McMurdo’s Camp

Sherlock Holmes – Tough Guy

The Real Sherlock Holmes, a Real Tough Guy

Sherlock Holmes is the most-portrayed fictional character in movie history, so naturally, when a new Holmes movie is made, it generates a lot of interest. The latest Sherlock Holmes movie, interestingly titled “Sherlock Holmes”, was released on Christmas Day, 2009. It was directed by Guy Richie and it stars Robert Downey as Holmes, Jude Law as Watson, and Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler. It is a big-budget job with big-name stars, and heavily hyped, as you could expect.

Chances are, as a visitor to this web site, you are more interested in Sherlock Holmes than is the average person. The site is not intended for the those who have only a passing or casual interest in the Great Detective, although all are welcome and encouraged to read and explore. In reviews of the new movie we have seen commentary from those who know Holmes well, and from those who know him not-so-well. Most reviewers’ comments indicate the movie attempted to be somewhat contemporary in presenting Holmes. Some traditionalists were turned off by this modern version of Holmes, but there really are no Holmes movies that are strict reproductions of the Holmes found in the 56 stories and 4 novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Some reviews we have seen tell us the new movie has more emphasis on physicality than on intellect, and that this is a departure from the original Holmes.

There are certainly a lot of violent fights in the movie, but the notion of the original Sherlock Holmes being an armchair detective who could not or would not handle himself in a fight is not a correct one. He fought, and fought tough, and fought well, and did not back away from physical dangers. There is plenty of evidence of this in the 56 short stories and 4 novels that make up the Canon, as we call it. Here are a few samplings.

Our favorite is the bar-room brawl in The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist (SOLI), in which Homes takes on Mr. Woodley. Here is Holmes relating the incident to Watson. (Don’t mistake his genteel Victorian description of the brawl as meaning it was a genteel encounter.)   “(Mr. Woodley) walked in. He had been drinking his beer in the taproom and had heard the whole conversation. Who was I? What did I want? What did I mean by asking questions? He had a fine flow of language, and his adjectives were very vigorous. He ended a string of abuse by a vicious backhander, which I failed to entirely avoid. The next few minutes were delicious. It was a straight left against a slogging ruffian. I emerged as you see me. Mr. Woodley went home in a cart.” So after being sucker-punched, Holmes mopped the floor with him, in modern vernacular.

It seems Holmes did not win all his fights. In The Adventure of the Empty House (EMPT) Holmes told Watson of one which took place in a railway station. Holmes mentions Mathews, “who knocked out my left canine in the waiting-room at Charing Cross.” This was a passing mention, with no relation to the plot of the story, nor any mention of what caused the dispute in the first place.

Sherlock Holmes did not just stumble into his fights by chance.  He knew his was a dangerous profession, and explained this to Watson in The Adventure of the Three Gables (3GAB),  “Surely no man would take up my profession if it were not that danger attracts him”.   So Holmes was not simply a man who was unafraid of danger; he sought it.  A distinct personality type.

Nor was Holmes  averse to gun-play. Here are his instructions to Watson as they set off to capture the suspect in The Adventure of the Speckled Band (SPEC): “And now, Watson, this is too serious for dawdling, especially as the old man is aware that we are interesting ourselves in his affairs, so if you are ready we shall call a cab and drive to Waterloo. I should be very much obliged if you would slip your revolver into your pocket. An Eley’s No. 2 is an excellent argument with gentlemen who can twist steel pokers into knots. That and a toothbrush are, I think, all that we need.” (Note: An Eley’s No. 2 was a cartridge for Watson’s handgun.)

In The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter, as Holmes and Watson set out to chase down the kidnappers, Holmes opened the table-drawer and slipped his revolver into his pocket. “Yes,” said he in answer to Watson’s glance, “I should say, from what we have heard, that we are dealing with a particularly dangerous gang.”

Similarly, in The Red-Headed League (REDH), Holmes told Watson: “There may be some little danger, so kindly put your army revolver in your pocket. If they fire, Watson, have no compunction about shooting them down.”

In The Sign of the Four (SIGN), the second Holmes novel, Holmes and Watson prepared to accompany Miss Morstan to meet her anonymous benefactor. Watson picked up his hat and his heaviest stick, and observed that Holmes took his revolver from the drawer and slipped it into his pocket. He evidently thought the night’s work might be a serious one.

