“That’s Your Line of Life, Sir”

“I have some papers here,” said my friend Sherlock Holmes as we sat one winter’s night on either side of the fire, “which I really think, Watson, that it would be worth your while to glance over.”

"You don't know me?" he asked.
"You don't know me?" he asked.

The Gloria Scott was a ship which gave its name to Holmes’s very first adventure. In his college days, Holmes was by his own admission a friendless sort, who spent his days in idiosyncratic study and intermittent athletic pursuits (boxing, fencing). He had already begun, however, to formalise his system of deductive reasoning; nevertheless, it had not yet occurred to him that it represented anything but a hobby, a diverting means of interpreting the world. (The glimpse this gives us into Holmes’s character, which values the intellectual worth of something over its practical value, is in itself worthy of a post.)

His one friend during this time was a young man named Victor Trevor, whom Holmes first meets as a result of being injured by his dog: Trevor takes it upon himself to visit Holmes on his sickbed daily following the incident. (Again, Holmes’s character is by his college years fully formed – it takes immobility for him to strike up personal relationships!) What is wonderful about Holmes’s description of his old friend is that it matches almost exactly to Watson’s own qualities: “He was a hearty, full-bodied fellow, full of spirits and energy, the very opposite of me in most respects, but we had some subjects in common, and it was a bond of union when I found that he was as friendless as I.” Holmes evidently has a type.

The mystery itself is, like The Stockbroker’s Clerk before it, ultimately resolved by a document the characters find when they reach an impasse in the investigation. As bald as this is, the by now familiar Doyle ingredient of a shadowy foreign past enlivens the backstory and its gruesome events make for a few memorable images: not least the moment when a murderer is found in a room with a corpse and a “smoking pistol” in his hand, making for an influential vignette.

It’s perhaps fitting that much of the story’s action – and the totality of its solution – occurs without the need for Holmes’s input, since he does appear appropriately callow here. In one passage in particular this young detective makes heavy work of the connections between two suspects, and puzzles over a cipher which in his years of practice he would cast aside as completed in seconds. Doyle is often accused of being a lazy writer, and in this very story a man writes something down when all are agreed he has not recovered consciousness; but from time to time – and usually with his central duo – he takes a little care which rewards the reader. (Sherlockians, of course, find the most reward in the impossible task of bridging the inconsistencies.)

Trevor’s father tells Holmes that he will use his remarkable powers of observation to build a career. “And that recommendation,” Holmes tells Watson, “[… was] the very first thing which ever made me feel that a profession might be made out of what had up top that time been the merest hobby.” We may have it to thank for a very storied career, but the case of the Gloria Scott is not one of Holmes’s more exciting feats of deduction, interesting like any origin story more for its foreshadowing than its foregrounds.


17 thoughts on ““That’s Your Line of Life, Sir”

  1. The Gloria Scott is one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories. I’m not really sure why either because, as you pointed out, Holmes doesn’t really do much detective work other than to crack the fairly simple code that Bedows sent. (And it really was a simple code when you compare it with the ones used in The Dancing Men and in The Valley of Fear.)

    I think I probably like it because it shows Holmes in a different light.

    There is one line that sort of puzzles me though. Concerning Trevor’s visits while he was laid-up, Holmes comments to Watson:

    “… and it was a bond of union when I found that he was as friendless as I.”

    This almost makes it sound like Holmes was looking for friendship? This is completely uncharacteristic of him and I can think of no other friends Holmes ever had (other than Watson)?

    Holmes apparently got a little chummy with some of the police officers but I don’t remember him ever spending any non-official time with any of them.

    I saw a trailer for the new Holmes movie and, though it’s what I expected, I’m disappointed. But I’m a purist.

  2. Yes, but observe that Holmes doesn’t say ‘our friendlessness made us friends’ – merely that the fact that were both loners gave them something in common. From that perspective, Holmes wasn’t looking for friendship and is characteristically stating bald fact – he just fell in with someone he didn’t immediately dismiss as frivolous. (I think it’s fairly obvious that Trevor is a proto-Watson in this and most other ways.)

    I kept thinking of The Dancing Men (one of my favourite stories) throughout The Gloria Scott – the whole matter does feel very shallow next to the later case, doesn’t it? I was attracted to the story for its Holmesian details and characterisation, and perhaps this is why you like it so much, too? Because, yes – as a mystery it’s a bit so-so.

    The trailer? Let’s not talk about it. I don’t think you need even to be a purist to see its terrifying awfulness.

  3. I hear what you’re saying about the friendship/friendshipness but apparently they did develop some sort of relationship because Holmes went with him to Donnithorp and he never did that sort of thing since.”

