15 Curious Facts About Sherlock Holmes

Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes is a sprightly, riveting exploration of Sherlock Holmes—and the character’s thriving, eccentric subculture. Zach Dundas, the book’s author, reveals that the frenzy surrounding Sherlock isn’t strictly a Benedict Cumberbatch-related phenomenon. The master of Baker Street, who was born on January 6, 1854, has always inspired fanatical devotion and feverish anticipation. Here are 15 details about literature's greatest detective, as revealed in The Great Detective.

1. There is a Sherlock Holmes equivalent of Trekkies.

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There are as many as 300 societies dedicated to Sherlock Holmes. Devotees of the detective call themselves Sherlockians or Holmesians. There is some division in their ranks as to how the terms should be applied, though generally speaking, American fans are Sherlockians and British fans are Holmesians.

2. Sherlock Holmes societies are a kind of literary United Nations.

Perhaps the most prestigious Sherlock Holmes society is the Baker Street Irregulars, an invitation-only organization that was originally named for Holmes’s intelligence network of homeless children. Other clubs include the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, the Bootmakers of Toronto, the Great Herd Bisons of the Fertile Plains, and the Seventeen Steppes of Kyrgyzstan. There are also trade-specific Sherlock societies for such groups as poets, psychologists, and mathematicians (“the last named for Moriarty, of course,” Zach Dundas writes).

3. Sherlock Holmes’s influence was vast among elite writers.

T.S. Eliot said, “Every writer owes something to Holmes.” John Le Carre described the short stories as “a kind of narrative perfection.” Dorothy Sayers even wrote a treatise on Watson’s name, attempting to work out how it changed from John H. Watson to James in a later story. She eventually speculated that the middle initial H is short for Hamish, the Scottish form of James. (This is the convention used in the television series Sherlock.)

4. It all started with Edgar Allan Poe.

Detective fiction was still in its infancy when Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his stories. Edgar Allan Poe introduced to the genre the concept of a single detective whose cases span several stories. Later, Wilkie Collins elevated the genre with his serials. Conan Doyle brought together the forms of the genre, elevated it with his prose and pacing, and modernized it by having his protagonist use science as part of his investigation. The first character in fiction to use a magnifying glass to help solve a case? You guessed it.

5. The proto-Sherlock Holmes was a doctor ...

When Conan Doyle began sketching out the character, he thought back to his medical school days and recalled a professor with an astonishing eye for detail. Dr. Joseph Bell was known to make accurate diagnoses of his patients from such details as patterns of wear on trousers, bearing, and general disposition. “All careful teachers have first to show the student how to recognize accurately the case,” Bell explained. How stunning was the Bell-Holmes resemblance? Upon reading a Sherlock Holmes story, Robert Louis Stevenson, a fellow student of University of Edinburgh, wrote Conan Doyle a letter complimenting the character and his adventures, and asking in closing, “Can this be my old friend Joe Bell?"

6. ... Or maybe Sherlock Holmes wasn't a doctor.

The “St. Luke Mystery,” a sensational, real-life case in 1881 in which a London baker disappeared, might have in some way inspired Conan Doyle. A German named Walter Scherer was brought on to help investigate the incident. He described himself as a professional “consulting detective”—hardly a commonplace professional description, and the same one that would eventually describe the man working from 221B Baker Street. Some, most notably author Michael Harrison, argue that Scherer, not Bell, was the model for Sherlock Holmes.

7. Arthur Conan Doyle popularized a new storytelling format.

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When Conan Doyle wrote his short stories, he recognized that serial narratives were falling out of favor with readers—it was too easy to miss one issue and thus lose one’s place in a continuing story. For his Sherlock Holmes stories, he developed a format in which the characters and general circumstances would remain the same, but each story would be standalone and able to be read in any order.

8. Sherlock Holmes was the original success kid.

Long before we took to Twitter to write, “I believe in Sherlock Holmes,” the detective was a viral sensation. One year after publication of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the first Holmes short story, some magazines were already parodying the character, some were publishing thinly-disguised rip-offs, and theatrical companies were performing the character in unauthorized stage productions.

