The Game is Afoot: Animals in Sherlock Holmes


‘[Man is] a soul concealed in an animal’.

 Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four (1890).



One morning, only a few months before his death, Arthur Conan Doyle sketched a cartoon depicting a beaten-down nag pulling a heavy, laden wagon along a winding road. He entitled it ‘The Old Horse’. Starting with his birth in Edinburgh in 1859, Doyle depicted the road behind the horse marked with milestones from his life. In turn, the cart is loaded with the diverse interests, events and projects that defined his career, including ‘Arctic’, ‘Boxing’ ‘Medical Practice’, ‘Historical Novels’, ‘Psychic Research’ and, of course, ‘Sherlock Holmes’. In one corner, three ‘vets’ – named for Doyle’s then-physicians – consult about the horse’s condition. They conclude that the nag has ‘pulled a heavy load a long way’, though he should be back on the road with ‘six weeks’ stable and six months’ grass’. (For an annotated key to the cartoon, see



The fact that Arthur Conan Doyle chose to portray himself as an aged, overburdened workhorse says much about, not only his mind-set at the time, but also his lifelong affinity to animals. Throughout his writings, this passion was expressed in numerous ways – one of the most important of which was the frequent appearance of animals in the fifty-six stories and four novellas featuring Sherlock Holmes. Throughout the ‘Canon’, a menagerie of domestic and exotic creatures are portrayed, both in actual and in figurative terms. One of Sherlock Holmes’ most famous exclamations in the Canon is ‘the game is afoot’; but, whatever his human quarry, a variety of animal game is also found to be afoot in his adventures.


Most famously, The Hound of the Baskervilles has an alleged demon dog at its heart, though many of Holmes’ best-known cases are also centred on an animal culprit. A snake is the murder weapon in ‘The Speckled Band’ and a rare jellyfish is responsible for a death in ‘The Lion’s Mane’, while a festive goose is the plot device at the heart of ‘The Blue Carbuncle’. Similar cases are also hinted at in the stories, but left un-narrated, including those of ‘the politician, the lighthouse and the trained cormorant’, ‘the repulsive story of the red leech’, ‘the Giant Rat of Sumatra’, and ‘Wilson, the canary-trainer’. While checking through his index of cases, Holmes also finds an entry for ‘Vipers’, followed by another to ‘Venomous lizard or gila’, which he refers to as a ‘[r]emarkable case’, yet tells us no more.


Indeed, Holmes’ very first case, ‘The Gloria Scott’, emerges from an animal misadventure, after Vincent Trevor’s bull terrier ‘freezes to [Holmes’] ankle’ on the way to chapel and they subsequently become college friends. In another case, Watson refers to Isadora Persano, a journalist and duellist, ‘who was found stark staring mad with a matchbox in front of him containing a remarkable worm, said to be unknown to science’. Of course, ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night-time’ mentioned in ‘Silver Blaze’ has gained a cultural resonance of its own. Perhaps naturally for detective fiction, references to hunting abound throughout the Canon, with Holmes being most commonly compared by Watson to either a hawk or a hound.


At the head of Doyle’s own list of favourite Holmes stories was ‘The Speckled Band’. In it, an exotic menagerie is uncovered at the heart of the Home Counties owned by an unscrupulous doctor, who uses a poisonous snake to try to murder his step-daughters. An elaborate set of animal similes populate the story. Dr Grimesby Roylett is described as looking like ‘a fierce old bird of prey’, while his home, Stoke Moran, possesses ‘two curving wings, like the claws of a crab’. In addition, Roylett allows a baboon and a cheetah the run of the grounds. In a sinister perversion of a domesticated pet, a dog leash and a saucer of milk are discovered by Holmes and Watson in his quarters; but these turn out to belong to the deadly swamp adder at the root of the case.


