Sherlock Holmes: Professional Investigator or Amateur Sleuth?
I've noticed that many Sherlock Holmes fans (and many detective story fans) consider Holmes a brilliant amateur sleuth. I have always disagreed with this description. I view him as fiction's first private consulting detective. Having recently re-read all the stories, here are my thoughts as to his professional status:
Holmes never alluded to having a private income. If there was any family wealth I image that it was not very considerable and whatever was available via inheritance had to be split with older brother Mycroft. Once Holmes left university his aim was to make his living by studying crime and eventually becoming so expert an investigator that he could live off his consulting fees. Only in a few cases is it clear that Holmes charged and received a fee but in many cases a reader can infer that money did change hands. The most fascinating example of this occurs in "The Problem of Thor Bridge" wherein Holmes actually states that he has a fixed fee schedule. If only Doyle had reproduced this schedule; what a wonderful and enlightening document it would have been. See the end of this article for my take on what Holmes's fee schedule might have looked like.
Some random thoughts on Holmes, the PI: He sometimes would investigate crimes or apparent crimes (without expecting payment) if he found the circumstances unusual or bizarre or if he thought he could learn something new from the case. He would sometimes investigate a case if he thought a serious miscarriage of justice occurred or would likely occur without his intervention. He would sometimes investigate as a favor to his friends and acquaintances or for patriotic reasons.
How to best classify Doyle's stories? Are they Detective Stories or Mystery Stories or Thrillers? Sure they contain elements of all three types. I choose to brand them as Adventure Stories featuring a London based Victorian/Edwardian era private consulting detective and his loyal doctor friend.
One point to note before going deeper into the status of Holmes as an amateur sleuth or professional detective: Several times in the 56 short stories and 4 novels/novellas someone, be it Watson, Gregson, Lestrade or Holmes himself, will describe Holmes as an amateur. The context of that description is in regard to whether Holmes is employed by an official police force like Scotland Yard, not as to whether he charges fees and makes a living by investigating and solving crimes.
To make my argument that Holmes was a professional detective I will quote from and refer to two main books:
The Complete Sherlock Holmes Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street: A Life of the World's First Consulting Detective
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by William S. Baring-Gould
(Introduction by Christopher Morley) Bramhall House, 1962
Doubleday, 1960, ISBN 0385006896 hereafter SHOBS
Here follows some quotes (in red) supporting my opinion:
Holmes apologizing to Watson for evicting him from their shared sitting room when strangers visited 221B in A Study in Scarlet.
"I have to use this room as a place of business," he said, "and these people are my clients."
TCSH page 22. Soon, of course, Watson would be invited to stay in the sitting room and partake in Holmes's cases.
Holmes discussing a magazine article with Watson in A Study in Scarlet.
"As for the article, I wrote it myself."
"Yes; I have a turn both for observation and for deduction. The theories which I have expressed there . . . are really extremely practical-so practical that I depend upon them for my bread and cheese."
"And how?" (Watson asks)
"Well, I have a trade of my own. I suppose I am the only one in the world. I'm a consulting detective . . .Here in London we have lots of government detectives and lots of private ones. When these fellows are at fault, they come to me, and I manage to put them on the right scent."
(Watson then asks about the numerous strangers that visit Holmes day after day and Holmes answers) "They are mostly sent on by private inquiry agencies. They are all people who are in trouble about something and want a little enlightening. I listen to their story, they listen to my comments, and then I pocket my fee."
TCSH pages 23 & 24. Seems to me that in Holmes's first recorded case he clearly explains that he makes his living by solving crimes and/or explaining mysterious events.
Holmes attempting to justify his new cocaine habit to Watson in The Sign of Four.
". . . I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world."
"The only unofficial detective?" I said, raising my eyebrows.
"The only unofficial consulting detective," he answered.
TCSH page 90.
The King of Bohemia speaking to Holmes in "A Scandal in Bohemia".
"There are three hundred pounds in gold and seven hundred in notes," he said.
Holmes scribbled a receipt upon a sheet of his note-book and handed it to him.
TCSH page 165.
Holmes speaking to a London bank executive in "The Red Headed League".
"I have been at some small expense over this matter, which I shall expect the bank to refund, . . ."
TCSH page 189.
Holmes speaking to his client after returning three valuable gemstones in "The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet".
"You would not think £1,000 apiece an excessive sum for them?"
"I would pay ten."
"That would be unnecessary. Three thousand will cover the matter. And there is a little reward I fancy. Have you your checkbook? Here is a pen. Better make it out for £4000."