In The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, (COPP) Holmes makes another coy reference to gun-play, when he says “having met you, (he) succeeded by certain arguments, metallic or otherwise, in convincing you that your interests were the same as his.” Here, by “metallic argument” Holmes meant using a gun to back up a position in a dispute.

Holmes tended to favor his riding-crop as a weapon, and often left the gun-play to Watson. However, in The Hound of the Baskervilles (HOUN) Holmes maintained his cool and shot and killed the “Hound of Hell” when they were attacked in the foggy night;  Watson and Lestrade being too scared and shocked to act.

In the new Sherlock Holmes movie, Holmes did some bare-knuckle boxing and fist-fighting. These activities are nothing new to Holmes. After Holmes and Watson first met, in A Study in Scarlet (STUD), Watson, who at the time was a invalid, set about to list the personal characteristics of Holmes. He noted that Holmes “Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.” To get an idea of the original Holmes engaging in violence, let’s take a look at these three.

Sword-fighting. Other than that reference, there is no instance in the original Holmes stories of him engaging in sword-fighting, or any standard fencing.

Singlestick.  Singlestick was a form of fencing using a wooden stick as the weapon, loosely based on the idea that a gentleman could defend himself using his walking-stick. It was a popular sport for a few decades around the turn of the century (1900), and was even an Olympic sport in the 1904 summer games. The sport was somewhat in decline even then, and did not last long as an Olympic event. Only 2 countries competed in 1904, the USA and Cuba. The Cuban won the gold, but he was actually an American.

There is only one record of Holmes engaging in singlestick competition, and he came in second-best. To his credit, he was defending himself against more than one assailant. He ended up with serious injuries, but suffered no permanent harm. Then he exaggerated his injuries to lure his suspect into a trap. Holmes description of the encounter: “I’m a bit of a single-stick expert, as you know. I took most of them on my guard. It was the second man that was too much for me.” From The Adventure of the Illustrious Client (ILLU).

Boxing. In addition to the brawl with Mr. Woodley, Holmes did well as an amateur boxer. This encounter with the professional, McMurdo, took place in The Sign of the Four (SIGN). The pro remembered his match with Holmes:

That you, Mr. Thaddeus? (said the boxer) But who are the others? I had no orders about them from the master.”

No, McMurdo? You surprise me! I told my brother last night that I should bring some friends.”  .  .  .  “This is too bad of you, McMurdo!” he said. “If I guarantee them, that is enough for you. There is the young lady, too. She cannot wait on the public road at this hour.”

Very sorry, Mr. Thaddeus,” said McMurdo, inexorably. “Folk may be friends o’ yours, and yet no friends o’ the master’s. He pays me well to do my duty, and my duty I’ll do. I don’t know none o’ your friends.”

Oh, yes, you do, McMurdo,” cried Sherlock Holmes, genially. “I don’t think you can have forgotten me. Don’t you remember the amateur who fought three rounds with you at Alison’s rooms on the night of your benefit four years back?” “Not Mr. Sherlock Holmes!” roared the prize-fighter. “God’s truth! how could I have mistook you? If instead o’ standin’ there so quiet you had just stepped up and given me that cross-hit of yours under the jaw, I’d ha’ known you without a question. Ah, you’re one that has wasted your gifts, you have! You might have aimed high, if you had joined the fancy.”

You see, Watson, if all else fails me, I have still one of the scientific professions open to me,” said Holmes, laughing. “Our friend won’t keep us out in the cold now, I am sure.”

This incident establishes Holmes’ credentials as an expert boxer, regardless of the incident at the Charing Cross station where he lost his tooth. (Note: The boxer McMurdo in this story has no relationship to the Society, McMurdo’s Camp.)

Holmes engaged in some illegal and thuggish behavior in The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax (LADY). He was looking for the missing Lady Carfax, whom he had good reason to believe was dead or imprisoned in a particular house. He knew the police were on their way with a warrant, but time was short.

I mean to find her,” said Sherlock Holmes. “I’m going through this house till I do find her.”

Where is your warrant?”

Holmes half drew a revolver from his pocket. “This will have to serve till a better one comes.”

Why, you are a common burglar.”

So you might describe me,” said Holmes cheerfully. “My companion is also a dangerous ruffian. And together we are going through your house.”

Obviously, Holmes was by no means hesitant to use his “metallic argument” to get the job done.