Friends and foes are often accorded animal characteristics. In ‘The Crooked Man’, the intruder’s animal companion is what alerts Holmes to the singularity of the case. This turns out to be Teddy, a mongoose owned by the crippled Henry Wood, which he brought back with him from India. When he relates his travails during the Indian Mutiny and afterwards to Holmes and Watson, Wood refers to himself as now possessing ‘a back like a camel’ and ‘crawling with a stick like a chimpanzee’. In ‘The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton’, the eponymous antagonist is described to Watson by Holmes in serpentine terms: ‘Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation, Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the Zoo and see the slithery, gliding, venomous creatures, with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that’s how Milverton impresses me’.


Since most of the stories are set between 1880 and 1914, Holmes’ world is also, importantly, a horse-drawn one. In ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, he poses as a groom to garner information about Irene Adler and, in ‘The Blue Carbuncle’, deceives a ‘horsy-looking’ market trader into telling him what he wants to know after identifying him as a gambling man through The Sporting Times in his pocket. The disappearance of the racehorse Silver Blaze ahead of the Wessex Cup lies at the heart of the eponymous mystery ‘Silver Blaze’ and its rediscovery at the end provides one of the great moments in the Canon. Similarly, the racehorse Shoscombe Prince plays an important role in the plot of ‘Shoscombe Old Place’, since the fortunes of the household depend upon the horse winning the English Derby.


Unsurprisingly for a canine-lover like Doyle, dogs, too, play a leading role in the stories. In The Sign of the Four, Holmes employs the service of Toby, a half-spaniel, half-lurcher, to trace the culprits of the Sholto murder. In ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, Holmes similarly uses Pompey, ‘a squat, lip-eared, white-and-tan dog, something between a beagle and a foxhound’ to track the brougham used to kidnap the eponymous victim. In ‘Shoscombe Old Place’, it is the behaviour of her ladyship’s spaniel that alerts Holmes to the fact that she is an imposter. Dogs can also provide adversaries. In ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’, Holmes and Watson are threatened by the house guard dog Carlo, ‘a giant dog, as large as a calf, tawny-tinted, with hanging jowl, black muzzle, and huge projecting bones’. An unnamed ‘beast of a dog’ again threatens Holmes and Watson when they break into Charles Augustus Milverton’s house. In ‘The Creeping Man’, Holmes even suggests that he would like to write a monograph on the use of dogs in detection, focussing on how canines reflect their owners: ‘Whoever saw a frisky dog in a gloomy family, or a sad dog in a happy one? Snarling people have snarling dogs, dangerous people have dangerous ones. And their passing moods may reflect the passing moods of others’.


In ‘The Five Orange Pips’, Holmes outlines his approach to detection using a biological comparison: ‘As Cuvier [a French zoologist] could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents, should be able accurately to state all the other ones, both before and after’. Produced only a few decades after Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), Doyle’s use of animals in the Sherlock Holmes stories often emphasises the fraught relationship between the animal kingdom and the human realm. Significantly, it is often more unusual wildlife depicted that threatens domestic peace and propriety most in the Canon. Often originating at the outer margins of the imperial frontier, a diverse array of tropical wildlife, from a lion and a cheetah to a snake and a jellyfish, are portrayed. Yet, it is when this fauna appears to take human form that it appears most alarming and dangerous. For instance, in The Sign of the Four (1890), Holmes faces an Andaman-Islander pygmy named Tonga, who is portrayed as more savage than man. While, in ‘The Creeping Man’, an elderly professor starts to engage in simian behaviour after taking a rejuvenating drug.


In ‘The Five Orange Pips’, a storm wracks London and Watson relates how ‘we were forced to raise our minds for the instant from the routine of life, and to recognise the presence of those great elemental forces which shriek at mankind through the bars of his civilisation, like untamed beasts in a cage’. As a man of science – albeit one increasingly open over his career to supernatural possibilities – Doyle chose to portray the boundary between civilisation and savagery, the familiar and the foreign. This was often expressed though his depiction of the animal kingdom in the Canon. The stories therefore regularly feature anxiety at the troubling irruption of the exotic into the domestic space, as well as concern at humans’ increasing perversion of the natural order. Perhaps part of a wider anxiety about Britain’s distant imperial territories threatening the metropole with foreign contagions, the creatures that Holmes meet often present disquieting emissaries from a hostile world beyond.


