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THOUGH SHERLOCK HOLMES himself seems to depreciate humor, the chronicles of Doctor John H. Watson appear to suggest otherwise. Here are citations from the Canon on “Does Holmes have a sense of humor?”

This and the following images from The Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Four Novels and the Fifty-Six Short Stories Complete (2 Volume Set), edited by William S. Baring-Gould, Clarkson N. Potter, 1967.

Watson’s Initial View. When Watson first meets Holmes, recounted in the novel-length A Study in Scarlet, he makes a list of “Sherlock Holmes—his limits.” Chemistry and sensational literature get high marks. Knowledge of general literature, astronomy, and philosophy are rated nil. But the real giveaway is “Knowledge of Politics—Feeble.”

Show me a person unfamiliar with politics and I’ll show you someone utterly devoid of a sense of humor. Especially these days.

A Wilde Touch. Despite Watson’s initial assessment, Holmes occasionally reaches epigrammatic heights worthy of Oscar Wilde: In the short chronicle “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Holmes says, “It is, of course, a trifle, but there is nothing so important as trifles.”

In The Sign of the Four, Holmes rationalizes his lamentable seven-percent coke habit: “I never remember feeling tired at work, though idleness exhausts me completely.”

In “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” Holmes comments, “I have a caseful of cigarettes here which need smoking.”

I am reminded of Wildes’ view that “A cigarette is the perfect type of perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?”

On Pawky Humor. In The Valley of Fear, Holmes says, “You are developing a certain unexpected vein of pawky humour, Watson, against which I must learn to guard myself.”

Merriam-Webster defines “pawky” as chiefly British: artfully shrewd, canny. Pawky dates from around 1640 and derives from an obsolete English dialect pawk: trick.

Holmes expressing a need to guard himself against such pawky humor is sort of like being critical of SNL these days.

Humorous Understatement. On the other hand, Holmes’ deft use of understatement carries with it a sense of humor.

Jabez Wilson, in “The Red-Headed League.” Image by Sidney Paget, for the Strand Magazine, August 1891.

In “The Red-Headed League,” Holmes says modestly, “Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labor, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.”

Now that’s pawky humor. Er… humour.

In The Sign of Four, Holmes comes up with another bit of understated humor when he admonishes Watson’s chronicling: “You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.”

I wonder if he ever heard the one about adder snakes being able to multiple with log tables?

Holmes and Watson meet Dr. Grimesby Roylott. Image by Sidney Paget, for the Strand Magazine, February 1892.

Humor in a Putdown. In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” (the band—Spoiler Alert—turns out to be a “swamp adder, the deadliest snake in India”), Holmes is visited by the evil Dr. Grimesby Roylott of Stoke Moran. Urging Roylott to leave, “Holmes chuckled heartily, ‘your conversation is most interesting,’ said he, ‘When you go out close the door, for there is a decided draft.”

This is Holmes’ version of “Don’t let that door hit your butt on your way out.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

One comment on “HOLMES HUMOR

  1. Skip
    June 10, 2018

    One of my favorites from The Boscombe Valley Mystery: “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”

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