Coming after two novellas featuring Sherlock Holmes (A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four), “A Scandal in Bohemia,” a short detective story, first appeared in the Strand magazine in July 1891. It recounts the case of the king of Bohemia, who asks the famous consulting detective for help in retrieving a photograph that could doom his impending marriage to the daughter of the king of Scandinavia. He has been involved in an affair with Irene Adler, an American-born actress, famous beauty, and “wellknown adventuress,” and has unwisely left her in possession of irrefutable proof of their relationship: a photograph of the two of them together. She threatens to make the picture public should he announce his engagement. Since she will not give up the photograph, the king has tried to steal it, but all his attempts to recover it have failed.
Holmes pursues the case by disguising himself as an unemployed groom. He gains information about Adler’s household and unintentionally becomes a witness to her secret marriage to a lawyer. In the guise of a clergyman he returns to her house and, with Dr. Watson’s help, tricks her into revealing the whereabouts of the photograph. They plan to return the next day with the king to seize it, but Adler outwits them: She has guessed the identity of the “clergyman” and follows them back to Baker Street disguised as a young man. Having confirmed her suspicions that the formidable Holmes has discovered her secret, she flees with her husband. When the detective and his party arrive the next morning, they find only a letter to Holmes and another photograph: a portrait of Adler. Now that she is married to another man, she no longer wants revenge against the king for abandoning her—though she keeps the incriminating photograph to protect herself against “any steps which he might take in the future.” Despite being bested by a woman, Holmes’s mission has been accomplished: The king’s secret will remain safe, and the political turmoil its revelation would have caused has been avoided.
“Scandal” is notable not only because it is one of the few stories in which Holmes is outwitted but also because to him Adler becomes “the woman.” Watson explains that Holmes did not feel “any emotion akin to love” for her since such a feeling would have been “abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.” However, Holmes himself describes her as “the daintiest thing under a bonnet on this planet” and as having “a face that a man might die for.” Scholars have speculated on whether Holmes’s admiration is purely for Adler’s intellect or whether he is sexually attracted to her. Either way, the story does not fundamentally undermine the stereotypes of its day that defined women as intellectually inferior to men, despite Watson’s comment at the end of the story that Holmes “used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late.” Adler has, as the king tells Holmes, “the face of the most beautiful of women,” but she also has “the mind of the most resolute of men.” Given that she also disguises herself as a man to follow Holmes and Watson, the story suggests that her intellect is more a male trait incongruously found in a woman rather than evidence of female intelligence. Further, since Adler is an actress and adventuress (in other words, morally suspect), her combination of female beauty and male intellect becomes tinged with immorality: It is not what is expected of a respectable woman. By the story’s end, though, she is married to a lawyer and has left the country, doubly ensuring that she will not pose a threat to the status quo.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s success with the 60 Holmes stories he wrote between 1887 and 1927 made the detective genre very popular at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. However, he was not the first to create a detective in the classic tradition. “Scandal” shows many similarities to American Edgar Allan Poe’s detective story “The Purloined Letter” (1845), in which a member of the French royal family wants to avoid scandal by retrieving an incriminating letter. In both stories the detectives use ratiocination (a system of deduction) as the basis for their crime solving and show an almost uncanny ability to interpret evidence. As Holmes does in many other stories, early in “Scandal” he demonstrates this skill to Watson before taking on the case at the center of the story: On first seeing Watson he recounts to him some of the circumstances of his home life, startling the doctor with his eerily accurate account.
As a classic detective, Holmes is preoccupied with restoring a social harmony disturbed by crime. On occasion, though, his investigations put him on the wrong side of the law: In “Scandal” he deceives Adler into letting him into her house, engages Watson’s help in throwing a smoke bomb through her window, and would steal her photograph given the opportunity. However, such lawbreaking is portrayed as legitimate because, as Holmes says, “the cause is excellent!” He does not merely enforce legal codes by catching criminals. Instead, he is often called on to fulfill functions the police are unable to, operating outside the law to enforce a higher moral standard or—as in “A Scandal in Bohemia”—to avert political disaster. Although the king of Bohemia is at fault for abandoning Adler, this wrongdoing is overshadowed by the story’s insistence on the need to save his upcoming marriage: It is a matter that, as the king puts it, is “of such weight it may have an influence on European history.”
The Bohemian king, however, does not escape from the story unscathed: He is described as being dressed “with a richness which would, in England, be looked upon as akin to bad taste” and, with his heavy coat and fur boots, gives “the impression of barbaric opulence which was suggested by his whole appearance.” When he laments that the clever Irene Adler is not “on [his] level” and so could never have been his wife, Holmes responds, “From what I have seen of the lady she seems indeed to be on a very different level to your Majesty.” In the world of the story, royalty—especially foreign royalty—does not occupy the top rungs of a hierarchy where intellect is what counts.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. New York: Norton, 2005.
Krumm, Pascale. “ ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ and Sherlock Holmes’s Ultimate Mystery Solved,” English Literature in Transition 39, no. 2 (1996): 193–203.
Roth, Marty. Foul and Fair Play: Reading Genre in Classic Detective Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.