From Sherlock Holmes’ first outing, animals figure prominently. On the opening page of A Study in Scarlet (1887), one learns that John Watson’s life was saved from ‘murderous Ghazis’ at the Battle of Maiwand in Afghanistan by Murray his orderly, who threw him over a pack horse to escape – suggesting that one would not have the stories at all without this animal intervention. Upon his first meeting with Holmes in the laboratory at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Watson explains that he owns a ‘bull-pup’ during their discussion about taking digs together. But, akin to other inconsistencies in the Canon, this phantom canine is never mentioned again.


When Watson accompanies Holmes to the scene of the murder at Lauriston Gardens in A Study in Scarlet, one encounters the first major set of animal similes in the Canon. Upon arrival, Holmes complains that the confusion of footprints he encounters at the crime scene is like ‘a herd of buffaloes had passed along there’, while the dead man is described as having ‘a singularly simious and ape-like appearance’. A common description of their Scotland-Yard confederate, Inspector Lestrade, also makes its first appearance, when he is described as being ‘lean and ferret-like’.


However, it is with Watson’s description of his friend in the throes of detection that one finds the first important animal metaphor in the Canon: ‘As I watched him, I was irresistibly reminded of a pure-blooded, well-trained foxhound, as it dashes backwards and forwards through the covert, whining in its eagerness, until it comes across the lost scent’. This is only the first of many times that Holmes is accorded the qualities of a hawk or a hound. Having completed his examination of the scene, Holmes the ‘amateur bloodhound’ concludes that the horse that brought the victim to the house had three old shoes and one new one: his initial piece of animal-based deduction.


Later, in the course of his investigation, Holmes euthanises Mrs Hudson’s sick terrier to prove that poison pills had been used to kill the dead man – the first instance of the detective’s sometimes-fatal interaction with pets. Then, when the alleged murderer, Jefferson Hope, is eventually captured, Gregson, Lestrade and Holmes ‘spr[i]ng upon him like so many stag-hounds’ in another animal parallel often to be repeated at the dénouement of stories. So, within the span of Holmes’ first outing, the reader comes across a wealth of references that indicate, from the outset, just how important animals will be to the Canon.


In their second case, The Sign of the Four (1890), Holmes and Watson are brought face to face with an exotic menace from the outer reaches of the British Empire. Again, the sleuth is described as possessing the ‘clear-cut, hawk-like features’, which inspired the illustrator Sidney Paget the next year to create his classic portrayal of Holmes for The Strand Magazine. Meeting the peculiar Thaddeus Sholto in his oriental oasis in London’s suburbs, the Indian décor of his home includes two tiger-skins and a dove-shaped lamp, while their new companion also wears a curious rabbit-skin hat when he ventures out with them. Amusement also comes in the form of an animal anecdote, when Watson is so flustered with the attractive Miss Morstan that ‘[t]o this day she declares that I told her one moving anecdote as to how a musket looked into my tent at the dead of night, and how I fired a double-barrelled tiger cub at it’.


But it is the accomplice they detect at the Sholto mansion that ‘lifts the case from the regions of the commonplace’. While Watson worries that it might be a child, Holmes is convinced from the start that it is a far more ‘curious’ individual with ‘savage instincts’. The footprints that their culprit has left behind show their toes to be separated from each other, which suggests a subject more simian than human. Likewise, a primitive woven pouch and a poisoned dart speak of the exotic nature of their quarry. When Holmes tracks his two suspects to the Thames, the riverman’s wife describes the older man as ‘a brown monkey-faced chap’, which suggests that the two seem to share a simian sensibility. When Holmes later looks up the Andaman Islands in his gazetteer, he is provided with a racist description of its indigenous peoples: finding its ‘aborigines’ described as ‘a fierce, morose and intractable people’, who are ‘naturally hideous’ with ‘large, misshapen heads, small fierce eyes, and distorted features’.


