In the endeavor to derive a comprehensive Sherlock Holmes chronology, we have at the outset resolved (to my satisfaction, at any rate) the question of the number of Watson’s marriages through a judicious application of Occam’s Razor. This has allowed us to set up a framework that covers the cases published up through the Great Hiatus of 1891-’94 (the period in which Holmes was presumed dead), and within that framework we have placed all those cases that can be easily dated—those in which Watson provides both a month (or season) and a year, or clear clues pointing to same.

There remain several cases from this period (nine, in fact) in which the clues are more opaque, and the reader must bring to bear more careful deductive abilities. In addition, the two later novels also fit into the pre-Hiatus phase of Holmes’s career (this is relatively uncontroversial), as do three of the later-published short cases (there’s more argument here, but I believe a strong case can be made for these three and no others, as I’ll discuss when we reach them).

The time has come to start fitting the more ambiguous pieces into the puzzle. The game is afoot!…

The undated cases from The Adventures and The Memoirs (the two books compiling the tales published in The Strand from 1891-’93) are as follows, in order of publication:

  • “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” (BOSC) [10/91]—in which June 3 is described as “last Monday,” placing it without contradiction in 1889 via a glance at a perpetual calendar.
  • “A Case of Identity” (IDEN) [12/91]—it is “some weeks” since the married Watson last saw Holmes, and not long after SCAN, as Holmes shows Watson a gift from the King of Bohemia. As we have already accounted fully for the months from March (SCAN) through at least July of 1888, September seems plausible for this one. (We need not be troubled by Holmes’s mention in the 1890 case REDH of events “the other day, just before we went into the very simple problem presented by Miss Mary Sutherland”; Miss Sutherland is indeed the client in this case, but could easily have returned later on another matter.)
  • “The Blue Carbuncle” (BLUE) [1/92]—it is “the second morning after Christmas” of an unspecified year when the married Watson drops in on his old friend. He mentions SCAN, IDEN, and TWIS as “three of the last six cases which I have added to my notes,” placing this after TWIS in ’89 (and suggesting that he may well have prepared his notes out of order—although this would have made sense to contemporary readers given the sequence of publication). 1890 is unlikely, as we learn later from FINA that “in the year 1890 there were only three cases of which I retain any record,” and that “During the winter of that year and the early spring of 1891,” he knew of Holmes only from what he “saw in the papers.” Thus: December 27, 1889.
  • “The Beryl Coronet” (BERY) [5/92]—it is “a bright, crisp February morning,” and Watson is unmarried and living in Baker Street. We have only one additional clue, and a tenuous one: Holmes’ client dealt with a man who asserted “Next Monday I have a large sum due to me”; if that Monday was also the first of the next month, as seems plausible for a large debt, then the year was 1886.
  • “The Copper Beeches” (COPP) [6/92]—it is “a cold morning of the early spring.” TWIS is among the other cases mentioned, placing this after the summer of ’89; it can only be 1890. (It remains unexplained why Watson is taking breakfast “in the old room at Baker Street,” but we are not told that he is actually living there.)
  • “Silver Blaze” (SILV) [12/92]—Watson mentions no date at all in this horse-racing investigation, and the clues are oblique. There are the “fading ferns” and Holmes’s “ear-flapped travelling cap,” which suggest autumn. The thoroughbred of the title is “from the Isonomy stock and… now in his fifth year”; Isonomy was a well-known racehorse of the time who was not offered for stud until 1881, so it must be at least ’86. Watson is single and living in Baker Street, so it’s before ’88. (Holmes does make an oblique reference to what “anyone would think who only knew me through your memoirs,” but it’s not specified that Watson has actually published anything yet and Holmes could have made the remark based merely on his friend’s inveterate note-taking and early manuscripts.) I therefore suggest autumn of ’87.
  • “The Cardboard Box” (CARD) [1/93]—this case was originally withheld from reprinting until a later volume, and an introductory passage from it was borrowed and inserted into RESI, as discussed earlier.It was later restored to its place as written, however, so we can see that Watson told us it was “a blazing hot day in August,” and that “my term of service in India had trained me to stand heat better than cold… [but] A depleted bank account had caused me to postpone my holiday.” This therefore appears to be a fairly early case, occurring while Watson’s military service was still recent and before the prosperity both he and Holmes enjoyed in later years.(There is some debate over this, as toward the end Holmes mentions in passing “the investigations which you have chronicled under the names of ‘A Study in Scarlet’ and of ‘The Sign of Four’,” but if it truly postdated both of those then Watson would be married and his residence at 221B would be inexplicable; the remark is best understood (and excused) as a bit of authorial license included to promote his other books, then recently in print.) I place it in August of ’82.
  • “The Yellow Face” (YELL) [2/93]—we know nothing here except that it was “early spring,” and that Watson describes Holmes as strong and “undoubtedly one of the finest boxers of his weight,” suggesting youth and thus a relatively early case. (Watson had mentioned Holmes’s boxing skills in STUD, but almost never did so in later years, when he was more likely to mention his drug use or his exhaustion from overwork.) Almost any year in the ’80s might be plausible; I place it in spring of ’83.
  • “The Greek Interpreter” (GREE) [9/93]—it is a pre-marriage case, but Watson reports that “During my long and intimate acquaintance with Mr. Sherlock Holmes I had never heard him refer to his relations,” before describing his first encounter with Holmes’s older brother Mycroft. The later ’80s thus seem likely. We also learn that “It was after tea on a summer evening… [and] the conversation [roamed to] the obliquity of the ecliptic,” a somewhat obscure topic that perhaps suggests a date near the solstice. I propose June of ’87.