9. The hunt for 221B Baker Street is ongoing.

Part of the allure and longevity of the Sherlock Holmes short stories are their settings. Holmes’s London is real and thriving, and the places in which he has his adventures are real places. His apartment, 221B Baker Street, however, is fogged in mystery. When the stories were written, Baker Street addresses did not go as high as 221, and Conan Doyle refused to divulge the building’s inspiration. For nearly a century, scholars have worked hard to uncover it, going so far as to subject the numbers mentioned in the Holmes texts to Voynich-Manuscript-level scrutiny, and even mapping the backyards of Baker Street, comparing them to details mentioned in the text.

10. Sherlock Holmes's cases are not true crime stories.

Conan Doyle’s historical novels were meticulously researched. As The Great Detective notes, to get the details correct, the author might read “hundreds of volumes on, say, English archery, or Napoleon.” The Sherlock Holmes stories, however, were dashed out as quickly as four in two weeks. In “Adventure of the Speckled Band,” for example, Holmes determines that the murderer controls a snake with a whistle and a bowl of milk. As Zach Dundas writes, “snakes can’t hear and don’t drink milk. Does anyone care?”

11. Arthur Conan Doyle was on a nature hike when he decided how Sherlock Holmes would die.

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The fabulous success of Sherlock Holmes might eventually have become a bit too much for Conan Doyle, and to get on with his life he eventually resolved to kill off the detective. Just about everyone begged him not to, from his mother to his publisher, but his mind was set on it. He only needed a death suitable for his icon. While vacationing in Switzerland, he and a group of friends went hiking. When they came upon Reichenbach Falls, Conan Doyle decided that it was a fitting grave for Sherlock Holmes.

12. But the great detective wasn’t done yet.

At the time of Holmes’s untimely death, Conan Doyle was a wealthy man and a fixture of society. Years later, his spending began outpacing the growth of his income, and returning to Sherlock Holmes became an appealing option. Rather than raise the detective from the dead, he authorized a stage production based on Holmes. In 1901, Strand magazine began serializing The Hound of the Baskervilles, a new Holmes novel written by Conan Doyle. (To get around the thorny problem of Holmes having plummeted down Reichenbach Falls, the novel was set in a time previous to that story.) In 1903, Collier’s Weekly made Conan Doyle an offer: $1.3 million (in 2015 money) for a new series of Sherlock Holmes stories. Conan Doyle’s response, by postcard: “Very well.”

13. Arthur Conan Doyle: father to Sherlock Holmes—and peer?

During his lifetime, Arthur Conan Doyle did a little bit of everything, from transforming literature to running for Parliament to playing competitive sports. But Conan Doyle has had a post-death nearly as active as his life. Sherlock Holmes lives on, of course, but Conan Doyle has also become a compelling character in fiction. On the page, stage, and screen, the author can be found solving crimes that no one else can.

14. Arthur Conan Doyle's sanity was questioned.

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Toward the end of his life, Conan Doyle embraced spiritualism and invested considerable capital, both personal and financial, in spreading the message. He frequented psychics and mediums, held séances, and argued the existence of fairies, defending even the worst photographic forgeries of the winged sprites. One headline at the time summed up the situation, asking if the author was “hopelessly crazy.”

15. Sherlock Holmes was first in peace, first in war, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.

Though Conan Doyle couldn’t conceive of Sherlock Holmes in a world post-World-War-I, the great detective saw quite a bit of action during World War II. As noted in The Great Detective, Holmes appeared in British propaganda videos; one of his stories was required reading for soldiers in the Soviet army; Britain’s wartime spy agency set up shop on Baker Street and called themselves the “Baker Street Irregulars”; and one of the two films found in Hitler’s bunker was The Hound of the Baskervilles.

10 Killer Gifts for True Crime Fans

Ulysses Press/Little A
Ulysses Press/Little A

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Humans have a strange and lasting fascination with the dark and macabre. We’re hooked on stories about crime and murder, and if you know one of those obsessives who eagerly binges every true crime documentary and podcast that crosses their path, you’re in luck—we’ve compiled a list of gifts that will appeal to any murder mystery lover.

1. Donner Dinner Party: A Rowdy Game of Frontier Cannibalism!; $15

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The infamous story of the Donner party gets a new twist in this social deduction party game that challenges players to survive and eliminate the cannibals hiding within their group of friends. It’s “lots of fun accusing your friends of eating human flesh and poisoning your food,” one reviewer says.