Having trod in creosote, however, the strange accomplice provides a trail that Holmes can follow, which leads Watson to visit the first genuine menagerie of the Canon. Owned by Sherman, a bird stuffer, the run-down shop at Pinchin Lane in Lambeth is recognised by Watson from a stuffed weasel holding a rabbit in the window. Claiming to own forty-three dogs, Sherman also plays host in his premises to an array of wildlife, including a badger, a stoat and a slow-worm. But there are far more creatures than even Watson can discern: ‘In the uncertain, shadowy light I could see dimly that there were glancing, glimmering eyes peeping down at us from every cranny and corner. Even the rafters above our heads were lined by solemn fowl, who lazily shifted their weight from leg to the other as our voices disturbed their slumber’. When they eventually reach the ‘queer mongrel’ that is the subject of Watson’s search, he discovers that Toby is ‘an ugly, long-haired, lop-eared creature, half spaniel and half lurcher, brown and white in colour, with a very clumsy, waddling gait’. Yet, when Holmes sets him on the scent, ‘the creature st[ands] with its fluffy legs separated and with a most comical cock to its head, like a connoisseur sniffing the bouquet of a famous vintage’. Thereafter, he ‘never hesitate[s] or swerve[s] but waddle[s] on in his peculiar rolling fashion’, until he follows the trail to the river, where it disappears.


When Holmes and Watson finally corner their adversaries during a river chase on the Thames, they spot ‘a dark mass’ beside Jonathan Small, ‘which looked like a Newfoundland dog’ – yet another example of his accomplice’s dehumanisation in the tale. With the excitement of the chase, Watson deploys a hunting metaphor, exclaiming that he has ‘coursed many creatures in many countries during my chequered career, but never did sport give me such a wild thrill as this mad, flying man-hunt down the Thames’. The ‘huddled bundle’ turns out to be ‘a little black man’: Tonga, Small’s Andaman-Islander companion, whom Watson calls a ‘savage, distorted creature’. Again, his humanity is twisted when he suggests that he was wearing ‘some sort of dark ulster’, though this is clearly a native garment domesticated in its description. Referring to him as an ‘unhallowed dwarf’, Watson describes Tonga in almost infernal terms: ‘Never have I seen features so deeply marked with all bestiality and cruelty. His small eyes glowed and burned with a sombre light, and his thick lips were writhed back from his teeth, which grinned and chattered at us with half animal fury’. With his demise in the dark waters of the Thames, Watson gains one last glimpse of his ‘venomous, menacing eyes amid the white swirl of the waters’ before he is swept beneath forever. Yet, even his own master, Small, calls Tonga a ‘little hell-hound’ and a ‘little devil’, which feeds into the suggestion that he was less a human than a primitive creature. Aptly, the fate of this ‘strange visitor to our shores’ is to be left buried in the ‘dark ooze’ of the Thames, with its echoes of the primordial soup from which life on earth originally arose.


Undoubtedly, the most famous animal in the Canon is the spectral canine at the heart of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). However, for most of the story, it is not clear whether there is any real animal at the heart of the mystery. As a result, the eponymous hell-hound of the narrative appears to be both present and absent for much of the novella. Indeed, this fits with Doyle’s wider portrayal of Nature in the Canon as an often threatening, yet evasive force in human affairs. But it is also the eerie, mysterious landscape of Dartmoor that represents another character in the tale, since it expresses so much of the sinister tone of the story.


The tale opens with Holmes investigating a very different type of canine, however, in the form of Dr James Mortimer’s curly-headed spaniel, whose existence he deduces from the walking stick the physician has left behind in Baker Street. Unfortunately, like Mrs Hudson’s terrier in A Study in Scarlet, this dog later meets a fatal end, when it is found to have been eaten by the titular hound. As the story develops, Holmes and Watson travel to Dartmoor with Dr Mortimer and Henry Baskerville in their attempt to separate fact from fiction in the legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles.


