A Study in “Sherlock”

A Study In Sherlock

E1/S1: A Study in Pink
E2/S1: The Blind Banker

I’m a little late to the game in my enthusiasm for “Sherlock”, the BBC series transplanting the famous detective and his friend John Watson to contemporary London. Most of you have watched it longer, seen more of it, and maybe even enjoyed it more than I have! I certainly can’t pretend to introduce it to you. But I may able to deepen your appreciation of it.

It just so happens that I spent a lot of last summer working through the Complete Sherlock Holmes. It’s still fresh enough in my mind that, as I watched “A Study in Pink”, the first episode of the reboot, I recognized all sorts of wonderful details, names, places, and dialogue lifted word-for-word from Arthur Conan Doyle’s originals.

I thought that, since some of you may not be as familiar with the stories, it might be fun to share with you some of the parallels I found. The full list would be unreadably long — there are that many! — but you’ll get a sense of things from the scenes in which Sherlock “reads” Watson. They’re especially close, and lots of fun in themselves.

Here we go 🙂 Old is bold; new’s askew.

[Note: I’ll be quoting from the first episode of the reboot, “A Study in Pink”, as well as from the beginnings of the first two Holmes novels, “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Sign of Four”. If you can’t stand reading bits of things you haven’t seen or read, turn back now!]

The “high-functioning sociopath” and his sidekick, the everyman.

In both the novel “A Study in Scarlet” and the episode “A Study in Pink“, Watson is introduced to Holmes by a mutual friend who’s heard they’re both looking for apartment-mates. The friend brings Watson to “the chemical laboratory up at the hospital”/ditto, where Holmes is hard at work. Here is their first exchange:

Conan Doyle:
“How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”
“How on earth did you know that?” I asked in astonishment.
“Never mind,” said he, chuckling to himself.

Sherlock: Afghanistan or Iraq?
John: Sorry?
Sherlock: Which was it, Afghanistan or Iraq?
John: (after a long pause) Afghanistan. Sorry, how did you know—
Sherlock: (cutting him off) Ah, Molly, coffee, thank you.

The next time we meet our heroes, in chapter 2, “The Science of Deduction”/the next day, Watson’s had a chance to read some of Holmes’ writing. It’s a newspaper article called “The Book of Life”/his website called “The Science of Deduction” (sound familiar?), and Watson is skeptical of the powers Holmes claims he has. Watson challenges Holmes, who reminds Watson of his remarkable guess about Afghanistan:

Conan Doyle:
“You appeared to be surprised when I told you, on our first meeting, that you had come from Afghanistan.”
“You were told, no doubt.”
“Nothing of the sort. I knew you came from Afghanistan. From long habit the train of thoughts ran so swiftly through my mind, that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran, ‘Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.’ The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished.”

Sherlock: When I met you for the first time yesterday, I said “Afghanistan or Iraq?” You looked surprised.
John: Yes. How did you know?
Sherlock: I didn’t know, I saw. Your haircut, the way you hold yourself, says military. The conversation as you entered the room — said trained at Bart’s, so army doctor. Obvious. Your face is tanned, but no tan above the wrists — you’ve been abroad but not sunbathing. The limp’s really bad when you walk, but you don’t ask for a chair when you stand, like you’ve forgotten about it, so it’s at least partly psychosomatic. That suggests the original circumstances of the injury were probably traumatic — wounded in action, then. Wounded in action, suntan — Afghanistan or Iraq.

The science of deduction, at work! As it happens, the second Sherlock Holmes novel, “The Sign of Four”, opens with a chapter also called “The Science of Deduction”, and Moffat draws heavily on this as well.

This chapter is where Watson sees Holmes shooting up cocaine/wearing three nicotine patches, which Holmes claims is “transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind”/“helps [him] think”. In the original, Watson decides to put this claim to the test, and hands Holmes a pocket-watch, saying, “Now, I have here a watch which has recently come into my possession. Would you have the kindness to let me have an opinion upon the character or habits of the late owner?” In Moffat’s adaptation, Sherlock borrows John’s cellphone when they first meet in the lab.

Holmes examines the watch/phone and eventually declares,

Conan Doyle:
I should judge that the watch belonged to your elder brother, who inherited it from your father. […] He was a man of untidy habits — very untidy and careless. He was left with good prospects, but he threw away his chances, lived for some time in poverty with occasional short intervals of prosperity, and finally, taking to drink, he died. That is all I can gather.”