Buy it: Amazon

2. A Year of True Crime Page-a-Day Calendar; $16

Workman Calendars/Amazon

With this page-a-day calendar, every morning is an opportunity to build your loved one's true crime chops. Feed their morbid curiosity by reading about unsolved cases and horrifying killers while testing their knowledge with the occasional quizzes sprinkled throughout the 313-page calendar (weekends are combined onto one page).

Buy it: Amazon

3. Bloody America: The Serial Killers Coloring Book; $10

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Some people use coloring books to relax, while others use them to dive into the grisly murders of American serial killers. Just make sure to also gift some red colored pencils before you wrap this up for your bestie.

Buy it: Amazon

4. The Serial Killer Cookbook: True Crime Trivia and Disturbingly Delicious Last Meals from Death Row's Most Infamous Killers and Murderers; $15

Ulysses Press/Amazon

This macabre cookbook contains recipes for the last meals of some of the world’s most famous serial killers, including Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, and John Wayne Gacy. This cookbook covers everything from breakfast (seared steak with eggs and toast, courtesy of Ted Bundy) to dessert (chocolate cake, the last request of Bobby Wayne Woods). Each recipe includes a short description of the killer who requested the meal.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Ripped from the Headlines!: The Shocking True Stories Behind the Movies’ Most Memorable Crimes; $15

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In this book, true crime historian Harold Schechter sorts out the truth and fiction that inspired some of Hollywood’s best-known murder movies—including Psycho (1960), Scream (1996), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). As Schechter makes clear, sometimes reality is even a little more sick and twisted than the movies show.

Buy it: Amazon

6. The Deadbolt Mystery Society Monthly Box; $22/month

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Give the murder mystery lover in your life the opportunity to solve a brand-new case every single month. Each box includes the documents and files for a standalone mystery story that can be solved alone or with up to three friends. To crack the case, you’ll also need a laptop, tablet, or smartphone connected to the internet—each mystery includes interactive content that requires scanning QR codes or watching videos.

Buy it: Cratejoy

7. In Cold Blood; $10

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Truman Capote’s 1965 classic about the murder of a Kansas family is considered by many to be the first true-crime nonfiction novel ever published. Capote’s book—still compulsively readable despite being written more than 50 years ago—follows the mysterious case from beginning to end, helping readers understand the perspectives of the victims, investigators, and suspects in equal time.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-To Guide; $13

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Any avid true crime fan has at least heard of My Favorite Murder, the popular podcast that premiered in 2016. This book is a combination of practical wisdom, true crime tales, and personal stories from the podcast’s comedic hosts. Reviewers say it’s “poignant” and “worth every penny.”

Buy it: Amazon

9. I Like to Party Mug; $12

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This cheeky coffee mug says it all. Plus, it’s both dishwasher- and microwave-safe, making it a sturdy gift for the true crime lover in your life.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Latent Fingerprint Kit; $60

Crime Scene Store/Amazon

Try your hand (get it?!) at being an amateur detective with this kit that lets you collect fingerprints left on most surfaces. It may not be glamorous, but it could help you solve the mystery of who put that practically empty carton back in the refrigerator when it barely contained enough milk for a cup of coffee.

Buy it: Amazon

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10 Famous Writers’ Houses Worth Visiting

Robert E. Nylund, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Robert E. Nylund, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A writer’s home is a kind of autobiography, and visiting the place where a great work of literature was written gives you a deeper understanding of both the book and the person who wrote it. Here are some notable writers’ houses to check out.

1. Jack London’s Ranch // Glen Ellen, California

Besides being one of the most successful writers of his day, Call of the Wild author Jack London was also a dedicated rancher. London bought 1400 acres near Sonoma, California, and set up an experimental farm. He planted spineless cacti to feed his livestock, put in grain silos, and built a piggery so grand he called it the “pig palace.” You can visit the house where London lived and died, as well as the ruins of the three-story mansion that burned down just before he was set to move in. (The rock walls still stand in a redwood grove, not far from London's grave.)