Like Tonga in The Sign of the Four, Selden, the escaped murderer on the moors, is portrayed with animal characteristics to suggest that his savagery belongs on the fringes of humanity. He is portrayed ‘hiding in a burrow like a wild beast’ on the open moor, where he has nothing to eat unless he slaughters a sheep. One night, Watson spots his ‘short, squat, strongly-built figure’:

‘Over the rocks, in the crevice of which the candle burned, there was thrust out an evil yellow face, a terrible animal face, all seamed and scored with vile passions. Foul with mire, with a bristling beard, and hung with matted hair, it might well have belonged to one of those old savages who dwelt in the burrows on the hillsides. The light beneath him was reflected in his small, cunning eyes, which peered fiercely to right and left through the darkness, like a crafty and savage animal who has heard the steps of the hunters’.


When Selden is killed in a fall, Watson easily recognises his body, since ‘[t]here could be no doubt about the beetling forehead [and] the sunken animal eyes’. But he and Holmes refuse to leave his body ‘to the foxes and the ravens’, since ‘to all the world he was the man of violence, half animal and half demon […]’, but not to his family. Driven to the edge of society, however, Selden is shown to have assumed the savage instincts of prehistoric man who once dwelled on the same moor.

Stapleton, Holmes’ ultimate quarry in the story, is a naturalist, who admits ‘strong tastes for botany and zoology’. His main interest, however, is in collecting butterflies and moths, and Watson learns that he possesses the most complete lepidoptera in the southwest. When Watson portrays him chasing after the Cyclopides moth on the moor, he suggests that he looks like ‘some huge moth himself’. Indeed, it is Stapleton’s boasts about his lepidoptery collection that eventually leads Holmes to identify Stapleton’s ancestry as an illegitimate Baskerville following a visit to the British Museum. When he realises his true motives, Watson calls Stapleton ‘a creature of infinite patience and craft, with a smiling face and a murderous heart’. Hatching a plan to catch Stapleton, Holmes employs an apt lepidoptery metaphor: ‘I dare swear that before tomorrow night he will be fluttering in our net as helpless as one of his own butterflies. A pin, a cork, and a card, and we add him to the Baker Street collection!’


The surrounding moor, however, is not only dangerous because of the nightmarish ‘fiend dog’ that is alleged to dwell on it. Throughout the narrative, references abound to the Neolithic peoples that once dwelled in the area (a theme Doyle would return to in ‘The Devil’s Foot’). Watson reflects on these prehistoric peoples, whom he suggests may have belonged to ‘some unwarlike and harried race who were forced to accept that which none other would occupy’:

‘As you look at their grey stone huts against the scarred hillsides you leave you own age behind you, and if you were to see a skin-clad, hairy man crawl out from the low door, fitting a flint-tipped arrow on to the string of his bow, you would feel that his presence there was more natural than your own’. The moor itself possesses a threatening personality that is given literal form when Watson describes ‘a short valley between rugged tors’ having ‘[i]n the middle […] two great stones, worn and sharpened at the upper end, until they looked like the huge, corroding fangs of some monstrous beast’. This dark sense of place is then shown to be a place of real peril, when Watson witnesses a pony being dragged to its death in Grimpen Mire – the fate that later befalls Stapleton.



In short, the moor symbolises the horrors of Nature as much as the alleged hellhound: ‘Rank reeds and lush, slimy water-plants sent an odour of decay and a heavy miasmatic vapour into our faces, while a false step plunged us more than once thigh-deep into the dark, quivering mire, which shook for yards in soft undulations around our feet. Its tenacious grip plucked at our heels as we walked, and when we sank into it, it was as if some malignant hand was tugging us down into those obscene depths, so grim and purposeful was the clutch in which it held us’. Ironically, the titular hound of the story turns out to be a regular, if oversized canine, which had been purchased by Stapleton at Ross and Mangles on the Fulham Road. This puts the savage, supernatural beast squarely back into the domestic, metropolitan setting from which the tale first began in Baker Street.


