Sherlock Holmes remains the most well-known fictional detective in history. The brainchild of Scottish author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes holds the title for the most prevalent character on film. He’s appeared in 254 movies, beginning 120 years ago with the silent movie Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900).
Despite the nagging fact that he’s a fictional character, Holmes is also an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. He gained membership in 2002, and the award was fittingly presented to one real-life Dr. John Watson outside Baker Street station where a statue of the famed detective stands.
Of course, the character is best known for his pop culture utterance, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” But did Sherlock Holmes ever really say this?
The Birth of a Literary Sensation
Doyle was inspired to create Sherlock Holmes after meeting Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell worked as a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh where Doyle attended medical school, and he had the uncanny ability to diagnose patients on sight. Thoroughly impressed by Bell’s exceptional skills of perception, Doyle reconfigured these talents into a fictional representation. In the process, he crafted the ultimate detective. Unbeknownst to him, Doyle was setting the stage for a genre that still enjoys wild popularity—think CSI, NCIS, Bones, and Monk.
The author presents his famed character to us through the lens of Dr. John Watson. It’s safe to say that Watson represents Sherlock’s polar opposite. Where Watson is meticulous, conscientious, and thoughtful, Holmes is a pendulum veering wildly between messy bouts of mania and depression, fueled by cocaine, violin playing, and an obsession with forensics.
Of course, Doyle had a penchant for writing fundamentally flawed, though brilliant, characters. Watson didn’t escape this treatment, either. In several short stories and The Adventure of the Dancing Men (1903), Doyle provides us with clues that Watson suffered from a gambling addiction. So much so that Sherlock kept Watson’s checkbook under lock and key in his office!
Innovative Forensics and the Birth of a Genre
Readers first encountered Watson and Holmes in Doyle’s novel A Study in Scarlet, published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887. Although the public proved underwhelmed by this first installment in what would become the canon surrounding Sherlock Holmes, Doyle’s subsequent works soon won the adoration of fans. What’s more, A Study in Scarlet represents the first detective novel to incorporate the use of a magnifying glass in a forensics investigation.
What eventually won over audiences? The combination of Holmes’ superior skills of observation and his use of unconventional methods, cutting edge means of catching even the most sophisticated criminals. In some cases, the investigator relied on technology and methodology years before real-life police forces started adopting them.
Across 60 short stories and novels, Doyle incorporated everything from fingerprinting and footprint analysis, to in-depth studies of handwriting and typewritten documents. The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) didn’t even get around to adding a document investigation section until 1932!
“Elementary, My Dear Watson”
All of this brings us back to the fundamental question. Did Sherlock Holmes ever utter the phrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson” in any of Doyle’s canon work? The answer’s a resounding, “No.” The closest we ever get to such an utterance is a conversation between Watson and Holmes in the short story “The Adventure of the Crooked Man” (1893):
“I see that you are professionally rather busy just now,” said he, glancing very keenly across at me. “Yes, I’ve had a busy day,” I answered. “It may seem very foolish in your eyes,” I added, “but really I don’t know how you deduced it.”
Holmes chuckled to himself.
“I have the advantage of knowing your habits, my dear Watson,” said he. “When your round is a short one you walk, and when it is a long one, you use a hansom. As I perceive that your boots, although used, are by no means dirty, I cannot doubt that you are at present busy enough to justify the hansom.”
“Excellent!” I cried.
“Elementary,” said he.
Close, but no cigar.
Confabulation, the Mandela Effect, and Hollywood Talkies
Sherlock Holmes is one of many celebrated figures who has had false quotations attributed to them. Another example is the iconic “Play it again, Sam” line from Casablanca (1942), which Humphrey Bogart never muttered. What’s more, the advent of social media and memes has led to so many misquoted celebrities and historical figures that it’s increasingly difficult to separate fact from fantasy.
Why do humans collectively misremember some facts and events? Psychologists refer to the phenomenon as confabulation. It involves the fabrication of false memories so vivid that individuals cannot be convinced otherwise. Confabulation, alternately known as the Mandela Effect, also refers to everyday occurrences such as inventing facts, filling in memory gaps with inaccurate ones, and embellishing the truth.
Though, when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, there’s a more straightforward answer. We can blame this confabulation on the movies. Actor Clive Brook, who played the famed detective in the Old Hollywood talkie The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929), first pronounced the unforgettable, embellished line. For better or worse, it remains cemented in our collective memory. It’s elementary.
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com