Naturally, some of the best known Sherlock Holmes quotations and catchphrases come from the classic detective stories written by Sherlock’s creator, British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930).
For example, there’s the famed sleuthing maxim that’s included in thousands of quotation books and websites: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
The first version of that legendary piece of Holmesian wisdom is spoken by Sherlock in Doyle’s story “The Sign of Four” (1890).
Doyle also used variations of it in two other stories: “The Beryl Coronet” (1892) and “The Blanched Soldier” (1926).
Several famous Sherlock catchphrases also come from Doyle’s Sherlock tales, most notably:
- “a three-pipe problem” from "The Red-Headed League" (1891);
- “The game is afoot” from “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” (1904); and
- “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time” (curious because the dog did nothing) in “Silver Blaze” (1893).
However, two of the most widely-quoted Sherlock Holmes quotations don’t actually come from the stories penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
For example, you might be surprised to find out that Doyle’s Sherlock never said “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
In Doyle’s story “The Crooked Man” (1893), Sherlock does say the word “Elementary” to his friend Doctor Watson, after Watson expresses surprise that Holmes had correctly guessed the doctor had had a busy day. But Holmes does NOT say “Elementary, my dear Watson” in that story or in any other Sherlock Holmes story written by Doyle.
That quote actually comes from Sherlock Holmes movies. It was first used in the film The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929), which starred Clive Brook as Sherlock and was released in the USA on October 26, 1929.
It was then reused in later Sherlock Holmes films, including: Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour (1931), The Sign of Four: Sherlock Holmes' Greatest Case (1932), Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), Pursuit to Algiers (1945), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959).
Another line often cited as a Sherlock Holmes quote which does not appear in Doyle’s stories is “Quick, Watson, the needle.”
That comes from a comedic operetta titled The Red Mill (1906), which premiered on Broadway on September 24, 1906.
And, that old operetta is not even a Sherlock Holmes story. The “needle” line is a quip by a con man who is impersonating Sherlock as part of a scam.
The Sherlock Holmes film Hound of the Baskervilles, released on March 31, 1939, further confused the facts about whether it was “real” Sherlock quotation.
In that film – one of the best of a series Holmes films that starred Basil Rathbone as the great sleuth – Basil as Holmes says: “Oh, Watson, the needle.”
There’s no such quote about a needle in Doyle’s stories, though Doyle did tell us that Sherlock was a user of both cocaine and morphine.
In “A Study in Scarlet” (1887), Watson comments that he often found Sherlock in a dreamlike state and “suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic.”
Three years later, in Doyle’s “The Sign of Four,” fans of Sherlock first read about the “seven-percent-solution.”
As that story begins, Watson sees Sherlock injecting himself with a needle and notices ugly track marks on his arm.
“Which is it today,” Watson asks, “morphine or cocaine?”
“It is cocaine,” Sherlock replied, “a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?”
Since then, the drug habit of the world’s greatest detective has sparked continuing controversy, articles, books and a great movie, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976).
Sherlock’s use of cocaine and versions of various Sherlock quotes continue to show up in recent Sherlock Holmes movies, TV series and books. Indeed, the great detective seems to be more popular than ever. And, if you’re a fan (like me), it’s no mystery why.
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