Throughout the Canon, Sherlock Holmes is accorded many animal characteristics, though he is most often compared to a hawk or a hound. One of the most famous images of Holmes is the sight of him in ‘The Red-Headed League’ ‘curled himself up in his chair, with his knees drawn up to his hawk-like nose, […] with his eyes closed and his black clay pipe thrusting out like the bill of some strange bird’. Indeed, this description inspired one of the most famous Sidney Paget illustrations from 1891. Elsewhere, in ‘The Dancing Men’, Watson describes Holmes’ head as being ‘sunk upon his breast’ and looking ‘like a strange, lank bird, with dull grey plumage and a black top-knot’. Holmes describes both himself and Watson, separately in the Canon, as ‘a stormy petrel’ of crime. In ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’, Watson says of himself that ‘[f]olk who were in grief came to my life like birds to a lighthouse’.


While Holmes is once described as having a ‘cat-like love of personal cleanliness’, he is far more often compared to a bloodhound. In ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’, his ‘nostrils seemed to dilate with a purely animal lust for the chase’ and he is then depicted as ‘r[unning] round, like a dog who is picking up a scent’. Watson explains that, when Holmes’ ‘mind was absolutely concentrated upon the matter before him, […] a question or remark fell unheeded upon his ears, or at the most only provoked a quick impatient snarl in reply’. Occasionally, Holmes is described in more unusual terms. Prefiguring the case of ‘The Lion’s Mane’, Holmes is portrayed in ‘The Resident Patient’ as a type of maritime creature, who ‘loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, with his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour or suspicion of unsolved crime’.


Sometimes Holmes poses as a hunter or fisherman when he is on a case in the countryside, but we never see him do much of either. A rare example comes when he catches a trout in ‘Shoscombe Old Place’. He also poses as an amateur botanist in ‘Wisteria Lodge’ to gain illicit access to a property. More usually, however, Holmes’ quarry is human. One of the chapters of The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, is entitled ‘Fixing the Nets’, with Sir Henry being deployed as the ‘bait’: ‘The nets are all in place, and the drag is about to begin. We’ll know before the day is out whether we have caught our big, lean-jawed pike, or whether he has got through the meshes’. In ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’, Holmes is found in disguise in the opium den, remarking that he is there to find ‘one of my natural enemies, or, I shall say, my natural prey’. In ‘The Three Garridebs’, we also learn that newspaper agony columns are his ‘favourite covert for putting up a bird’, and he calls his target Killer Evans ‘a cock pheasant’ and ‘a sporting bird’.


An extended hunting metaphor occurs in ‘The Bruce Partington Plans’, when Holmes and Watson set up an ambush at Oberstein’s empty house. Although it proves ‘a very weary vigil’, Holmes finds that ‘it ha[d] the sort of excitement about it that the sportsman feels when he lies beside the watercourse and waits for the big game’. Watson once again describes Holmes in canine terms: ‘See the foxhound with hanging ears and drooping tail as it lolls about the kennels, and compare it with the same hound as, with gleaming eyes and straining muscles, it runs upon a breast-high scent – such was the change in Holmes since the morning’. When Colonel Valentine unexpectedly arrives instead of his expected quarry, Holmes exclaims that ‘[t]his was not the bird that I was looking for’.


In ‘The Empty House’, Holmes again sets up an ambush for an enemy in a scene that features a rich selection of hunting metaphors. Before they begin, Watson remarks that he ‘knew not what wild beast we were about to hunt down in the dark jungle of criminal London’. They end up waiting in a darkened house opposite 221 Baker Street, where a wax effigy of Holmes has been set up as a lure: ‘From this convenient retreat the watchers were being watched and the trackers tracked. That angular shadow up yonder was the bait, and we were the hunters’. When their quarry finally appears, ‘Holmes spr[ings] like a tiger on to the marksman’s back’. Holmes explains to Watson that his captive Colonel Moran is ‘the best heavy game shot that our Eastern Empire has ever produced’, whose ‘bag of tigers still remains unrivalled’. Watson describes Moran as ‘wonderfully like a tiger himself’ with ‘savage eyes and bristling moustache’. In this crossover between hunter and hunted, Holmes upbraids his captive: ‘It must be very familiar to you. Have you not tethered a young kid under a tree, lain above it with your rifle, and waited for the bait to bring up your tiger? This empty house is my tree, and you are my tiger’.