In The Naval Treaty (NAVA) Holmes had been on stake-out duty in the dark room where he suspected the stolen papers were hidden. He showed up the next morning with his left hand was swathed in a bandage, his face very grim and pale. He described it, “Tut, it is only a scratch through my own clumsiness”.  Holmes description of the encounter: “Well, he has rather more viciousness than I gave him credit for, has Master Joseph. He flew at me with his knife, and I had to grasp him twice, and got a cut over the knuckles, before I had the upper hand of him. He looked murder out of the only eye he could see with when we had finished, but he listened to reason and gave up the papers.” So the unarmed Holmes was assaulted by a man with a knife, but he held his own and prevailed.

The most important fight of Holmes’ life was that little match in Switzerland on the trail at the Reichenbach falls.  Using his skills with baritsu, the Japanese system of wrestling, Holmes sent his arch-rival, Professor Moriarty, into the abyss but saved himself.

The above examples illustrate that Sherlock Holmes was a “tough guy” by anybody’s standards. A Victorian gentleman, certainly, but physical enough to dominate the world he lived in, populated by highly proper Victorians, criminals, and dangerous miscreants.

Robert Downey with his modern interpretation of Sherlock Holmes is plenty tough. But if someone tells you this “new” Holmes is more modern, more physical, and and more violent than the original Holmes, take it with a grain of salt. The real Sherlock Holmes was no wimp!

10 Comments »

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    Comment by sequoiacopyru — August 29, 2010 @ 10:37 am

  3. Hello! I thoroughly enjoyed your trifling monograph! I humbly wish to add a few things:
    1. In Speckled Band, Holmes straightened the fireplace poker bent by Dr. Roylott back out straight again in one swift movement, proving he was even stronger than he was. (It’s harder to straighten something than bend it…if you don’t believ me, try it some time!)
    2. In Copper Beeches I thought “metallic argument” meant a bribe…then again, he might have meant a weapon.
    3. Baritsu, btw, does not exist! Doyle made up that particular form of wrestling.
    I am in the camp that thoroughly disliked the Richie movie for many reasons. But, as Sherlockian Mark Gatiss said, “If you don’t like one interpretation, don’t worry…a new one will be along soon.” (Meaning a new movie about Holmes/Watson!)

    Comment by MEW — April 17, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    • I know this was written years ago, but FYI, Baritsu is an improper English spelling of Ju-Jitsu and it was Ju-Jitsu that Holmes used on Moriarty at the top of the falls. (The Adventure of the Empty House) More info in The annotated Sherlock Holmes by Gould

      Comment by M. Vernet — July 15, 2013 @ 6:33 pm

  4. Brilliantly written. I stumbled upon this because I myself was about to write an article about how Holmes in the books was also a very competent fighter. But you seem to have covered all the points well enough.

    Comment by Rohin Manipur — September 2, 2011 @ 12:07 am

    • Only too kind. How about an article on a different subject? I’ve been thinking about ships, but am too lazy. Lots of different types. Some real, some made up. Or even maybe a series. Orontes today, the barque Lone Star next month. Plenty of material.

      Comment by Matilda — September 6, 2011 @ 6:52 pm

      • On that subject, may I recommend The Sherlock Holmes Illustrated Cyclopedia of Nautical Knowledge (Capt. Walter W. Jaffee, ed.)?

        Comment by Scott Ryan — April 15, 2012 @ 5:25 pm

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    Comment by Swedik — January 11, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

  6. I agree, of course, that Sherlock Holmes was a trained and skilled martial artist of several sorts. I’m dubious, though, of your suggestion that Holmes’s reference to Fowler’s “arguments, metallic or otherwise” in “The Copper Beeches” refers to his threatening her with a gun. The text says, “’Mr. Fowler was a very kind-spoken, free-handed gentleman,’ said Mrs. Toller serenely.” The implication is surely that Fowler’s metallic arguments were coins.

    The point makes little difference to your case, as Holmes isn’t the one brandishing the alleged weapon anyway. But the foregoing is how I’ve always understood the statement. Mrs. Toller’s reply to Holmes’s statement is surely an odd one if Fowler extracted her cooperation at gunpoint.

    Comment by Scott Ryan — April 15, 2012 @ 5:17 pm

    • This has generated some small controversy. Who knows who’s right? We like the gun theory.

      Comment by Matilda — June 1, 2012 @ 5:49 pm


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