Writing Holmes: How Conan Doyle Harnessed Hobbies for Sleuthing

“And that recommendation, with the exaggerated estimate of ability with which he prefaced it was, if you will believe me, Watson, the very first thing which ever made me feel that a profession might be made out of what had up to that time been the merest hobby.”

Sherlock Holmes, from “The ‘Gloria Scott’” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle[*]

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character, Sherlock Holmes looms large in detective fiction. Although he is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin,[†] Conan Doyle wrote far more extensively about his characters. Therefore, Holmes’s personality is developed to a greater degree. He has quirks—Holmes, often described as an eccentric, once shot “a patriotic V. R.” in his sitting room wall (“The Mustgrave Ritual”)[‡]—as well as vices (cocaine use) and hobbies. Of these, I find how authors of fiction use hobbies in their stories particularly interesting because hobbies represent a versatile means of characterization that can make a character more complex or succinctly communicate certain ideas about the character—almost like shorthand—that inform character behavior and even the narrative itself. In this first essay of a series that explores how writers use hobbies in fiction, I will discuss how Conan Doyle judiciously gave Holmes certain hobbies to create his great detective.

“The Merest Hobby”

Sherlock Holmes's sitting room. Photo by R. Gould
Sherlock Holmes’s sitting room (as reproduced by The Sherlock Holmes’s Museum) featuring “the patriotic V.R.”. Photo taken by R. Gould.

Conan Doyle uses hobbies to accomplish much in the Holmes stories. For example, we learn that Holmes is talented violinist in A Study in Scarlet. Mentioned alongside his other pursuits, this hobby demonstrates the diversity of Holmes’s interests. Arguably, the violin also gives him an emotional outlet: Watson speculates that the strange violin solos may reflect Holmes’s moods. While such descriptions suggest Holmes’s complexity, there are three instances in which Conan Doyle actually uses the word hobby[§] that illustrate more about Holmes’s character and his profession.

In his first case (“The “Gloria Scott’”), Holmes describes his “habits of observation and inference” as “the merest hobby”. This opinion alters once Mr. Trevor, staggered by how much Holmes could infer about a stranger by mere observation, informs him “that all the detectives in fact and fiction would be children in your hand. That’s your line of life, sir.…” Devoted readers of Holmes know from The Sign of Four, published prior to this story, that Holmes considers observation and deduction to be “two out of the three qualities necessary for the ideal detective”. Rather than informing the reader about detecting, Conan Doyle inserts this epiphany to show both Holmes’s backstory (How did Holmes become a detective?) and his evolution. The younger Holmes, like so many others, once was clueless about his future after he finished college. But as Holmes matures, so does his hobby. “The merest hobby” proves to be the basis of Holmes’s career in disguise.

The Dilettante’s Hobby

But the idea that observation and deduction could be a “mere hobby” is an important consideration that Conan Doyle explores in a second instance where the word hobby appears. “The Greek Interpreter” introduces Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s elder brother, who apparently surpasses his younger sibling in these qualities. However, as Sherlock drily observes, “If the art of the detective began and ended with reasoning from an armchair, my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived”. Since Mycroft Holmes is a lazy man, both lacking the interest in confirming his theories and incapable of obtaining proof to support them, Sherlock dismisses his brother’s efforts as “the merest hobby of a dilettante”.

But Mycroft’s passivity allows him to act as Sherlock’s foil (i.e., the hobbyist versus the careerist) in another manner, as his aversion to exercise is contrasted to Sherlock’s energy. Clearly, Conan Doyle considered the physical abilities[**] a sleuth might need, keeping in mind the dangers connected to catching criminals. Hence, he provided Holmes with suitable hobbies that would make him fit to be a detective.[††] In Sherlock’s college days, his athletic interests were boxing and fencing (“The ‘Gloria Scott’”); Watson later describes Sherlock as “an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman” (A Study in Scarlet). As is seen with Holmes’s other “mere” hobby, these activities transform from sporting pastimes into useful tools for self-protection and/or subduing dangerous persons. From these examples, we can see that Conan Doyle uses this notion of hobby to delineate the difference between amateurs and professionals by insisting that a true detective needs to be an active investigator, seeking proof of his deductions and capable of handling whatever dangers and difficulties that arise during an investigation.

The Wearisome Hobby

Sherlock Holmes seeking clues.