In ‘The Final Problem’, Holmes prefigures his beekeeping, rural retirement, remarking to Watson: ‘Of late I have been tempted to look into the problems furnished by Nature rather than those more superficial ones for which our artificial state of society is responsible’. On a few occasions, however, Holmes outlines a profoundly pessimistic view of life and nature. In ‘The Retired Colourman’, he wonders: ‘But is not all life pathetic and futile? Is not his story a microcosm of the whole? We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow – misery’. This perspective was likely influenced by William Winwood Reade’s secularist bible The Martyrdom of Man (1872), which Holmes recommends to Watson in The Sign of the Four as ‘one of the most remarkable [books] ever penned’. In ‘The Resident Patient’, Watson writes that ‘[a]ppreciation of Nature found no place among [Holmes’] many gifts’. But this assertion was soon disproven.


In ‘The Naval Treaty’ (published only two months after ‘The Resident Patient’), Sherlock Holmes indulges in a lengthy speech about Nature after he picks up a rose, exclaiming ‘What a lovely thing a rose is!’ This diversion takes Watson by surprise, who remarks that ‘[i]t was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects’. Holmes continues: ‘There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as religion. […] 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 colour 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’.


Holmes and Watson are often found delighting in the charms of nature. During the case of ‘The Solitary Cyclist’, they are depicted walking along the road ‘rejoicing in the music of the birds and the fresh breath of the spring’. Often, when Holmes has completed his mental exertions and can do no more until some break occurs in a case, he often takes refuge in nature. For example in the case of ‘Black Peter, Holmes exclaims ‘[l]et us walk in these beautiful woods, Watson, and give a few hours to the birds and the flowers’. Holmes and Watson are also far from vegetarians, enjoying, in one Baker-Street supper in ‘The Noble Bachelor’, ‘a couple of brace of cold woodcock, a pheasant, a pate de foie gras pie’. Indeed, we learn in ‘The Priory School’ that Baker Street even has a ‘bear-skin hearth rug’.


Although Holmes and Watson live at the heart of London, they are not immune from the threats of Nature. Watson recognises this one night during a winter storm in ‘The Golden Pince-Nez’: ‘It was a wild, tempestuous night towards the end of November […] Outside the wind howled down Baker Street, while the rain beat fiercely against the windows. It was strange there in the very depths of the town, with ten miles of man’s handiwork on every side of us, to feel the iron grip of Nature, and to be conscious that to the huge elemental forces all London was no more than the molehills that dot the fields’. On another occasion, in the midst of a London ‘particular’, or dense fog, in ‘The Bruce Partington Plans’, Holmes reflects on the city’s dark opportunities: ‘See how the figures loom up, are dimly seen, and then blend once more into the cloud-bank. The thief or the murderer could roam London on such a day as the tiger does the jungle, unseen until he pounces, and then evident only to his victim’. But Watson notes, too, that Holmes says it ‘in the querulous voice of the sportsman whose game has failed him’.


Similar to ‘The Devil’s Foot’, an exotic danger even threatens Sherlock Holmes’ life amid the cosy confines of Baker Street in ‘The Dying Detective’. In the story, Holmes appears to catch Tapanuli fever, ‘a coolie disease from Sumatra’, sometimes known as ‘the black Formosa corruption’. Culverton Smith is a doctor, who appears to infect Holmes with this tropical disease through a poisoned spring in an ivory box. In his apparent feverish derangement, Holmes reverts to an animal-themed delirium: ‘I cannot think why the whole bed of the ocean is not one solid mass of oysters, so prolific the creatures seem. […] No doubt there are natural enemies which limit the increase of the creatures. You and I, Watson, we have done our part. Shall the world, then, be overrun with oysters? No, no; horrible!’ Of course, it all turns out to be an elaborate ruse to catch Culverton Smith, but the case displays the ease through which tropical dangers can threaten even at the heart of London.


