The Adventure of the Dying Detective

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"The Adventure of the Dying Detective"
Dr. Watson.jpg
Holmes in his bed, illustration by Walter Paget
AuthorArthur Conan Doyle
SeriesHis Last Bow
Publication date1913

"The Adventure of the Dying Detective", in some editions simply titled "The Dying Detective" (first published 1913), is one of the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Together with seven other stories, it is collected as His Last Bow (published 1917).

Plot summary[edit]

Dr. Watson is called to tend Holmes, who is apparently dying of a rare tropical disease, Tapanuli fever, contracted while he was on a case. Watson is shocked, not having heard about his friend's illness. Mrs. Hudson says that Holmes has neither eaten nor drunk anything in three days.

Holmes instructs Watson not to come near him, because the illness is highly infectious. In fact, he scorns to be treated by Watson and insults his abilities, astonishing and hurting the doctor. Although Watson wishes to examine Holmes himself or call in a specialist, Holmes demands that Watson wait several hours before seeking help. So, Watson is forced to wait, in extreme worry as Holmes mutters nonsense.

While Watson waits, he examines several objects in Holmes's room. Holmes grows angry when Watson touches items explaining that he does not like his things touched.

At six o'clock, Holmes tells Watson to turn the gaslight on, but only half-full. He then instructs Watson to bring Mr Culverton Smith of 13 Lower Burke Street to see Holmes, but to make sure that Watson returns to Baker Street before Smith arrives.

Watson goes to Smith's address. Although Smith refuses to see anyone, Watson forces his way in. Once Watson explains his errand on behalf of Sherlock Holmes, Smith's attitude changes drastically. Smith agrees to come to Baker Street within a half hour. Watson excuses himself, saying that he has another appointment, and returns to Baker Street before Smith's arrival.

Believing that they are alone, Smith is frank with Holmes. It soon emerges, to the hiding Watson's horror, that Holmes has been sickened by the same illness that killed Smith's cousin Victor. Smith then sees the little ivory box, which he had sent to Holmes by post, and which contains a sharp spring infected with the illness. Smith pockets it, removing the evidence of his crime. He then resolves to stay there and watch Holmes die.

Holmes asks Smith to turn the gas up full, which Smith does. Smith then asks Holmes if he would like anything else, to which Holmes replies—no longer in the voice of a man near death—"a match and a cigarette." Inspector Morton then enters—the full gaslight was the signal to move in. Holmes tells Morton to arrest Culverton Smith for the murder of his cousin, and perhaps also for the attempted murder of Sherlock Holmes. Smith, still as arrogant as ever, points out that his word is as good as Holmes' in court, but Holmes then calls for Watson to emerge from behind the screen, to present himself as another witness to the conversation.

Holmes explains his illness was feigned as a ruse to induce Smith to confess to his cousin's murder. Holmes was not infected by the little box; he has enough enemies to know that he must always examine his mail carefully before he opens it. Starving himself for three days and the claim of the "disease's" infectious nature was to keep Watson from examining him and discovering the ruse, since, as he clarifies, he has every respect for his friend's medical skills.

Period details[edit]

In the story, the killer Culverton Smith's motive for killing his cousin, Victor Savage, is mentioned in an offhand remark by Holmes that Savage stood between "this monster [Smith] and a reversion." The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes has a note for this word:

"In this instance, "reversion" refers to the undisposed-of part of an estate, which will presumably fall into possession of the original grantor or his representative. Note that in "Shoscombe Old Place," the eponymous residence reverts to the brother of the late Sir James Falder upon the death of Sir James' widow, Lady Beatrice."[1]

The setting date may be inferred from Watson's mention of it being "the second year of my marriage", the first having been 1889. Inspector Morton is referred to in a familiar fashion but this is his only appearance in canon. Canonical scholar Leslie S. Klinger wondered if Morton was the companion to Inspector Brown in The Sign of the Four.[2]

Tropical disease specialist William A. Sodeman, Jr., proposed that "Tapanuli fever" was melioidosis,[3] a conclusion supported by physician Setu K. Vora.[4] Vora raised the possibility that Conan Doyle read the first report of melioidosis published in 1912 before writing his short story in 1913.