In addition to these, we have the handful of cases from among those published post-Hiatus which turn out to fall into this pre-Hiatus period. First, the novels:

  • The Hound of the Baskervilles (HOUN) [8/1901]—this was published when Holmes was still (so far as Watson’s readers knew) presumed dead, before “The Empty House” (EMPT) recounted the details of his surprising return, and thus was clearly intended as a flashback to pre-Hiatus days (although some contrarians have tried to argue otherwise). The opening scene places the adventure pretty firmly in 1889, as Watson and Holmes discuss how to interpret a walking stick left behind by an as-yet-unmet client: “he left five years ago—the date is on the stick… 1884.” Later on, in letters dated October 13th and 15th, Watson refers to events “a fortnight ago” concerning the beginning of the case, allowing us to pinpoint the month and duration of the case. (There are somewhat arcane arguments concerning the phases of the moon that have been levied to support an 1887 date, but as I’ve already noted, Watson was not a meteorologist, nor above an occasional bit of artistic license. An earlier date would admittedly explain the absence of any mention of Watson’s wife in this book, but that’s hardly persuasive:  absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and Mary may well have simply been traveling on her own again. All we know is that for whatever reason, Watson was free to devote two weeks to working a case on behalf of Holmes.)
  • The Valley of Fear (VALL) [9/1914]—from his vantage point 20-odd years on, Watson recalls of these events that “Those were the early days at the end of the ’80’s, when [Inspector] Alec MacDonald was far from having attained the national fame which he has now achieved.” Watson himself is still living in Baker Street at the time. Holmes narrows things further in an early scene when he notes quite precisely that the date is “the seventh of January.” Put all these data points together and January of 1888 seems most reasonable, and it is in fact the consensus of most chronologists… placing this case mere days or weeks before Watson’s nuptials, and making it in all likelihood the last case he worked with Holmes until SCAN, over two months later. (We don’t know John and Mary’s exact wedding date, but the romantic in me thinks that February 14 is plausible; it fits all other known events, and St. Valentine’s day was certainly a hugely popular holiday in Victorian England.) We do face the slight complication that Holmes herein observes that Watson has “heard me speak of Professor Moriarty”—who when first introduced in FINA, set three years later in 1891, Watson proclaimed he had never heard of. However, there is widespread agreement that the pertinent exchange in FINA was an artistic elision used for expository effect, introducing Moriarty to the readers by relating what must actually have been a much earlier conversation. (As Moriarty died in FINA, there’s no way this case can postdate that one regardless. There are some commentators who seize on Watson’s casual invitation to readers to “journey back some twenty years in time” to “the year 1875” and propose a date in the ’90s, but that would preclude Moriarty’s involvement. The line can more easily be explained as an indication of when Watson first drafted the adventure.)

Moving along, we come to three shorter cases that stand out from their post-Hiatus fellows. To wit:

