Holmes on Holmes: Sherlock Defines Himself in 10 Quotes

Holmes on Holmes: Sherlock Defines Himself in 10 Quotes

By Allison Singer, Associate Managing Editor

We all think we know Sherlock Holmes—the hat, the pipe, the "Elementary, my dear Watson." But there's more to this crime-solving kingpin than meets the eye. The pages of The Sherlock Holmes Book reveal a character as complicated as his cases, and who better to speak for him than the man himself? Here are ten of Sherlock's greatest quotes, all from Arthur Conan Doyle's series of books and stories, to put the detective into perspective.

1. "My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don't know." –The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, 1892

If you had to choose one quote to sum up Sherlock in a nutshell, this would do the trick. It's a quick, commonplace introduction structure, one anyone might use, followed by an eyebrow-raising job definition that only Sherlock could give. It subtly hints at his ego. Well, subtly for Sherlock; he's rarely one to downplay his talents.

2. "I am brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix." –The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone, 1921

Remove Sherlock's head and place it in a jar, Futurama Richard Nixon style, and you'll have exactly the same Sherlock as the one that walks around on two legs. (Though fans of the BBC's Sherlock might come after you, pitchforks raised, having lost the chance to ogle Cumberbatch's bod.) The man is all brain, all logic and reason. At least, that's what he'd have us think; throughout his illustrious career, though, there have been rare instances cluing us in that Sherlock's not as robotic as he seems. Such as...

3. "If you had killed Watson you would not have got out of this room alive." –The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, 1925

...his bromance with Dr. Watson. For all the teasing and taunting, Sherlock clearly feels true love for his companion. In The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, for instance, when Watson is grazed by an exposed criminal's bullet, Sherlock basically goes into panic mode until he can confirm Watson isn't seriously hurt. When Sherlock lets his guard down and a friend in, his loyalty shows itself in desperate times.

4. "No man lives or has ever lived who has brought the same amount of study and of natural talent to the detection of crime as I have done." –A Study in Scarlet, 1887

Did I mention Sherlock's got a bit of an ego? Let there be no doubt that he's quite proud of himself, thank-you-very-much. This quote comes from A Study in Scarlet, Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes story, and it's there to establish the detective's character as quickly and unquestionably as possible. Sherlock has always fancied himself one of a kind—and he is, which is why we love him. He has no trouble patting himself on the back for both his arduous work ethic ("study") and his innate gifts ("natural talent"). If you're feeling like a genius, Sherlock, go on and brush your shoulders off.

5. "My night was haunted by the thought that somewhere a clue, a strange sentence, a curious observation, had come under my notice and had been too easily dismissed." –The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, 1911

With his enormous ego comes the niggling fear of making or having made a mistake. There are moments when Sherlock can't shake the feeling of having missed something, which goes against the high standard to which he holds himself. Being Sherlock Holmes can be a lot of pressure. The pressure and fear can send him spiraling, as can the lack of having a complex crime to solve. (Did you know Sherlock's a drug addict? It's true: He often takes both morphine and cocaine to replace the rush of sorting through a case.) But his fears are put to bed, so to speak, when he realizes his error—and always just in the nick of time, such as in The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, when a few more minutes' delay would have resulted in a woman being buried alive.

6. "The days of the great cases are past. Man, or at least criminal man, has lost all enterprise and originality." –The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, 1892

Without a complicated crime to hold his interest, Sherlock gets bummed out. He says this particular quote while in one of his notorious bad moods, this time about the surge in trivial cases coming to his practice. (And about how Watson is portraying him in his memoirs, but that's another story.) All he wants is an interesting, important case to come his way so he can flex his genius muscles. The irony that wishing for this kind of case means wishing for horrible things to happen escapes him, but it doesn't escape us.

7. "But I could not rest, Watson, I could not sit quiet in my chair, if I thought that such a man as Professor Moriarty were walking the streets of London unchallenged." –The Final Problem, 1893

Luckily for Sherlock, there is a fascinating criminal out there who's causing interesting, important, and horrible trouble at every turn. Sherlock regards his nemesis, Moriarty, as his true equal, and he has respect for Moriarty's masterful villainy. Notice in this quote from The Final Problem that Sherlock isn't concerned the crimes themselves are being committed—he's shedding no tears for the victims. (Later in the story, he even tells Watson, "My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration at [Moriarty's] skill.") Instead, he's concerned the crimes are being committed too easily. Sherlock sees it as his duty to rise to Moriarty's challenges, and he does so eagerly. When in The Final Problem Sherlock has the chance to take Moriarty down, at a seemingly huge cost, he does so with hardly any hesitation.

8. "I think there are certain crimes which the law cannot touch, and which therefore, to some extent, justify private revenge." –The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, 1904

Sherlock also shows little hesitation when breaking the law, particularly in times when he feels the ends will justify the means. In her foreword for The Sherlock Holmes Book, Leslie S. Kingler writes that Sherlock is "unswerving in his pursuit of justice, without regard for the conventions of law or society." Basically, the only person he trusts to decide what's right is himself. It's a dangerous thought: He's so high on himself and sure of his actions, the law is an annoying little fly he can swat away if need be. It's no wonder he and Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard aren't best buddies.

9. "It is, I admit, mere imagination, but how often is imagination the mother of truth?" –The Valley of Fear, 1915

Inspector Lestrade's lack of imagination is one of the reasons Sherlock continually swats him away. He's by-the-book; Sherlock's all logic and gut. You wouldn't necessarily expect genius-extraordinaire Sherlock Holmes to value imagination, but what's imagination other than letting your mind run free? And with a mind as calculating and masterful as Sherlock's, letting it go where it wants to go all but guarantees he'll land on the truth.

10. "When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." –The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier, 1926

...and landing on the truth is the name of the game. After all, there's nothing Sherlock values more than the truth. Except maybe himself.

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