The importance of seeking proof, however, naturally leads us back to the third quality of the “ideal detective”: knowledge. Holmes mentions to Watson that he (Holmes) has written monographs on tracing footprints and preserving them in plaster of Paris, distinguishing the various types of tobacco,[‡‡] and how different trades affect appearance of the human hand, a conversation he concludes by noting “But I weary you with my hobby.” To understand what Conan Doyle is doing here, we must unpack this scene further. Holmes’s monographs on “technical subjects” result from seeking this knowledge (The Sign of Four). As detailed in “The Mustgrave Ritual”, Holmes spent all his free time studying “all the branches of science that might make [him] more efficient” as a detective once he embarked on his career. And this knowledge (referring specifically to Holmes’s monographs and how they are useful for solving crimes and presenting evidence in court) is of “interest to the scientific detective”—meaning that Conan Doyle views the ideal detective as the scientific one (The Sign of Four).

This discussion of Holmes’s hobby, the writing of academic treatises on said “technical subjects”—what we’d know call forensic sciences—is important because it firmly establishes that Holmes’s detective work is based in a scientific approach. Although Holmes is not an academic, his work is of sufficient merit to be published for scientific community and this confers on him authority.[§§]. And he needs to claim this authority: Although his scientific studies are extensive, they are not attached to a specific degree program (A Study in Scarlet) since forensic sciences were not yet a formalized field of study. Similarly, Holmes is not a government detective, like Lestrade or Villard (the French detective who consulted Holmes and intends to translate his monographs; The Sign of Four). To justify their regard and validate Holmes’s presence at the crime scenes, it’s important to show that he has certain qualifications (observation, deduction and knowledge) that these regular detectives lack. To summarize, Holmes’s academic hobby neatly serves as his detecting credentials.

Conan Doyle’s compelling use of character hobbies serves multiple purposes in the Holmes tales. Beyond the role of providing character description, they define both Holmes and his approach to detective work: methodological observation, analysis and confirmation backed by scientific knowledge. But Holmes’s is not merely an academic or even armchair detective—he also possesses the necessary abilities to gain information, apprehend felons, and defend himself. He essentially is the fictional CSI of the Victorian era. And in this case, hobbies make the Holmes.


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[*] For my quotes, I indicate the stories in which they appear because page numbers vary among the numerous anthologies, and it’s impractical to presume we’re all looking at the same book. For the record, the anthology I referred to was: Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Volume 1 and 2. 1920. Reprint. New York: Bantam Classics, 2003. Print.

[†] It’s well established that Conan Doyle loosely based Holmes and Watson on Poe’s Dupin and companion/roommate, respectively. For further reading, the reference lists of Holmes’s Wikipedia page is suggested—Wikipedia articles themselves are not good primary sources!

[‡] Yep, Holmes is that roommate. Also, this episode suggests that Holmes is a decent marksman.

[§] The three instances of the word hobby are discussed in their order of importance to the stories, not in order of story publication. Similarly, discussion of the actual hobbies tends to follow least to most important hobbies.

[**] This is not one of three qualities a detective must possess so much as a useful fourth.

[††] While Holmes’s marksmanship and acting ability are invaluable to his detective work, it’s difficult to term either as a hobby. We do know that Holmes started disguising himself as he grew famous, which—coupled with Holmes antisocial tendencies—signals that he adopted acting for his profession (The Sign of Four). For marksmanship, it’s unclear whether it was a sporting pastime prior to his career or again something he learned for his profession.

[‡‡] This monograph is also mentioned in A Study in Scarlet.

[§§] You could literally state that he doesn’t just know about tobacco ash, he wrote the book on it. Well, the monograph at any rate.

Room to Read

Speaking as an avid bookworm, there is nothing more irresistible than an unread book.

“This must be Thursday,” said Arthur to himself, sinking low over his beer. “I never could get the hang of Thursdays.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I grew up in a reading household: both of my parents read regularly. My dad built bookcases in our den that still couldn’t hope to hold all the reading material we owned. My mom took me to the local library at least once a week, letting me check out all the books I could lug home. Laudable as their efforts were, this isn’t about how they inspired my reading.[*]

It’s about how sharing a room did.

The room in question was the bedroom I shared with my sister. Or, more accurately, the one she shared with me. Being several years older, it had been hers first. Granted, it remained hers in some real ways when it came to where things went and space division. I’m not sure if that’s much consolation for a teenager trading her privacy (and full-sized bed) for a much younger and much messier little sister. All things considered, she probably got the worst end of that deal.[†]

And I’m not saying that just because she’s frequently mentions the horrors of negotiating a floor strewn with doll shoes whilst trying to silently slip into bed after a night out.[‡]

But when you happen to be one of four children, sharing happens. So we did. She may have shared a bit more with me than she knew at the time. Speaking as an avid bookworm, there is nothing more irresistible than an unread book. She kept hers under her dresser. And, I most certainly borrowed them.

