The Adventure of the Dying Detective: Themes & Analysis

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

Several of the themes in ~'~'The Adventure of the Dying Detective~'~' are not difficult to discern. The themes of deception and revenge revolve around Sherlock's plot to catch a killer. Sherlock's respect for Watson is a pleasant and insightful theme.


''The Adventure of the Dying Detective'' has a fairly simple plot. There is not much to the mystery, but Sherlock adds to it with all his deceptive ways. He feigns illness and refrains from eating and drinking for three days to enhance the appearance. His appearance frightens his landlady, Mrs. Hudson, to call for Watson. Even Sherlock's interaction with Watson is abrasive. He essentially tells him that his skills as a doctor are lacking, saying he has ''limited experience and mediocre qualifications''. Sherlock has a reason for this. He needs to keep Watson away, for only ''at four yards, I could deceive you.'' Any closer, and Watson would learn of Sherlock's deception.

Sherlock deceives Watson because if Watson knew the truth, he ''would never have been able to impress Smith with the urgent necessity of his presence.'' In other words, Watson is not good at lying. Watson isn't the only one who is deceived by Sherlock. He deceives Mr. Culverton Smith. Sherlock wants him to believe he is near death, for Smith ''would come to look upon his handiwork.'' Sherlock wants this, for it is the only way to extract a confession from Smith. Throughout the story, Sherlock deceives those closest to him, and even his enemies, all for the sake of achieving his goal of capturing the criminal.


Why would Mr. Smith come see Sherlock? Why does Sherlock believe Mr. Smith has a ''vindictive nature''? It appears that Mr. Smith has a ''grudge against (Sherlock).'' This is due in part because Sherlock ''spreads reports about (Mr. Smith)'' around London. At least this is what Mr. Smith believes. He thinks Sherlock is besmirching his good name without a single piece of evidence to support his claims. Since Mr. Smith is very familiar with this illness that has supposedly befallen Sherlock, one might perceive this as an act of revenge against Sherlock.

Mr. Smith recognizes that Sherlock is close to suspecting him of killing Victor Savage. Sherlock knows that Mr. Smith is very familiar with this ''coolie disease from Sumatra.'' Mr. Smith comes from Sumatra, and ''an outbreak of the disease upon his plantation...caused him to study it.'' Mr. Smith sends Sherlock an ivory box, and inside is a spring that if it strikes, will spill blood, thereby infecting the recipient with the coolie disease. Mr. Smith comes to Sherlock simply ''to watch him die.'' This is why Sherlock refers to him as vindictive, and it shows how the theme of revenge permeates the story.


While Sherlock might indeed be ''proud of (his) brains,'' the theme of intelligence doesn't stand out in this story. Rather, Sherlock demonstrates the amount of respect he has for his good friend Watson. Although he indicates otherwise at the beginning of the story, at the culmination, he asks Watson how he could ''imagine that I have no respect for your medical talents?'' Sherlock has a tremendous amount of respect for Watson. This is emphasized further when, forgetting that Watson is hiding near his bed, he questions how he ''should have overlooked you!''

For this simple slight, Sherlock tells Watson that he ''owe(s) (him) a thousand apologies.'' Sherlock rarely makes any sort of indication of sorrow or remorse. In this instance, he makes two to indicate the level of respect he has for Watson. And vice versa. Watson tells Sherlock when he believes him ill, even though the disease is contagious, it would not ''prevent me from doing my duty to so old a friend.'' Watson would risk illness, and possibly death itself, for Sherlock. The story provides a perfect setting to elaborate how much respect these two men have for one another.

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