Animal tracks dot the Sherlock Holmes Canon, creating an allusive environment of literal and figurative creatures that brings Nature and humankind together. Sometimes it seems as if Holmes is collecting exotic tales for Watson to catalogue like butterflies or moths. Indeed, Holmes once says to Watson in ‘The Red Circle’ that he has ‘one more specimen of the tragic and grotesque to add to your collection’. Of course, at the centre of the stories is Sherlock Holmes, who is regularly accorded the hunting qualities of a hawk and a hound. His friends and enemies alike are described in animal terms. Inspector Lestrade is referred to as a ‘lean, ferret-like man, furtive and sly-looking’, while Inspector Forbes is ‘a small, foxy man’, and Holmes’ brother Mycroft has ‘a broad, flat hand, like the flipper of a seal’. In ‘The Mazarin Stone’, the big-game hunter Count Sylvius is depicted as ‘a shark [who] bites’, while, in ‘The Illustrious Client’, Baron Gruner, who ‘collects women […] as some men collect moths or butterflies’, is described as being as ‘poisonous as a cobra’. But these metaphors only come into their own when Holmes meets an enemy who compels him to the heights of animal simile.


The greatest example of this is Holmes’ arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarity, who is portrayed as a great spider lying at the heart of London’s criminal underworld. In ‘The Final Problem’, Holmes describes him to Watson as ‘the Napoleon of crime’ before elaborating with an elaborate arachnid metaphor: ‘He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organized’. In ‘The Norwood Builder’, Holmes speaks of ‘the smallest trace’ and ‘faintest indication’ giving him a clue that Moriarity’s ‘great malignant brain’ was involved, ‘as the gentlest tremors of the edges of the web remind one of the foul spider which lurks in the centre’. In The Valley of Fear, Holmes again describes Moriarty as a spider, with ‘dozens of exiguous threads which lead vaguely up towards the centre of the web where the poisonous, motionless creature is lurking’.


Often, a vital clue comes from an animal source. For instance, in ‘The Abbey Grange’, the past cruelty of the victim, Sir Eustace, is revealed when Holmes discovers that there had been ‘a scandal about his drenching [his wife’s] dog with petroleum and setting it on fire’. Meanwhile, the breakthrough in ‘The Priory School’ case comes when Holmes discovers that the cattle prints on the moor were actually made by adapted horseshoes. Sometimes an animal can be a red herring, as in ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery, when the victim’s dying words, ‘a rat’, turn out to be a reference to the Australian city of Ballarat. But, more often than not, Nature is red in tooth and claw. In ‘The Lion’s Mane’, a vile jellyfish is revealed to be the culprit of a case that taxes Holmes to his limit, while in ‘The Veiled Lodger’, a lion named Sahara King savagely attacks Mrs Ronder, disfiguring her for life.


A medieval bestiary provided a compendium of real and imagined creatures that sought to place the natural world in the context of Christian philosophy. Like the creatures that appear periodically on such illuminated manuscripts, animals in the Sherlock Holmes stories crop up in the most unexpected of places and perform a variety of roles, from descriptive similes to more complex metaphors – even to being the actual culprits in a few cases. A number of Holmesian pastiches have remained faithful to the animal tradition of the original stories of the Canon, such as W.R. Duncan Macmillan’s ‘The Adventure of the Trained Cormorant’ (1954), Nicholas Meyer’s The Canary Trainer (1993) and Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution (2004).


Throughout the Canon, Arthur Conan Doyle presents a devotion to the animal kingdom that is both constant and varied. Indeed, only one story, ‘The Beryl Coronet’, is absent of an animal reference of any kind. In The Sign of the Four, Watson suggests to Holmes that ‘someone calls [Man] a soul concealed in an animal’, as they reflect, while watching a shipyard empty at quitting time, on ‘the strange enigma that is man’. Such a mode of thinking is unsurprising when one considers the importance of animals in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Whether they crawl, run, swim or fly, creatures abound in the Canon, highlighting repeatedly how narrow the boundary is between criminal and law-abiding, civilisation and savagery, man and beast.




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