    I won’t disagree that Trevor was a proto-Watson but I never noticed it before.

    A little trivia concerning The Dancing Men.

    Compare this bit from Edgar Allen Poe’s Gold Bug with Doyle’s Dancing Men.


    “Now, in English, the letter which most frequently occurs is e. E predominates so remarkably, that an individual sentence of any length is rarely seen, in which it is not the prevailing character.”


    “As you are aware, E is the most common letter in the English alphabet, and it predominates to so marked an extent that even in a short sentence one would expect to find it most often.

    Funny story about The Dancing Men. Some time back my girlfriend and I were returning from London (where, among other places, we’d visited, at my request, 221 Baker Street) and she was writing me a coded message using the dancing men and she discovered an inconsistency. Doyle had used different symbols for different letters in different messages. In other words, the symbol for an “r” (for example) in one message was different than an “r” in another message.

    I had never noticed it and indeed it would take a very, very close reading to have picked it out but since she was compiling the entire code-alphabet in order to construct her own message, she spotted it. Since then, I’ve read in a number of places that there are several (i.e. more than one) problem with the code.

    Right now I’m working on a post for The Sign of the Four.

    I liked the Dancing Men, mostly for the code. I have never been able to pick out a favorite but I really liked “His Las Bow” (the story, not the series). It was so melancholy for me because it was the last story. And it’s the last few lines from the last story that can bring tears to my eyes:

    “As to you, Watson, you are joining us with your old service, as I understand, so London won’t be out of your way. Stand with me here upon the terrace, for it may be the last quiet talk that we shall ever have.”

    The two friends chatted in intimate converse for a few minutes, recalling once again the days of the past, while their prisoner vainly wriggled to undo the bonds that held him. As they turned to the car Holmes pointed back to the moonlit sea and shook a thoughtful head.

    “There’s an east wind coming, Watson.”

    “I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.”

    “Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared. Start her up, Watson, for it’s time that we were on our way. I have a check for five hundred pounds which should be cashed early, for the drawer is quite capable of stopping it if he can.”

    Clearly Holmes is referring to WWI. Whenever I need reassurance that everything’s going to be OK, I read that passage.

  4. Again, given that this is Sherlock Holmes who is visiting, I’m not convinced that going to Trevor’s home necessarily means that he and Holmes are best buddies – at least as far as the latter is concerned. Yes, they form a strong bond and all that – but deducing more from that alone would surely be precipitous.

    I was looking forward to discovering the inevitable inconsistencies of The Dancing Men when I got there – no surprise there are some (though a shame), eh? And, yes, that passage from ‘His Last Bow’ is perfect – about the only thing about that story, alas, which is!

  5. Dan,

    How goes it? I have a Sherlock Holmes question for you.

    I have been trying to get a feel for how much money Holmes made. In Copper Beaches Holmes comments that a single woman could get along on 100 pounds a year. Since she would receive food and lodging (she was a governess), the 100 pounds is basically spending money so I figured it must be about $25,000 USD which converts to 15,206pounds. So a pound at the turn of the century must be equal to approximately 150 pounds today.

    Here’s the question. In the Priory School, the Duke was getting ready to write Holmes a check for 12,000 pounds. Does that translate to 1,800,00 pounds?

  6. Interesting question, Mark! Hmm. 100 pounds in 1900 would have been far, far more than a living wage, though – Holmes’s class assumptions are showing again! Remember, in Copper Beaches that £100 is given as a very tempting – and compensatory – offer, and Miss Hunter had previously been earning a mere £4 a month – which is indeed a bit measly, but probably on a level with most engineers etc. of the time.

    How can we decide what a pound in 1900 would be worth now, anyway? Purchase power changes all the time. It’s suggest here that one pound then is worth between 50 and 80 dollars today. So 12,000 pounds would indeed be a vast sum today – but probably closer to $780,000 or so, or £500,000.

    Although of course we’d expect him to be, like a gentleman, coy about declaring his income in public, I’ve also often assumed that Holmes’s apparent ambivalence about actually being paid for his services must mean he had some income from the country. Though as the descendents of squires primogeniture may have seen all that go to Mycroft!

  7. You are dead right about Copper Beaches (I forgot that 100 pounds was the princely offer made to Miss Hunter), 4 pounds (or 48 pounds yearly ) was Miss Hunter’s usual wage.

    I missed it by a factor of two which brings it — more or less — into line with what you came up with. But still, 500,000 pounds is a lot of cash but I suppose it’s not out of line with the situation. I struggle doubly because I have to adjust for inflation as well as currency conversion not to mention pounds and quid and guinea and sovereigns and coppers and…

    He was ambivalent about being paid but he did indeed get paid (“save when I remit them all together” Thor Bridge). He told Watson in Scarlett that he offered his advice and “pocked the fees” and these were the cases that he solved without even leaving Baker Street. In other words, cases that never made it into print.