TCSH page 313. Holmes had to pay 3,000 pounds to buy back the three gemstones from a fence so 1,000 pounds for the return of, what in essence were crown jewels, seems a reasonable fee.
Former university acquaintance Reginald Musgrave speaking to Holmes in "The Musgrave Ritual" about four years after Holmes had moved to London after leaving Oxford/Cambridge.
". . . But I understand, Holmes, that you are turning to practical ends those powers with which you used to amaze us."
"Yes, said I, "I have taken to living by my wits."
TCSH page 388.
Watson to his readers in "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist".
From the years 1894 to 1901 inclusive, Mr. Sherlock Holmes was a very busy man. It is safe to say that there was no public case of any difficulty in which he was not consulted during those eight years, and there were hundreds of private cases, some of them of the most intricate and extraordinary character, in which he played a prominent part. Many startling successes and a few unavoidable failures were the outcome of this long period of continuous work.
TCSH page 526. This seems to indicate that Holmes was averaging maybe five case per month during this period, depending how you define "hundreds".
Holmes speaking to his client in "The Adventure of the Priory School"
". . . and now, your Grace, I'll trouble you for that check."
"I shall be as good as my word, Mr. Holmes. . . I think twelve thousand pounds is the sum that I owe you, is it not?"
TCSH page 555. This seems an extraordinarily large fee, but Holmes did catch a very wealthy man in some very bad behavior (and he did solve the case).
Holmes to his client after viewing an antiquity which clarified one of the multiple mysteries of "The Adventure of the Priory School".
"Thank you," said he, as replaced the glass. "It is the second most interesting object that I have seen in the North."
"And the first?"
Holmes folded up his check and placed it carefully in his notebook. "I am a poor man," said he, as he patted it affectionately, and thrust it into the depths of his inner pocket.
TCSH page 558. That enormous "fee" must have certainly given Holmes a nice financial cushion to live on so he could more readily investigate crimes that interested him rather than worrying about making ends meet, for a while anyway.
Holmes to Sir Henry Baskerville in The Hound of the Baskervilles.
". . . I am not sure that of all the five hundred cases of capital importance which I have handled there is one which cuts so deep."
TCSH page 693. Baring-Gould in SHOBS places the action of this story in 1888 which would be about 1/3 the way into Holmes's twenty-three year (roughly 1880-1903) professional career. So, 500 important cases multiplied by 3 would lead me to guess that Holmes handled, at minimum, well over 1,500 cases throughout his career. I work that out as an average of 5 or 6 cases per month over those 23 years.
Holmes to Watson at the conclusion of "His Last Bow".
". . . Start her up Watson, for it's time that we were on our way. I have a check for five hundred pounds which should be cashed early, for the drawer is quite capable of stopping it if he can."
TCSH page 980.
Holmes to a potential client in "The Problem of Thor Bridge".
"My professional charges are upon a fixed scale," said Holmes coldly. I do not vary them, save when I remit them altogether."
TCSH page 1058. Holmes, I think is being disingenuous here. When dealing with foreign rulers/governments/wealthy clients, I bet Holmes charged what ever the traffic would bear. Imagine what his "fee schedule" might look like:
Return of valuable jewels..........500 pounds (1,000 pounds if they are crown jewels)
Lost/Missing racehorses, rugby players, etc...........200 pounds
Code breaking..........50 pounds
Locked-room mysteries..........300 pounds
Common domestic complications..........30 pounds
Vampire cases..........50 pounds
Dissapearance cases..........100 pounds
Card scandals..........50 pounds
Cases involving fishmongers, landladies, house servants and laundresses..........10 pounds
Exotic snakes, hounds from hell, remarkable worms, red leeches, etc..........100 pounds
Wandering daughter/son/spouse cases..........70 pounds
Cases involving dissolute noblemen or crass businessmen..........12,000 pounds (and up)
I'm not smart enough to hazard a guess as to what Holmes's actual income from crime-solving was but this final quote from "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" gives us a clue about his financial status. This is Watson describing Holmes the tenant:
"His incredible untidiness, his addiction to music at strange hours, his occasional revolver practice within doors, his weird and often malodorous scientific experiments, and the atmosphere of violence and danger which hung around him made him the very worst tenant in London. On the other hand, his payments were princely. I have no doubt that the house might have been purchased at the price which Holmes paid for his rooms during the years that I was with him."
TCSH page 932. And long-suffering Mrs. Hudson deserved every penny.