). As we find in most Sherlock tales, the famous detective appears to support this empowered image. Sherlock navigates not only the metropolis, but also the various stations of life presented to him. After emerging from a disguise that initially deceives Watson, Sherlock explains, “There is a wonderful sympathy […] among horsey men. Be one of them, and you will know all that there is to know” (7). This ability to shift class from out-of-work groom to ‘respectable’ detective, as well as his ability to know his way about London, gives Sherlock an upper hand in regards to social control. Also, Sherlock exercises his infamous ability to ascertain, fathom, and therefore predict human behavior. He not only is able to explicate the various details of Watson’s home life (3-4), but he is also able to deduce the identity of his client (5) and predict Adler’s actions upon the warning of fire (11). Sherlock the detective machine also appears to maintain perspective – he is a great planner (9, 11), which allows him to strategize how to go about solving a problem. This last part – solving problems – makes Sherlock quite attractive in the eyes of his audience. Able to handle and resolve societal problems put before him (as Watson notes at the beginning regarding Sherlock’s handling of various foreign affairs), Sherlock’s success rate allows the audience to feel secure when reading Doyle’s tales (3). Using a judicious balance of thought (strategic ability) and action (physical ability), Doyle’s detective appears to be the perfect man to solve the modern world’s ever-increasing load of crime. As such, Sherlock appears to be the perfect chaotic force for order.
However, the machine-man is a troubled figure because, like all machines, there are flaws: details about (or experiences of) life and the understanding of emotion and gaps regarding social perception and reality have not yet been inputted. Such flaws, unable to be incorporated, causes the machine to fail, revealing another domain – that of Irene Adler, who displays similar abilities to Sherlock with the added bonus of emotional intelligence. Unable to understand the importance of Adler’s singing status of contralto (6), Sherlock is blind to Adler’s disguise in the street (11). Furthermore, although he predicted Adler’s reaction to the call of fire, he failed to recognize what previous attempts had shown – her quick-wittedness and ability to recognize oddities under stress (12). Adler’s intelligence was underestimated by Sherlock because he made a logical error when listening to his client; he placed priority on hearsay and station and not on facts. In short, Sherlock “saw” but he did not “observe” (4).
After the shock of realizing he had been out-witted, Sherlock arrives to the swift conclusion that Adler deserves respect and a better man than the King (13). Therefore, although Sherlock, through most of Doyle’s stories, provides comfort for his audience who seek reassurance in an uncertain modern world, “A Scandal in Bohemia” provides a subtle warning – no one is perfect.
Not even a machine.
Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. “A Scandal in Bohemia”. The complete Sherlock Holmes Canon, 2014. Date Accessed: April 4, 2018.