The archetypical fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes, who made his debut in the late Victorian age, is showing new life in the 21st century as the hero of a series of films and TV shows on both sides of the Atlantic. These latest incarnations of Holmes are different from each other and from the original character created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Similarly, atheists and agnostics tend to see the faith life of the great detective much differently than do people of faith.
Was the celebrated solver of mysteries a nonbeliever or a Christian — perhaps even Roman Catholic, a heritage of his French ancestors? The question has been speculation fodder for decades.
Holmes twice undertook assignments for Pope Leo XIII: “the little affair of the Vatican cameos” and “the sudden death of Cardinal Tosca.” These aren’t actual stories (at least not by Conan Doyle), but cases mentioned in passing by Holmes or his narrator, Dr. Watson.
In the 60 stories — affectionately called “the Canon” by devotees — Pope Leo is the only client mentioned who engaged Holmes more than once. Members of the Vatican Cameos, a group of Catholic Sherlockians, drink a toast to His Holiness at their meetings. It is hard to imagine that Holmes would express his “anxiety to oblige the Pope” in the cameos affair if he were anti-Catholic. But that is hardly an indication that he was of the faith, and the evidence is to the contrary.
At the end of The Resident Patient, Holmes tells the good Watson: “My biblical knowledge is a trifle rusty, I fear, but you will find the story in the First or Second of Samuel.” However rusty his acquaintance with holy writ may have been, no Catholic of his day would have referred to “the First or Second of Samuel.” That’s what those books are called in the King James Version and its spinoffs.
But in the Douay-Rheims and Confraternity translations used by English-speaking Catholics until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), those books were referred to as the Third and Fourth Book of Kings. The St. Joseph Edition that I own with a 1963 copyright confirms this — it has four books of Kings and no Samuel. (The one-man translation of the Bible by Msgr. Ronald Knox, an early Sherlockian, was ahead of its time. It adopted the names First and Second Samuel, as Catholic Bibles do today. But the Knox Bible wasn’t published until 1950.)
So, regrettably, we must set aside the hope that Sherlock Holmes, so often an agent of both mercy and justice as needed, was Catholic. That he was a man of faith, however — a believer in the Judeo-Christian God — cannot be seriously challenged without ignoring what we might call the other “Sacred Writings,” the Holmes Canon.
Scholars have noted that Holmes is never recorded attending a church service except for Irene Adler’s wedding in the first Holmes short story, A Scandal in Bohemia. His going down to chapel in his college years, as mentioned in The Gloria Scott, would have been mandatory.
Nevertheless, we must agree with D. Martin Dakin (A Sherlock Holmes Commentary) that “Holmes, if he did not belong to any official church, was a genuinely religious man.” For Dr. Watson makes no mystery of this. Despite his admiration for the unorthodox works of Winwood Reade in The Sign of Four, Holmes alludes to God at least half a dozen times throughout the canon — attributing his survival at the Reichenbach Falls to “the blessing of God” and referring to the Great War, or World War I (1914-1918), as “God’s own wind none the less,” for example.
In The Naval Treaty, we find him in a particularly philosophical and theological mood in the famous scene where he pauses to pick up a rose and muse about its meaning.
“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” he says. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”
Note that Holmes doesn’t believe in the blind watchmaker of the Deists — a God who set the world in motion and then stepped out of the picture. He believes in Providence, a God who gives us roses. He also believes in a God who judges, for he tells John Turner in The Bascombe Valley Mystery: “It is not for me to judge you. You will soon answer for your deed at a higher court than the Assizes.”
Holmes’ belief in a just but benevolent Providence is why he is so pained at the end of The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, when he cries out:
“What is the meaning of it, Watson? What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end? There is the great standing perennial problem to which human reason is as far from an answer as ever.”
That is not the cry of a nonbeliever, who can have no expectation of a rational or kind universe. It is the cri de coeur of a believer faced with the problem of suffering. We are all in that position at times, asking God the same puzzling question that philosophers and theologians have been tackling for centuries: How can a loving God allow so much sadness and suffering in the world? Holmes only asks the question; he doesn’t offer his own solution.
In a similar mood, he complains in The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger: “The ways of fate are indeed hard to understand. If there is not some compensation hereafter, then the world is a cruel jest.” Here again we see that Holmes believed in the afterlife, that place of justice and mercy. Of course, he did.
Why else would he have described life as “a series of lessons with the greatest as the last” in The Adventure of the Red Circle?
Holmes also uses that word “lessons” in a marvelous bit of dialogue with the horribly disfigured title character of The Veiled Lodger. It begins when he warns Eugenia Ronder against suicide, saying: “Your life is not your own. Keep your hands off it.” She wonders what use that life is to anyone.
“How can you tell?” Holmes responds. “The example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons to an impatient world.” Isn’t that, in essence, the Catholic solution to the problem of suffering — a belief that suffering born in the right spirit can have a positive, even redemptive, value?
Sherlock Homes almost certainly was not a Catholic. But I believe that he would have made a good one.
Dan Andriacco writes
from Cincinnati, Ohio.