Giant Rat of Sumatra

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The Giant Rat of Sumatra is a fictional giant rat, first mentioned by Arthur Conan Doyle in a 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, and later used in works by many other writers.

Original reference[edit]

In "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire", first published in the January 1924 issues of The Strand Magazine in London and Hearst's International Magazine in New York,[1] Doyle has Sherlock Holmes declare, as an aside, to Dr. Watson:

Matilda Briggs was not the name of a young woman, Watson, ... It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared.

How the ship, the mammal, and the Indonesian island are associated is not specified. There are a number of species of large rats on Sumatra, with one, Sundamys infraluteus, actually being referred to as the "giant rat of Sumatra",[2] and another giant rat, of the Mallomys family and discovered in 2007 in the Foja Mountains of Papua, has also been compared to Holmes's animal.[3]

Rats commonly colonise ships, and so there is an obvious line of speculation. Holmesianist Alan Saunders has argued that the reference is in fact to events connected with "The Adventure of the Dying Detective", although he identifies the rat as the Large Bamboo Rat.[4]

In Sherlockiana[edit]

A number of authors of Sherlockiana have endeavoured to supply the missing adventure of the giant rat of Sumatra. These tales include:

  • In The Spider Woman (1944), Nigel Bruce's Watson briefly reflects on the Giant Rat of Sumatra when looking through a scrapbook of old cases.
  • In Pursuit to Algiers (1945), a Holmes film starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Watson tells the story of the Giant Rat of Sumatra to an audience on board a ship.
  • The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, a 1974 comedy album by the Firesign Theatre (LP Columbia KC32730) is a pastiche with protagonists Hemlock Stones, the 'Great Defective', and his biographer and companion, Dr. John Flotsom, O. D., part of which takes place aboard the Matilda Brigg. The name of this ship induces the group to perform the song "Frigate Matilda" (to the tune of "Waltzing Matilda"), which has become something of a cult standard.
  • In the 1975 novel Sherlock Holmes's War of the Worlds, Holmes mentions that Professor Challenger helped solve the case of the giant rat, although the actual name of the case is not stated, nor what was involved.
  • The Talons of Weng-Chiang, a 1977 Doctor Who TV serial set in Victorian London, in which the hero (dressed in deerstalker, accompanied by a medical doctor with a housekeeper known as Mrs. Hudson) confronts a giant rat in the sewers of London.
  • The Holmes-Dracula File, a 1978 novel by Fred Saberhagen, in which Holmes and Dracula (who turns out to be related to Holmes) uncover a plot to destroy London with plague-bearing rats, the Giant Rat being a living plague vector.
  • The Giant Rat of Sumatra, a 1976 novel by Rick Boyer, which features the return of The Hound of the Baskervilles villain Stapleton. In this novel, the "giant rat" turns out to be a vicious tapir. (ISBN 0-586-20087-8)
  • All-Consuming Fire, a 1994 Doctor Who novel by Andy Lane, part of the New Adventures series; in this story, the Doctor joins forces with Holmes and Watson to confront Azathoth, an entity from H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. The giant rat is portrayed as an alien monster. (ISBN 0-426-20415-8)
  • "The Giant Rat of Sumatra," a 1996 short story by Paula Volsky, included in Eternal Lovecraft: The Persistence of H. P. Lovecraft in Popular Culture. (ISBN 978-0-9655901-7-4)
  • The Giant Rat of Sumatra is a 1997 title in the Hardy Boys juvenile mystery series, written by Franklin W. Dixon. Frank and Joe Hardy investigate the sabotage of a new musical play based on the Sherlock Holmes story.
  • The Giant Rat of Sumatra (1998) is the second novel in the Baker Street Mysteries juvenile series written by Jake and Luke Thoene.
  • The Shadow of the Rat, a 1999 novel by David Stuart Davies, deals with the rat, a breed from Sumatra, as part of a plot against London using the bubonic plague. The Matilda Briggs is the ship that brought them.
  • The Giant Rat of Sumatra, a 2001 novel by Daniel Gracely (ISBN 0-9714041-0-0)
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra, a 2002 novel by Alan Vanneman, (Carroll & Graf, ISBN 0-7867-0956-1). The 'Matilda Briggs' does not appear in this book.
  • The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, a 2003 collection of short stories by Ted Riccardi supplied an adventure involving the Giant Rat of Sumatra. (ISBN 0-9658164-3-5)
  • Sherlock Holmes' Lost Adventure: The True Story of the Giant Rats of Sumatra, a 2004 novel by Lauren Steinhauer. (ISBN 0-595-66386-9)
  • The Giant Rat of Sumatra is a 2005 novella by Thomas Emmon Pisano.
  • Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra, a 2010 novel by Paul D. Gilbert, provides another version of the case with Holmes investigating the mysterious reappearance of the long-overdue clipper Matilda Briggs.
  • Charlie Marlow and the Giant Rat of Sumatra, a 2012 novel by Spanish author Alberto López Aroca. The Norwegian Sigerson (Sherlock Holmes in disguise) travels in 1893 to Island of Mist, near Sumatra. The main character of this story is captain Charles Marlow.
  • Young Sherlock Holmes: Snake Bite, a novel also by Andy Lane, sees Sherlock encountering a girl whom he first believes is a rat-like creature. This may be what Sherlock later refers to as "The Giant Rat of Sumatra".
  • The first episode of the third series of BBC's Sherlock, "The Empty Hearse", features a "giant rat of Sumatra Road", the codename for a villainous politician, Lord Moran, who is acting as a mole for North Korea and plans on detonating a bomb at an abandoned London Underground station called Sumatra Road.
  • The television drama series Murder Rooms (featuring the adventures of a young Arthur Conan Doyle and his mentor) includes an episode where a circus manager mentions having featured the 'Giant Rat of Sumatra' in his freak show. He confesses that the animal was actually a terrier dog with no fur.

Other references[edit]

  • The giant Sumatran rat is mentioned in the 1972 novel Watership Down in one of the rabbits' allegorical tales.
  • "A Father's Tale," a 1974 novelet by Sterling E. Lanier. Lanier's narrator, Brigadier Ffellowes, recounts his father's story of an encounter in the East Indies with a mysterious man calling himself "Verner", and a race of large, intelligent rats.
  • Braindead, a 1992 film by Peter Jackson, features a Sumatran Rat-monkey, a hybrid that "according to legend" resulted from the rape of tree monkeys on Skull Island by plague rats.
  • The Giant Rat of Sumatra: or Pirates Galore is a 2005 children's novel by Sid Fleischman, but this is not a Sherlock Holmes story. The Giant Rat of the title is a pirate ship anchored off the coast of California in 1846.[5]


  1. ^ Christopher Redmond, Sherlock Holmes Handbook: Second Edition (Dundurn, 2009), ISBN 978-1554884469, pp. 35-36. Excerpts available at Google Books.
  2. ^ Bayard Webster, "Team Dispels Sherlock Holmes Mystery", The New York Times, November 1, 1983.
  3. ^ Patrick J. Lyons, "The Giant Rat of Sumatra, Alive and Well", The New York Times, December 17, 2007.
  4. ^ The Sumatran Devil
  5. ^ Elizabeth Ward, "For Young Readers", The Washington Post, February 20, 2005  – via HighBeam Research (subscription required).