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Failures or: Even Sherlock Holmes makes a mistake



He was not always successful. And he was not afraid to admit it. Extreme modesty is not one of the characteristics of Sherlock Holmes, however, neither is arrogance and superciliousness.

Looking for his failures is made harder thanks to the loyalty of his chronicler, although even doctor Watson wrote about some of them. They completed Holmes’ character and made the picture of a genius detective more human. Even Holmes himself in the year 1877 disproved the belief of his client, that he is infallible.

I have been beaten four times - three times by men and once by a woman.’1) [FIVE]

One of the detective’s great psychological and business plans are to not raise excessive hopes and then show his brilliant solution. And as we found out later, excessive self-praise would not be appropriate in this case.

There were mysteries that even Holmes could not solve, however, these stayed as such even after his involvement. Words “even Sherlock Holmes was not able to solve this” only confirm detective’s geniality. Watson in a story The Problem of Thor Bridge [THOR] mentions three of them: disappearance of the ship Alicia, which was lost in the mist, James Phillimore, who got lost when he went home for to get his umbrella and journalist Persano, who lost his mind after looking at unknown species of an insect. Another five or six mistakes are mentioned in the beginning of The Adventure of the Yellow Face [YELL]. Many reasons were behind the detective’s failures. The following chapters will illustrate what exactly led to them.


Excessive modesty

I will mention The Adventure of the Lion's Mane [LION], even though it cannot be considered as Holmes’ mistake, however, the detective regarded it as one himself.

‘I was slow at the outset – culpably slow. Had the body been found in the water I could hardly have missed it. It was the towel which misled me. The poor fellow had never thought to dry himself, and so I in turn was led to believe that he had never been in the water. Why, then, should the attack of any water creature suggest itself to me? That was where I went astray. Well, well, Inspector, I often ventured to chaff you gentlemen of the police force, but Cyanea Capillata very nearly avenged Scotland Yard.’ [LION]

Overly humble words (however words said after successful case, where it was found out that Professor McPherson was not indeed killed, but it was only an unfortunate accident) cannot be considered Holmes’ fault. The path to the solving of many cases is usually hard, such is life. Detective’s words seem to be like those of Roman commanders, who let their subordinates make mocking songs, in order for them to not be suspected as worthy competition to Gods.

The following line would not be so forgiving.


Scandal in London, a.k.a. Detective?

The third adventure mentioned by Doctor Watson – Scandal in Bohemia [SCAN], ended quite well for the client, however case was solved thanks to detective’s failure. The Bohemian king needed to get compromising correspondence from his lover Irene Adler. He used Holmes’ services mainly because she lived in London at the time. The detective from Baker Street accepted the case, however, he did not show his geniality there, however what he used to solve the case was skill common to all old-school investigators – disguising. In this vaudeville (in all honesty it cannot be treated as a detective – or any seriously written – story) he acted as a loitering unkempt coachman, who witnessed wedding of his rival to be later in the role of an Anglican priest able to infiltrate songstress’ house under the pretext of injury, set fire there and found the hiding place – that was all. Irena, who was warned by her friends, left a letter for him there and together with her husband ran away with incriminating letters and promise that she would not use them, only to her own defence. King accepted that however only thing that was there for Holmes was Irene’s photo portrait and probably humorous memory. Nothing to be proud of.


Adversaries make the first move

Two Holmes cases (and third was not that far away from it), that were solved perfectly, however ended tragically. In all of them, the main reason was the time and readiness of criminals. First one is the aforementioned The Five Orange Pips [FIVE]. A client, John Openshaw, came to Baker Street because of the death of his uncle, the man, whose background was not very well known. He ended up as another casualty of the American Ku Klux Klan, which followed him overseas and was ready to dispose of his nephew as well. Holmes was not able to catch the murderer, nature acted faster and their ship sank.2)

Another failure also had origins in America. And it was one that weighs Holmes down the most, The Valley of Fear [VALL].3) It started the same – American man pursued by transoceanic criminals. In this case is the detective, who was afraid of revenge from the remains of the murderous gang. He also lost life (to the public it was said that it was an unfortunate coincidence, drowning). The truth was however, that the one responsible for the murder was Holmes’ biggest rival, Professor Moriarty. This time it was personal.

Similar things happened in the most famous case – the curse of the Baskervilles [HOUN]. Would this story be so famous if only the hound caught the right scent and killed sir Henry instead of a fugitive criminal? Even there Holmes admitted that he failed:

I am more to blame than you, Watson. In order to have my case well rounded and complete, I have thrown away the life of my client. It is the greatest blow which has befallen me in my career. But how could I know—how could l know—that he would risk his life alone upon the moor in the face of all my warnings?” ‘That we should have heard his screams—my God.’ [HOUN]

said Holmes desperately before finding out the true identity of the victim.

In all cases the opponents acted faster. He had a high ground, because he made the first move. Two times Holmes lost his client and in the case of sir Baskerville, he was saved by luck.


Genius is wrong

We saw several situations, where Holmes partially failed. Be it by unpleasant coincidence or thanks to his rival’s readiness. Was there ever the case, where his enemy wasn’t the criminal, but his own mind? In other words – were Holmes’ deduction at any point so faulty, they made the detective pursue the wrong thing, only to be later shown, that truth is somewhere else?

There was. And surprisingly it was thoroughly noted by Watson.

It is The Adventure of Yellow Face [YELL].

Strange behaviour of loving wife of Grant Munroe and her sudden spending of money and visiting neighbouring abandoned house, where mysterious yellow mask shows itself at night. Holmes explained it quite fast.

'Yes. There's blackmail in it, or I am much mistaken.' [YELL]

The reality was, however, less dramatic and not in criminal nature at all. Holmes is here in the role of Chesterton’s Doctor Orion Hood, who in the story The Absence of Mr. Glass (1914), published later than Doyle’s story. Both men created their non-existent culprits, thanks to their logical deduction.4) It was later shown that Mrs. Munroe is hiding her daughter from her first marriage in the house. She told her husband that her daughter died during the outbreak. A yellow mask is covering her face, because her only sin is color of her skin. Fact that Grant Munroe accepted in a very enlightened way with regard to the times when he lived.

The Detective and his assistant quietly left.

Genius’ mistake then became his memento. A great man can accept their mistakes without excuses.

'Watson,' said he, 'if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper "Norbury" in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.' [YELL]




1 An aforementioned woman is, of course, the adventurer Irene Adler, Holmes’ rival from the story Scandal in Bohemia, who will be mentioned later.

2  Similar, however more just, the end had The Adventure of Greek Interpreter [GREE]. Two Englishmen held a young Greek man as a prisoner and later kidnapped his sister. They ran away in the end, but at least both prisoners survived; criminals were later found dead; according to the investigation they stabbed each other in heat of the argument. Holmes and Watson, however, know better.

3  The Valley of Fear has a very similar story to The Five Orange Pips, but its form is more close to the first two stories, [STUD] and [SIGN]. In all three there is the culprit found in the first half and he is telling his story in the second.

4 Even if this is mere coincidence, Chesterton’s story and Hood’s deduction in it (plot and motives are completely different and so is detective’s role) can be seen today as a nice paraphrase of Doyle’s Yellow Face. By the same coincidence, pretentious Hercule Poirot was written by Agatha Christie also confessed his failures and even one error in his own logic (see story The Chocolate Box, 1923).


16.5.2018 (10.4.2010)

Illustration by Sidney Paget (1860 – 1908) from A Hound of the Baskervilles, first published monthly in the Strand Magazine, Aug. 1901 - Apr. 1902





"Things just happen. What the hell."
* Terry Pratchett. Hogfather


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