While A Study in Scarlet and Sign of the Four were successful, they weren’t hugely successful. Holmes ascent to stardom came when Arthur Conan Doyle penned a series of short stories for the Strand Magazine. Twelve stories collected as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, twelve in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. By the end of the run (which wrapped up with Holmes’ death), he’d become a phenomenon. I’m not sure it’s that Holmes works better at this length or just that the added stories reached some kind of critical mass for fan interest, or what. I’ll get to the book as a whole tomorrow, but for the moment my focus is on the first story in the collection, A Scandal in Bohemia.
Watson opens by telling us that since Sign he’s married to Mary Morstan and hasn’t seen Holmes even once. But chance brings him back into Holmes’ orbit and the detective enlists his assistance on his latest case. The King of Bohemia presents himself to both men and tells them he has recently broken off an affair with celebrated opera singer, actor and adventuress Irene Adler (captured here by Allen St. John) so that he can marry someone of his own station. Irene hasn’t taken kindly to being dumped, so she’s threatening to expose the king’s affair by sending the bride a photo of the two of them together. Holmes successfully finds the photo (the story dismisses the idea any of the King’s personal letters to Irene would be evidence, which makes no sense but does simplify the plot), but Irene realizes this and escapes with it. Fortunately she’s just gotten married herself, so she has no interest in creating a scandal: she’ll keep the photo as a safeguard against the king getting nasty, that’s all.
What makes it stand out for Holmesians is, of course, Irene. In the first place, she’s one of the more memorable women in the Holmes Canon, and does indeed defeat him. But more than that, it’s that she has become for many Holmesians Sherlock’s secret love. Watson states emphatically that Holmes has no interest in romance but out of respect for Irene refers to her as “the” woman. Given the total lack of any other romantic interest, fans have repeatedly rejected Watson’s statement — and the lack of any evidence — and in lieu of other candidates, seized on Irene. During the two years he was supposedly dead (to cite one theory), Holmes was carrying on an affair with Ms. Adler. Nero Wolfe was Holmes’ love child. If you ever catch Roger Moore in Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976), which is pretty good, it’s clear that Irene’s kid is his son, though Holmes and Irene pointedly avoid admitting this to each other.
All of which says something about fans, and how we can endless shape a narrative to suit ourselves, creating a fan canon or head canon of what we think the story should or subtextually does say. And part of that is to pair people off, whether het or homosexually. North Carolina specfic author Manly Wade Wellman, for example, had his own theory that Holmes was banging Mrs. Hudson (as Doyle never describes her, Wellman re-imagines her as a hot young widow), dramatized in Wellman’s god-awful Sherlock Holmes’ War of the Worlds.
Another example is that some Holmesians (William S. Baring-Gould in his Annotated Sherlock Holmes, for instance) ignore Watson’s account of how he reunited with Holmes after his marriage. Baring-Gould’s theory is that Watson fudged the dating of Scandal because it took place after his first marriage (BG theorizes three) and he didn’t want to remind Mary there was a woman he loved even more. Again, the facts on the page are changed to suit a theory, though it’s not totally unreasonable. In The Final Problem Watson appears to be completely ignorant about Moriarty, but in the retcon story The Valley of Fear we learn he was fully aware of him earlier; obviously in writing The Final Problem he feigned ignorance to get his readers up to speed.
And it’s not like I don’t have some head canon theories of my own regarding Holmes, but nothing worth discussing right now.