Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once stated that it was every bit as difficult for him to create the plot of a Sherlock Holmes short story as it was one of the novels. Given the intricate details showcased within the canon at all points, there is no reason we should not take him at his word. The primary difference between the two formats comes in the elements that comprise the Sherlockian “formula.” Not all elements of the formula would be in play in each of the short stories, but most of them are to be found in each of the stories. The use of the flashback as within the novels would be rarely used given the condensed nature of the shorts. By and large, most of the short stories begin at 221B with a domestic scene establishing the characters, followed by Holmes showing off his “method” to Watson. The case is introduced, and the client’s problem is explained. There is on-site investigation, which then leads Holmes to withhold some evidence so he can go on vigil. During the vigil, he is allowed to stage manage the climax of the tale, usually catching his quarry with all due panache. Then we wrap with a summation of the case.
And that brings us to the first story in the collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” This story is notable for not only giving us the quintessential Holmesian formula, but for adding a wrinkle to the end that would live on as one of the greatest finales ever written.
“To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman.”
It’s an opening line so famous that many believe it to be the first in the entire canon. And it is famous because it sets the stage for one of the finest stories in the collection, with one of the most beguiling adversaries in modern fiction, Irene Adler. Adler would become the prototype for an entire legion of modern femme fatales, many of whom would not resemble her in the slightest. She is in every way, the equal — if not better — of Sherlock Holmes. That in itself is a rare quality. To see this sort of thing appear in feminine form, especially in the Victorian era, would have been even more shocking and just as alluring as those she would later inspire. For Holmes, it presents an even greater challenge, for as vast as his mind is, we have already seen his self-imposed limitations. Adler represents one of the greatest limitations in Holmes’ list of character flaws: he cannot fathom the idea of a superior female mind. To him, women are fickle, overly emotional, and beset by all manner of weakness so common to her sex. They are the complete antithesis to the cold, reasoning, perfectly balanced machine that is his own mind. And really, it’s not just Holmes who believes it. The reading audience of this story when it was first published accepted such notions as axiom. Many still think it true today, despite all evidence to the contrary. But that’s why this story works so well. That’s why Irene Adler endures as a creature of “dubious and questionable memory,” no matter how often someone tries to reshape her character into something she’s not.
That Holmes is completely adverse to the idea of romance or sexual passion, dismissing such notions with a wry grin and a scoff, makes Adler that much more alluring. Being “the woman,” she is granted exemption status on this front too in the mind and heart of our Great Detective, and even then, there are lines he still will not cross. It’s a quality that far too many writers try to open up. Laurie R. King has made a career of this sort of nonsense with her Mary Russell character, the supposed logic being that if it can happen once, it can happen again if the circumstances presented themselves. It’s the height of hubris, in my humble opinion, to believe a character like Holmes would ever make a second exception to anything. It tells me that King, and writers like her, cannot and will not ever truly understand Holmes as he is written and presented. These writers “see, but they do not observe. The distinction is clear.” This sort of fan fiction only serves some sort of self-delusion for those writers who keep a flame lit for someone so otherwise impassive. People who write this drivel will never understand how the very ideas they wish to impart on these character are the very things that undermine them. A simple reading of this tale reveals instantly that any such tampering would be tantamount to painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. No matter the intent, the result would be vulgar and unworthy of the original artist. I would argue that any who would contest this point has not actually read nor understood this story and its characters.
It should be noted that when Adler is first addressed in the story’s opening, she is referred to as “the late Irene Adler,” her death confirmed in the three years between the story’s 1888 setting and its 1891 publication.
As the story opens, Watson has moved out of his lodgings at 221B due to his recently married status, while Holmes remains, otherwise occupied with his loathing of society, his casework, and his cocaine habit. When Watson happens past the old place, he sees Holmes is hard at work and opts to pay him a visit. As he hopes, he is pulled into another adventure.
The client, who arrives unnecessarily masked, is revealed to be Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein and the hereditary King of Bohemia. The straits he finds himself in is of simple amusement to Holmes: the King is to be married, and there is a compromising photograph of himself and a former mistress in the hands of said mistress, which he would like to reclaim. The mistress in question is none other than Irene Adler, a 30-year old New Jersey born, now-retired opera diva (a contralto) and adventuress who seeks to ruin the King. The King’s agents have tried to buy the photograph, and they’ve tried multiple times to steal it, all without success.
Holmes spends the next day at Adler’s London residence disguised as an out of work stable groom, where he is fortuitously swept into position to be a witness to Adler’s wedding to the barrister Godfrey Norton of the Inner Temple. To Holmes’ surprise, the couple goes their separate ways following the ceremony. When relating the tale to Watson that afternoon, Holmes asks his friend to participate in a scheme to reclaim the photograph hidden somewhere in Adler’s house. Watson, of course, agrees, and Holmes assumes another disguise before they depart, this time as a clergyman.
The scheme they concoct is a simple distraction involving a pre-orchestrated street fight where Holmes rushes in to protect Adler and is presumed injured. As she tends to him, Watson tosses a smoke rocket into the building and alerts of a fire. As expected, Adler moves to retrieve the photograph — her most prized possession — and Holmes informs Watson of its location behind a sliding panel upon their return to 221B. As he finishes his explanation, they are bid good night by a youth with a familiar voice who is promptly lost in the crowd.
The next morning, Holmes, Watson, and the King arrive to Adler’s residence only to be informed by the maidservant that Adler had left the country hours before by train. In the photo’s hiding place, Holmes finds a different photo of Adler and a letter dated the previous midnight, addressed to Holmes himself. Adler tells him via the letter that Holmes did well in finding the photograph and fooling her with his disguises, but she also reveals that she posed as the youth who bid Holmes good night. Adler claims she has left England with Norton, “a better man” than the King, promising not to compromise his majesty despite being “cruelly wronged.” She explains the photo was kept as protection against any further action he might have taken.
The King acknowledges that she would have made “an admirable queen,” suggesting that she was not on his level, though Holmes remarks that she is very much on a different level. The King offers an emerald ring from his finger as further reward. In one of the most perfect endings to any of the original stories, Holmes instead requests the more highly valued photograph, and ignores the King’s offered handshake. The photo would be a reminder of her intellect and resourcefulness, acknowledgement that he had been beaten by a woman.
It is, perhaps, too easy to see how this story and the collection it opens, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, would catapult Holmes, Watson, Adler, and their mutual creator to fame and adulation. “A Scandal in Bohemia” remains to my eye one of the most perfect short stories ever written by any author, and certainly the absolute best in the Holmes canon. There are many tales in which Conan Doyle finds his pitch-perfect quality, all of which are to be held as masterpieces in their own rights, but none resonate for me more beautifully than this one. That is owed to the magnificent rarity of Irene Adler herself, who would not appear again in the original stories.