My early admiration for Sherlock Holmes—and not only Holmes—led to a growing collection of books both in the Arthur Conan Doyle canon and otherwise. When I was a teenager in the 1980s, Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (and novels) were the only mystery works that I read. I don’t remember how I first became aware of Holmes, but I think that I can safely say that he was one of my first crushes (along with Luke Skywalker and all of the members of Duran Duran).
An odd Holmes memory that I have is of playing the role-playing game Chill (a horror-focused RPG) with a high school friend’s boyfriend and his gaming buddies. Holmes and Watson were both characters. Looking online for information on Chill now, I don’t see very much mention of Holmes, so my memory might be unreliable. This wasn’t my introduction to Holmes, but it did reinforce my interest in him.
I didn’t begin collecting Sherlockiana or feel drawn to the mystery genre in all of its many forms until several years later. But in high school, Holmes with his air of superiority, his varied knowledge, and the hints of a troubled personal life was very appealing to me. I loved the idea of the West End apartment where Holmes resided, surrounded by books and newspapers, his chemistry equipment and violin—not to mention his many disguises—and could easily envision living in such a place. And as it turns out, the bookish disorder that I’m writing this in the midst of isn’t too far off. There are no disguises or chemistry sets, but I do have a clarinet tucked away in my closet.
But despite my youthful enamorment of Holmes, my fascination with this late Victorian world isn’t solely focused on him. I would have become aware of Irene Adler in high school as well through “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the one story where she is mentioned. The first sentence of the story is familiar to many: “To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman.” Opera singer and general adventuress Adler captured my imagination, and in fact, as I’m writing this, I realize that it’s not possible for me to discuss Holmes without discussing Adler. I might have had a crush on Holmes, but I wanted to be Adler.
“A Scandal in Bohemia” takes place after Watson’s marriage, and by chance, Watson is passing through Baker Street one night, having resumed his medical practice. Watson sees that Holmes is awake and pacing before the windows and decides to pay a visit. He is in time to meet the heavily disguised but opulently dressed King of Bohemia. (Rereading the story this morning, I am in love with the description of his “deep blue cloak which . . . was lined with flame-coloured silk.”)
The case focuses on the retrieval of a compromising photograph of the then Crown Prince and Adler. This is the story in the Holmes canon that I’ve read more than any other, and I revisit it often not for the description of the case but for what details I can glean about Adler herself. She was a contralto with La Scala, she was impervious to several previous attempts to recover the photograph, and she was as skilled at disguise as Holmes himself. And she showed more initiative—and honor—than many of Holmes’s opponents. I know that I am not alone in my admiration—not only does Irene Adler play a large part in the recent Sherlock Holmes movies, she also plays a detective role in Carole Nelson Douglas’s series of books that began with Good Night, Mr. Holmes. This series started in 1990, 101 years after Doyle published “A Scandal in Bohemia” in the Strand magazine.
And even though I no longer—quite— want to be Irene Adler, a woman “of dubious and questionable memory,” she remains to me an idealized literary figure to this day. In my mind, I happily leave Adler to her further adventures and successes, just as I’m content to leave Holmes to be himself in his study. I can easily visit him on his shelf in my own solitary (and somewhat untidy) retreat.
Jennifer Finstrom teaches in the First-Year Writing Program, tutors in writing, and facilitates a writing group, Writers Guild, at DePaul University. She has been the poetry editor of Eclectica Magazine since October of 2005, and recent poetry publications include the Silver Birch Press The Great Gatsby Anthology, Escape Into Life, NEAT, Midwestern Gothic, and YEW Journal, among others. She has long been a fan of the mystery genre, and one day might even try to write one.