Sherlock: I know you’ve got a brother who’s worried about you but you won’t go to him for help ’cause you don’t approve of him, possibly because he’s an alcoholic…more likely because he recently walked out on his wife […]

And here’s how Holmes explains his deductions in each version. I’m going to switch it up here and start with the Moffat conversation, showing the sources of each line. (Whee! It gets really fun here.)

Sherlock: Your phone — it’s expensive, email enabled, MP3 player. But you’re looking for a flat-share, you wouldn’t waste money on this. It’s a gift, then. Scratches — not one, many over time. It’s been in the same pocket as keys and coins. The man sitting next to me wouldn’t treat his one luxury item like this, so it’s had a previous owner.

Conan Doyle:
“I began by stating that your brother was careless. When you observe the lower part of that watch-case you notice that it is not only dinted in two places but it is cut and marked all over from the habit of keeping other hard objects, such as coins or keys, in the same pocket. Surely it is no great feat to assume that a man who treats a fifty-guinea watch so cavalierly must be a careless man. Neither is it a very far-fetched inference that a man who inherits one article of such value is pretty well provided for in other respects.”

Sherlock: The next bit’s easy, you know it already. (video cuts to a close-up of the back of the phone, which has been engraved “Harry Watson — from Clara xxx”.)
John: The engraving?
Sherlock: Harry Watson — clearly a family member who’s given you his old phone. Not your father — this is a young man’s gadget. Could be a cousin, but you’re a war hero who can’t find a place to live. Unlikely you’ve got an extended family, certainly not one you’re close to, so brother it is.

Conan Doyle:
“I should judge that the watch belonged to your elder brother, who inherited it from your father.”
“That you gather, no doubt, from the H. W. upon the back?”
“Quite so. The W. suggests your own name. The date of the watch is nearly fifty years back, and the initials are as old as the watch: so it was made for the last generation. Jewellery usually descends to the eldest son, and he is most likely to have the same name as the father. Your father has, if I remember right, been dead many years. It has, therefore, been in the hands of your eldest brother.”

Sherlock: Now, Clara — who’s Clara? Three kisses says romantic attachment. Expensive phone says wife, not girlfriend. Must’ve given it to him recently — this model’s only six months old. Marriage in trouble, then — six months on, and already he’s giving it away? If she’d left him, he would’ve kept it. People do, sentiment. But no, he wanted rid of it — he left her. He gave the phone to you, that says he wants you to stay in touch. You’re looking for cheap accommodation and you’re not going to your brother for help? That says you’ve got problems with him. Maybe you liked his wife, maybe you don’t like his drinking.

Conan Doyle:
“He was a man of untidy habits — very untidy and careless. He was left with good prospects, but he threw away his chances, lived for some time in poverty with occasional short intervals of prosperity, and finally, taking to drink, he died. That is all I can gather.” […]

Here Watson freaks out a bit; in the original, he leaps out of his chair and accuses Holmes of doing research on him. In the adaptation, he just exclaims, “How could you possibly know about the drinking?”

The detail Sherlock offers as explanation is, I think, my favourite parallel in the whole episode:

Sherlock: Power connection — tiny little scuff marks around the edge. Every night he goes to plug it in and charge but his hands are shaky. You never see those marks on a sober man’s phone, never see a drunk’s without them.

Conan Doyle:
“I ask you to look at the inner plate, which contains the keyhole. Look at the thousands of scratches all round the hole — marks where the key has slipped. What sober man’s key could have scored those grooves? But you will never see a drunkard’s watch without them. He winds it at night, and he leaves these traces of his unsteady hand.”

I almost jumped out of my chair. What a brilliant substitution — phone charger for pocket-watch key. I’m blown away.

And, delightfully, the whole episode’s like that. Believe me when I say that from the very beginning of the show —

Conan Doyle:
(Stamford, the mutual friend:) “[Holmes] appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge.”
(Watson:) “Very right too.”
“Yes, but it may be pushed to excess. When it comes to beating the subjects in the dissecting-rooms with a stick, it is certainly taking rather a bizarre shape.”
“Beating the subjects!”
“Yes, to verify how far bruises may be produced after death. I saw him at it with my own eyes.”


— to smack in the middle —

Conan Doyle:
(Holmes:) “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. “I am the last and highest court of appeal in detection. When Gregson, or Lestrade, or Athelney Jones are out of their depths — which, by the way, is their normal state — the matter is laid before me.”

Sherlock: I’m a consulting detective. The only one in the world. I invented the job.
John: What does that mean?
Sherlock: It means whenever the police are out of their depth — which is always — they consult me.

— to the very end —

Conan Doyle:
Watson: “But it was not mere guesswork?”
Holmes: “No, no: I never guess. It is a shocking habit — destructive to the logical faculty.”