  • “Charles Augustus Milverton” (CHAS) [4/1904]—Watson observes at the outset that he has postponed recounting the case of this notorious blackmailer, and is being cagey about the details: “It is years since the incidents of which I speak took place, and yet it is with diffidence that I allude to them. … The reader will excuse me if I conceal the date or any other fact by which he might trace the actual occurrence.” He does a very good job of this, telling us little more than the fact of “a cold, frosty winter’s evening.” However, there are some oblique clues. Holmes tracks his prey by spending several days impersonating “a rakish young workman,” a “rising” plumber, and wooing Milverton’s young chambermaid—a disguise that would surely have taxed even his skills were he in his forties, as was the case post-Return. (Some commentators object that Milverton lives in a house with electricity and a wall-mounted light switch, and point out that municipal electricity was not laid on in his neighborhood of Hampstead until 1894. But this is no real obstacle:  Milverton was obviously wealthy and could have afforded a privately installed “Swan System” to electrify his home any time after 1881, while the light switch was invented and first marketed in 1884.) What then is the year? There’s no hint of a consensus, but a careful examination of the story shows that on a day marked as the 13th, Holmes and Watson pretend to be playgoers; on the 14th, they go shopping; and on the 18th, a wedding is scheduled; so, given the conventions of Victorian London, none of those days could have been a Sunday. Poring over the winter months on a perpetual calendar, we find that it could still be 1885 (Feb or Mar), ’86 (Jan), ’87 (Jan), or ’88 (Jan or Feb—but precluded by other events). Absent any additional clues, I find myself looking for the combination of youngest Holmes and deepest winter, and opting for January of ’86.
  • “The Second Stain” (SECO) [12/1904]—this case is complicated by a passing reference in the much earlier NAVA, in which Watson remarks that “The July which immediately succeeded my marriage [thus, ’88] was made memorable by three cases of interest, in which I had the privilege of being associated with Sherlock Holmes and of studying his methods. I find them recorded in my notes under the headings of ‘The Adventure of the Second Stain,’ ‘The Adventure of the Naval Treaty,’ and ‘The Adventure of the Tired Captain.’ ” He then goes on to describe the first of these as implicating many of the “first families” of the kingdom, and involving Holmes with French and Polish authorities, concluding that “The new century will have come, however, before the story can be safely told.” However, when the new century did come and brought a story published under that title, it bore no meaningful resemblance to the brief description offered in NAVA. Instead Watson insisted that it was “in a year, and even in a decade, that shall be nameless” that on “a Tuesday morning in Autumn” the Baker Street rooms were visited by the obviously pseudonymous “Lord Bellinger, twice Premier of Britain” (i.e., Prime Minister) and rising statesman “Trelawney Hope, Secretary for European Affairs” (i.e., Foreign Secretary). Leslie Klinger in his New Annotated helpfully catalogues the real politicians of the era, pointing out that there was a twice-elected prime minister serving at almost every point of the pre-Hiatus period (William Gladstone from 1880-’85, Robert Salisbury from 1886-’92). However, he also cites Gavin Brend’s observation that there was only one autumn during this period when the Foreign Secretary was a different man than the Prime Minister: 1886, when the post was occupied by one Sir Stafford Northcote. (Northcote died suddenly in January 1887, shortly after agreeing to resign amidst a scandalous cabinet shake-up—a somewhat interesting development in light of this case.) If the name of the case trumps all else, then we should stick with July of ’88… but I hold that the details matter and that Watson could have decided to change or re-use the name, and thus I opt for autumn of ’86. That might seem a bit early for Holmes to be employed by such illustrious clients, but then it’s entirely plausible that older brother Mycroft, quietly ensconced in the halls of government, sent them his way. Indeed, this may be the case that (quietly) opened the door to Holmes’s employment by so many nobles and heads of state in subsequent years.
  • “The Dying Detective” (DYIN) [12/1913]—This one is less troublesome. Watson dates it to “the second year of my married life… a foggy November day.” Although some commentators try to read this as referring to Watson’s second marriage, thus placing this at the very end of the partnership in 1903, I think the more obvious reading should prevail. (Watson also notes that Holmes’s payments to his landlady Mrs. Hudson “were princely” by this point… which seems only fair, given his increasingly prosperous practice and the remarkable duress to which he regularly subjected her property.)

Various Sherlockians have proposed backdating quite a variety of other cases published post-Hiatus to this earlier period, as well, but suffice it to say that I find none of the arguments persuasive. I’ll deal with those cases in due course in future installments.

Putting this all in order, then, we can combine these 14 cases with the 17 discussed in Part I to construct the following, a complete chronology of the earlier part of Holmes’s career. A few dates remain unavoidably less than certain, and are marked with a question mark. The new additions appear in blue to distinguish them. The cases published post-Hiatus are called out by underlining.