  • 1921 short film adaptation in the Stoll film series starring Eille Norwood as Holmes.[5]
  • 1947 radio episode of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, starring Tom Conway as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson.[6] This version features Inspector Lestrade instead of Inspector Morton.
  • 1951 TV episode of We Present Alan Wheatley as Mr Sherlock Holmes in... starring Alan Wheatley as Holmes, Raymond Francis as Dr. Watson and Bill Owen as Inspector Lestrade.[7] The episode is now lost.[7]
  • 1994 TV episode of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes, Edward Hardwicke as Watson, and Jonathan Hyde as Culverton Smith.[8] This version is faithful to the original short story but greatly expanded. It features much more detail on Smith's cousin, who is instead portrayed as Smith's cousin.[9]
  • 1994 BBC Radio 4 episode dramatised by Robert Forrest as part of Bert Coules' complete radio adaptation of the canon, starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson, and featuring Edward Petherbridge as Culverton Smith and Alex Jennings as Savage.[10]
  • 2012 TV episode of Elementary starring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes, which is the ninth episode of the first season, mirrors many elements from the story, albeit with Holmes simply ill from a more conventional disease that thus limits his ability to conduct fieldwork.[11]
  • A 2017 episode of Sherlock includes the character Culverton Smith, portrayed by Toby Jones. The title of the episode, "The Lying Detective", is a play on the title of the original story.[12] Unlike the original tale, where Culverton Smith is only suggested to have committed one murder, "The Lying Detective" presents him as a wealthy philanthropist who has arranged for a particular room in a hospital he sponsors to have a secret passage that he can use to sneak in and kill anyone being treated in it. Alerted to Smith's true nature by his apparently psychotic daughter as part of an unknown agenda, Sherlock uses this as an opportunity to create a dangerous situation that John Watson can save him from to fulfill Mary Watson's last request to save John from his grief after her death, deliberately falling off the wagon and reverting to an old drug habit so that he can be regarded as simply delusional, attacking Culverton and accusing him of being a serial killer so that he will be sent to Smith's hospital for treatment. This gives Sherlock a chance to hear Culverton's confession via a recording device hidden in John's old cane, which he had predicted John would leave with him after he was sent to hospital. Although the original confession is ruled inadmissible as Sherlock basically acquired it through entrapment, Culverton subsequently willingly confesses his crimes to Lestrade, gleefully musing that he will be even more famous now.


  1. ^ Doyle, Arthur Conan (5 November 2007). The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories: The Return of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (Vol. 2). W. W. Norton. p. 1360. ISBN 978-0-393-24182-2.
  2. ^ Klinger, Leslie S., ed. (2005). The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Vol. II. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 978-0-39305-916-8.
  3. ^ Sodeman, W. A. (January 1994). "Sherlock Holmes and tropical medicine: a centennial appraisal". Am. J. Trop. Med. Hyg. 50 (1): 99–101. PMID 8304578.
  4. ^ Vora, S. K. (February 2002). "Sherlock Holmes and a biological weapon". J R Soc Med. 95 (2): 101–103. doi:10.1258/jrsm.95.2.101. PMC 1279324. PMID 11823558.
  5. ^ "The Dying Detective (1921)". IMDB. Retrieved 17 August 2016.
  6. ^ "The Dying Detective - Sherlock Holmes - Tom Conway & Nigel Bruce Radio Shows". Classic Radio World "Blog Archive". 10 March 2011. Retrieved 2 February 2013.[dead link]
  7. ^ a b Barnes, Alan (2011). Sherlock Holmes on Screen. Titan Books. p. 296. ISBN 9780857687760.
  8. ^ ""The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes" The Dying Detective (TV episode 1994)". IMDB. Retrieved 17 August 2016.
  9. ^ Barnes, Alan (2011). Sherlock Holmes on Screen. Titan Books. pp. 114–116. ISBN 9780857687760.
  10. ^ Coules, Bert. "His Last Bow". The BBC complete audio Sherlock Holmes. Retrieved 12 December 2016.
  11. ^ Broyles, Britney. "Crime and culture : a thematic reading of Sherlock Holmes and his adaptations". University of Louisiana. Retrieved 9 December 2018.
  12. ^ Shoemaker, Allison (9 January 2018). "Sherlock observes, but doesn't see, in a thrilling but overcrowded episode". Retrieved 9 December 2018.

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