Being a voracious reader, I read rather indiscriminately then.[§] I quite happily absorbed myself in some sister’s not-so-age-appropriate romance novels alongside the library’s copy of Little Women. But there was one book—I don’t recall whether my sister was in high school or college at the time the new book came or exactly how old I was—but I vividly recollect the cover as it peeked out from behind dark wooden legs: a planet with its tongue sticking out. That one, that one was a revelation. A clinically depressed robot? Computers declaring the meaning of life is 42? A chap who can’t manage Thursday? It was odd and hilarious at once. I loved The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, even the bits I didn’t quite get yet. It’s one I’ve reread many times, and it was my sister who (unwittingly) placed it in my path.

As we time went by, my sister purposely lent me books, too. Often, she provided me with plot synopses so that I could decide whether they were worth reading. Of course, we don’t always agree to read the same sort of books,[**] but I’m always interested in trying her recommendations. Like that time she suggested I read this story about a kid called Harry Potter. I was a bit skeptical, since it was for kids (or so I thought). She sent me home with the first three books. And she was right: they were great. For her birthday, I bought her the next four as soon as each was published.

I suppose putting up with a kid sister eventually paid off for her.

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[*] Although, they absolutely did and do continue to inspire me to keep reading.

[†] Not that it was her choice.

[‡] I have it on her authority that stepping on Barbie doll shoes whilst barefoot is excruciatingly painful. It’s little wonder she made sure I became a far tidier person than I was naturally inclined to be.

[§] For the sake of my sanity, I no longer partake of breakfast cereals. To this day, I can’t seem to stop myself from rereading the boxes again and again.

[**] I still can’t talk my sister into horror fiction.

Coming Clean About My Writing

And then I realized that when I ran away from my screen to clean…I was still writing my story.

Writing distractions abound when you’re not sure where to go next in your text. In college, when I’d get stuck writing a story or paper, I’d find myself drifting away from my pen and pad or my keyboard and monitor. I often paced, feeling wired with repressed energy, the wanting to say but not knowing what to say just yet. Somewhere along the way, though, that energy found another outlet: tidying up.

Yeah, I know. Probably the most perplexing form of procrastination ever.[*]

Because I’m not actually a neat freak. I don’t recommend eating off my floors (or anyone else’s). Frankly, writers tend toward untidy when they’re in progress (I literally spread notes everywhere). And last I checked, cleaning doesn’t get me to the conclusion faster–especially when the deadline is looming. Nonetheless, some deep subconscious place in my brain insists that the glacial white of an empty screen must be matched by clean countertops. That, when I need to give my text a think-through, I should also clear away the clutter.

Fine, brain. Be that way.

This summer, though, I had an epiphany during an online writing course I undertook. Of all the writing classes I’ve done, it was the first that focused more on how I wrote versus what I wrote. In particular, we (the class) individually examined facets of our writing process. As I worked on a story and thought about my characters, I once again found myself frustrated with how I slipped away and did something else while I puzzled over how my scene should unfold. And then I realized that when I ran away from my screen to clean…I was still writing my story. Apparently, I’m also not the only person with this approach, either.

So, not procrastination? Well, sort of.

I also know now that I wander off when I’m not writing well or I don’t feel comfortable with what I’m writing[†] as well as when the real world disrupts me (#Election 2016). In this case, I consciously decide whether I take a writing break or shift onto other, more productive writing tasks. Instead of worrying or procrastinating, I research topics or plan new projects. Or I take a break and clear my head (and my desk). When I come back, I am more confident and readier to write.

As for thinking through my writing process? It was worthwhile, because knowing how I write helps me write better by harnessing the moments when it’s not going well.[‡]


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[*] But I did need to do laundry, so that’s a win. Not for the blog, but for the general public.

[†] Like writing my first blog post ever. You know that I-don’t-know-anyone-at-the-party-but-the-hostess feeling that introverts get when they have to meet new people because introductions are awkward? Yeah, I feel that way right now, because this is essentially an introduction. My “Hello, world!”, you might say. So, hello!

[‡] Laundry: Two loads

Dishwasher: Emptied and reloaded

Table: Washed and cleared away

Notes: Spread out, lost, and tidied more times than I want to count

Pacing: 6000+ steps

And yes, these footnotes are both inspired by and an homage to the late Terry Pratchett.