— [Pre-Watson cases]
GLOR • Jul-Sep, 1874
MUSG • Jul, 1879
— [The partnership begins]
STUD • Mar, 1881 (Watson meets Holmes; first appearance of Lestrade)
RESI • Oct, 1881
CARD • Aug, 1882?
YELL • early Spring, 1883?
SPEC • Apr, 1883
CHAS • Jan, 1886?
BERY • Feb, 1886?
SECO • Autumn, 1886 (Holmes helps the Prime Minister avert an international crisis)
REIG • Apr, 1887
GREE • Jun, 1887?
SIGN • Sep, 1887 (Watson meets Mary Morstan)
FIVE • late Sep, 1887
SILV • Autumn, 1887?
NOBL • Oct, 1887
VALL • Jan, 1888
— [Watson marries]
SCAN • Mar, 1888 (Holmes encounters Irene Adler)
STOC • Jun, 1888
NAVA • Jul, 1888
CROO • Summer, 1888
IDEN • Sep, 1888
BOSC • early Jun, 1889
TWIS • Jun, 1889
ENGR • Jul, 1889
HOUN • Oct, 1889
DYIN • Nov, 1889
BLUE • Dec, 1889
COPP • early Spring, 1890
REDH • Oct, 1890
FINA • Apr-May, 1891 (Holmes confronts Prof. Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls, Switzerland; believed dead)
— [The Great Hiatus begins]

We have chronicles of two cases predating Watson, fifteen from the period of the partnership prior to his marriage (1881-’88), and fourteen between his marriage and Holmes’s disappearance (1888-’91). The three years from 1887-’89 were clearly a very busy period, offering up eighteen chronicled cases, plus mentions of several others. There are in fact several unchronicled cases that we know or can surmise fit among these, but that’s for another day.

Next comes the period after the Return, in which Holmes bestrode the criminal world like a colossus (yet still spurned publicity from Watson), and in which Lestrade and Scotland Yard came to respect and admire the professional competitor they had once disdained. But that… is for the next installment.

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4 Responses to “Sherlock Holmes: the early years [part II]”
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  3. Peter Liddell says:

    I ahve studied HOUN at some length and I am afraid your approach the chronology is a little dismissive. You say;

    “The opening scene places the adventure pretty firmly in 1889, as Watson and Holmes discuss how to interpret a walking stick left behind by an as-yet-unmet client: “he left five years ago—the date is on the stick… 1884.” ”

    Is this that firm? In general conversation, what does the phrase “five years ago” actually mean? What it almost certainly does not mean is “1826 days ago” or perhaps “1827” days if there were two leap years in the five. What it more probably means is “not four” and “not six”.

    The quoted entry in the ‘Medical Directory’ indicates that Mortimer left the Charing Cross Hospital in 1884 – but when in 1884? It could have been anywhere between January 1st and December 31st, of course which coupled with the more sensible interpretation of the ‘five years ago’ statement, i.e. ‘five years, give or take’ would actually offer a range of case dates from mid to late 1888 on the one hand to early to mid 1890 on the other. It is far from obvious that this pair of pieces of information “firmly” fixes the case in 1889!

    You further state;

    “All we know is that for whatever reason, Watson was free to devote two weeks to working a case on behalf of Holmes.”

    This is not all we know – it should be clear from the opening lines of the narrative that Watson was actually sharing rooms with Holmes at the time – had he been married and had Mary for some reason been absent, in all probability Watson would still have been living at home.

    Finally you observe;

    “There are somewhat arcane arguments concerning the phases of the moon that have been levied to support an 1887 date, but as I’ve already noted, Watson was not a meteorologist, nor above an occasional bit of artistic license.”

    I am aware of certain analyses of the phases of the moon apropos this narrative, but none that support a date of 1887. I do not see the relevance of the reference to ‘meteorologist’ at all – had you said ‘astronomer’ that might have been relevant. However this matters not – Watson we presume simply described what he saw. If he says there was a “full moon”, for example, who are we to dismiss this – what we should note is the range of actual moon phases that would appear ‘full’ to the casual observer, i.e. 5 to 10% either side of actual ‘full’.

    All I will say is that generally Watson’s observations are a good match to 1888 but are in no way any sort of a match to 1889.

    Finally, in your reference to Jack th Ripper in your Complete Chronology, you write;

    “There can be no serious doubt that Sherlock Holmes would have been consulted on so infamous a case, and we may presume he succeeded in solving it, as after one more brutal killing on Nov 9 the Ripper was not heard from again. For reasons of his own, however, Watson chose never to record or even mention this investigation… although we may note that he records no other cases during this time period.”

    Of course, Watson DID record a major case at this time – he was, with Holmes, on Dartmoor safeguarding Henry Baskerville! You need not speculate (“there can be no doubt..”) or presume – simply follow Watson’s narrative.

  4. Andrew says:

    I’m telling you mate, I don’t know how much did you work to get all these articles done, but it surely wasn’t just a few hours, and for that you have my respect!

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