Analysis Pages


As “A Scandal in Bohemia” begins, it is March, 1888. The recently married Dr. John Watson happens by his old bachelor quarters at 221B Baker Street and finds Sherlock Holmes pacing the floor in the brilliantly lit rooms. Since Watson has married and settled into domestic tranquillity, Holmes, for whom the life of the emotions would be grit in his machinery, has been alternating between cocaine-induced dreams and his fiercely energetic solutions of mysteries abandoned by the official police. On this evening, Holmes takes an unusual assignment, unlike those of the two previously published cases, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. Indeed, Watson indicates that this is the first case in which Holmes fails, and his defeat comes at the hands of a woman, Irene Adler, an American singer, actress, and adventurer “of dubious and questionable memory,” now deceased.

It may be because this is one of the earlier Holmes tales that it deviates so interestingly from the pattern of solution that later came to dominate these stories. This story strikingly resembles its great predecessor, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” in which Auguste Dupin determines the hiding place of a woman who is apparently of the French royal family and then recovers a letter being used to blackmail her. Like Dupin in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Holmes surprises his friend early in the story with an accurate account of Watson’s recent activities based on details about the condition of his shoes.

Holmes’s task is to locate and recover a photograph that shows Adler and the king of Bohemia together. Adler, a spurned lover, has threatened to deliver the photograph to Princess Clotilde, the king’s intended, on the day their engagement is announced. Clotilde and her family would object so strongly to this proof of a previous sexual affair that the marriage would be canceled, disrupting international relations.

Holmes fairly easily determines that Adler, because she is an intelligent woman, would hide the photograph in her own home, but cleverly enough that ordinary burglars—who have already made two attempts—would not find it. In disguise, he observes her home and, by accident, witnesses her wedding to a lawyer. This event in itself might end her threat to the king, but Holmes wishes to make sure. He plots successfully to force her to show him the letter’s hiding place. While assisting in this trick, Watson becomes less sure that he and Holmes are right to violate the privacy...

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