John: Lucky guess.
Sherlock: I never guess.

— it’s just packed with lines, scenes, and situations from the books.

It’s a wonderful feat on Moffat’s part to have created an adaptation both so believably contemporary and so faithful to the original text. Check the stories out if you love the show, or watch the show if you enjoy the stories; each will enrich your pleasure in the other.

Want more? Here’s the next episode — The Blind Banker.

(Script of “Sherlock” adapted from the transcriptions at Wikiquote. The original novels can be found at Project Gutenberg.)


24 thoughts on “A Study in “Sherlock”

    1. ardenrb Post author

      Thank you very much 🙂 I haven’t watched any episodes beyond this first one yet, but if the others are as rich as this, I definitely will!

  1. Catherine smith

    Thoroughly enjoyed this. I’m a secondary school teacher studying Conan-Doyle in English and this is exactly what I have been trying to get across to the pupils. The modern adaptation is packed full of cleverly converted but true to the original details. It’s genius. I’m sure Conan-Doyle himself would approve. Thank you.

    1. ardenrb Post author

      You’re so welcome! Since my parents both teach high school, and high school wasn’t that long ago for me, either, I appreciate how hard it can be to get this sort of thing to click for secondary students. I’d be so glad if this helped somehow 🙂

  2. Flávia

    I was already a super fan of the show, but was only after I read this post that I got the real perspective about how accurate this entire project has been… my admiration for this series is endless!

    Thanks for the sharing!


    1. ardenrb Post author

      You’re very welcome! I know what you mean — I was more and more impressed as I turned up more and more of these.

      What’s the #believeinsherlock tag about?

    1. ardenrb Post author

      That’s very gracious 🙂 thank you. You know, I expected myself that someone else would have done this already — I just wanted to write something for my own friends who were fans. I’m happy this could serve a wider audience!

  3. Hearten Soul

    I read A Study in Scarlet yesterday for the first time, and greatly enjoyed a lot of the updating including several you mention here. I also enjoyed things like Holmes identifying the type of cigar the man smoked from the ash – while Sherlock has obviously done the research I don’t recall him actually demonstrating the usefulness yet.

    There was plenty in the novel which doesn’t get used, including a long unexpected section among Mormons around Salt Lake City. Can’t say I am particularly surprised they chose to omit that section.

    Hope you will write more of these. I’m planning to keep reading the original novels too. My blogging so far has run to the similarities between A Scandal in Belgravia and the 2006 Casino Royale instead. More than a coincidence perhaps?

    Cheers 🙂

    1. ardenrb Post author

      Ooh, I’ll be interested to read your piece on Belgravia/Casino Royale once I’ve watched the “Scandal” episode. I was also reminded of “Casino Royale” while I was watching “A Study in Pink” because of how prominently cellphones figure in both reboots.

      I’m not terribly surprised they left out the bit about the Mormons either! It’s interesting to see how mysterious the USA seemed back then. There’s another Holmes short story that hinges on nobody knowing what the KKK is!

      I’m glad you’re reading the originals! They’re so much fun in themselves, and I’m sure they’re extra fun coming back from the reboot to them and recognizing all sorts of neat details.

      1. Hearten Soul

        Definitely avoid my blog post until you’ve watched A Scandal in Belgravia. I thought of that just too late having posted here – absolutely don’t want to spoil anything and the blog would spoil. So steer clear! You’ve got some treats coming in series 2 🙂

  4. Anastasia

    Great post! I considered doing something like this myself, but clearly you’ve beaten me to it 🙂 That’s the wonder of this TV series, how cleverly the writers stay true to the canon and yet twist it and adapt it to what they’re doing.

    ^^and totally agree with you in the above comment about the USA. It actually struck me as quite interesting that in so many Doyle stories, there’s a character fleeing his/her past in the US, and of course there’s some American crook involved. t’s like the USA is a criminal factor. A Study in Scarlet is a good example. And have you read that quote where Sherlock suggests that one day he hopes the US and UK will be one nation once again? So interesting to look back on that.

    1. ardenrb Post author

      You know, I just stumbled across that tonight —
      “…I am one of those who believe that the folly of a monarch and the blundering of a minister in far-gone years will not prevent our children from being some day citizens of the same world-wide country under a flag which shall be a quartering of the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes.”

      How curious…

      Thank you so much for you comments, by the way — I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get to them 🙂

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  6. Sheila

    I loved this! When I first watched A Study in Pink, it had been a while since I had read the stories, so I only picked up on a few of these.
    Really interesting and enjoyable article. Well done.

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