2. John Steinbeck’s House // Salinas, California

Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men author Steinbeck grew up in this Victorian home and lived here as an adult in 1934 to care for his ailing mother. During that time, his successful novella The Red Pony was published. A restless child, Steinbeck never seemed comfortable with his middle-class upbringing and empathized with the migrant workers he saw in the vegetable fields around Salinas. The town appeared as the setting in many of his works, most notably East of Eden. Today, the home holds a restaurant located in what used to be Steinbeck’s parlor; the walls are decorated with Steinbeck family photos.

3. Mark Twain’s House // Hartford, Connecticut

Twain spent the happiest years of his life in this house with his wife and three daughters. He wrote seven major works here, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The house, which feels reminiscent of a Mississippi steamboat, cost a great deal of money and contributed to Twain’s financial problems late in life. The interior was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and has more than 10,000 objects from the Victorian era. There’s even a pool table in the study, right by Twain’s writing desk.

4. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s House // Concord, Massachusetts

Emerson lived in this house for 46 years until his death in 1882, and it acted as a transcendentalist headquarters. Visitors like Henry David Thoreau went in and out, sometimes staying in the guest room nicknamed the “Pilgrim’s Chamber.” Emerson wrote his essays Nature and Self-Reliance in a study on the first floor, although his son later said that Emerson’s “real study” was nearby Walden Woods.

5. Emily Dickinson House // Amherst, Massachusetts

Emily Dickinson was known as a recluse whose poetry was largely discovered after her death. But the house where she spent her life is a pleasant and bright one, with big windows and high ceilings. While most of the poet’s activities remain a mystery even today, you can see her bedroom where she wrote many of her nearly 2000 poems.

6. Edith Wharton’s Estate // Lenox, Massachusetts

Edith Wharton was rich. Very rich. The Mount, her palatial home, has 35 rooms, four floors, and acres of lush gardens. Wharton helped design the house according to the principles she laid out in her best-selling book The Decoration of Houses. Her good friend Henry James was a frequent guest. Wharton wrote The House Of Mirth at The Mount, usually working in the morning while lying in bed.

7. Margaret Mitchell’s Apartment // Atlanta, Georgia

The ultimate pilgrimage for Gone With The Wind fans has to be Margaret Mitchell’s house. Mitchell moved into Apartment Number 1 of this building—which she called "The Dump"—as a newlywed in 1925 and lived there for seven years. She worked on her epic novel on a table in the living room alcove that overlooks Crescent Avenue. Few people knew she was writing a book, which she considered a personal project. She worked on it sporadically until it was accepted for publication in 1935, forcing her to finish it up. The novel was a runaway hit.

8. Flannery O'Connor’s Andalusia Farm // Milledgeville, Georgia

Flannery O’Connor wanted to move away from the South, but when she was diagnosed with lupus, she moved to her mother’s dairy farm in 1951 and lived there until her death in 1964 at age 39. Since it was difficult for her to climb stairs, she slept in the downstairs living room, where she also wrote most of her published work. You can still see her manual typewriter and her crutches in the house. The more than 520 acre farm, with its ever-present peacocks, served as the setting for many of her short stories.

9. William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak // Oxford, Mississippi

Few authors are as known for evoking place as Faulkner is for writing about Oxford, Mississippi. Rowan Oak, his home for over 30 years, is where he wrote many of his major works, including Light in August. When Faulkner bought the house, it didn’t have running water or electricity. He spent many afternoons on home improvement projects, wiring the house himself and building the brick terrace outside. In his study, he sometimes wrote his complicated plot structures on the wall, then painted over them when he finished the book. In fact, you can still see the plot for his novel A Fable penciled on the wall right where he left it.

10. Ernest Hemingway’s House // Key West, Florida

Ernest Hemingway lived in this house from the time he married his second wife, Pauline, to when he ran off to Cuba with his third wife, Martha. It was the most productive eight years of his life. He wrote most of his major works in his office, which you could only get to by walking across a bridge that extended from the upstairs bedroom. Almost everything in the house had a story, from the urinal garden fountain to the monastery gate he used as a headboard to the six-toed cats he collected because he thought they were good luck. Today, over 40 cats still live on the estate, all said to be descendants of Hemingway’s original pets.