    I’m thinking he got quite a lot of complementary consideration and gifts as well. And then again, he lived pretty frugally. Watson even commented that the rent at Baker Street was very reasonable.

    I never considered any outside sources of money. it seemed to me Holmes was just a regular guy trying to make a living. I would have though if he had outside income, he wouldn’t have chosen Baker Street digs.

  8. What is the point of threading if you can only thread three at a time? Sigh!

    It’s in The Greek Interpreter that Holmes tells us his ancestors were country squires. From Wikipedia: “In English village life from the late 17th century through the early 20th century, there was often one principal family of gentry, owning much of the land and living in the largest house, maybe the manor house. The head of this family was often called “the squire.” Holmes was most definitely not a regular guy – had he been a member of the bourgeoisie, there is no way the rigid class structure of Victorian England would have allowed him to fraternise at the levels he did.

    Still, any income from those estates – and it had probably dried up by the late 19th century – would be very small, so a man would need a living, as you say. Never having been much of a mathematician, my head swims as much as yours at the perils of conversion – so I think we can settle on ‘he got well paid’! We can put the circumspection with which both Holmes and Watson treat the thorny matter of financial reward down to the politesse of the day, I think.

    Holmes’s frugal life no doubt helped – he shows little sign of valueing material possessions (although at the same time he’s never anything but comfortable). I’ve always had a hunch, though, that he could have afforded significantly better than some rooms in Baker Street, but simply didn’t need them – and why would Sherlock Holmes, of all people, require the unecessary?

  9. I was making the point that it didn’t appear Holmes had any appreciable “family” money because he chose Baker Street to begin with… which Watson said were “so moderate did the terms seem when divided between us, that the bargain was concluded upon the spot”. Watson could afford it and he was pretty broke so it couldn’t have been too much. Watson told Stanford he was “Trying to solve the problem as to whether it is possible to get comfortable rooms at a reasonable price.”

    After Holmes got settled, I agree, he had no reason to leave, regardless of how much money he had.

    I have decided that 50 times the amount is a good estimate for conversion to $USD. Which means the salary for a live-in governess would be about $25,000 USD. Reasonable.

    There were some pretty big sums bandied about in the stories. The Duke was prepared to write a check to Holmes for 12,000 pounds ($600,000 USD) and Augustus Milverton was trying to blackmail his mark for 7,000 pounds ($350,000 USD). Heck, the King of Bohemia tossed a purse to Holmes, apparently to cover expenses, that contained 1000 pounds ($50,000 USD).

    I’m getting ready to post my The Six Napoleons critique. I don’t think that one is anyone’s favorite. I’m also seriously considering writing a book called, The Wisdom of Sherloch Holmes. It will just be a collection of Holmes’ quotes and an brief

  10. Aha, well put. In that case, clearly the country estate went to Mycroft. 😉 On the issue of how much money he later accrued, Holmes is said to have provided the money to buy out Watson’s practise in The Norwood Builder – which I’ve just posted about. “The highest price that I ventured to
    ask,” Watson writes, no less! These big sums were no doubt in part thrown in to amaze the decidedly less well-to-do readers of the Strand; given his long list of aristocratic clients, however, the monied world was very much the one Holmes moved in.

    I rather like the idea of the book – a very neat idea!

  11. I hit the submit button before I’d finished my thoughts on the book. I have for awhile considered doing such a thing. Holmes/Doyle was quite the philosopher. Not just the pithy little quotes at the end of some of the stories but the entire cannon is littered with them. Of course the most famous is his discourse on religion in The Naval Treaty but I like his advice to a despondent John Openshaw in The Five Orange Pips:

    “Tut! tut!” cried Sherlock Holmes. “You must act, man, or you are lost. Nothing but energy can save you. This is no time for despair.”

    I believe the entire work is in public domain except maybe The Casebook.

    Maybe “The Wit and Wisdom of Sherlock Holmes” as a working title? Too prosaic?

    The World According to Sherlock Holmes
    What Would Sherlock Holmes Do
    Everything I Know I Learned From Sherlock Holmes
    The Meditations of Sherlock Holmes
    The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes

  12. The limits of threading again! I can easily see the title “What Would Sherlock Do: The Wit and Wisdom of Sherlock Holmes” on a book of its sort – you see the kind of thing all the time, you’ve got a goer of an idea there, I suspect. You’d categorise the quotes, I assume, and do a brief each introduction to either the book or each section? When even the new Star Trek film has Spock quoting Sherlock Holmes, you’ve got to be on to something.

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