Melodrama and the Sherlock Holmes Stories: A Case of Continuation and Deviation

And here’s another early article I wrote for CADs.


When Arthur Conan Doyle began writing his Sherlock Holmes stories in 1887, melodrama in the theatrical form was in decline, no longer taken seriously. The preceding decades had contributed much to this. New naturalistic acting styles were the vogue and used by leading playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw. Furthermore, this was a time of great scientific discovery, with the rise of Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory. All of which undermined the role of melodrama in varying ways. In particular, new scientific ideas made melodrama’s reliance on providence to provide justice appear inadequate and unconvincing. Yet, these changes did not reduce the need people had for reassurance. Although the Metropolitan Police Force was established in 1829 and in defiance of crime rates decreasing as the nineteenth-century progressed: (between the 1860s and 1890s in London ‘trials for indictable offences … fell by forty-three per cent,’ (Haggard, 2001: 43)) fears over crime and violence persisted. Contemporary literature including newspapers, seized and often enflamed this uneasiness, propagating the belief that the nineteenth-century was ‘our great period in murder’ (Orwell, 1965: 9).  Sensation fiction intimated that behind closed doors, dark and disturbing secrets and crimes were being hidden, whilst police reports in newspapers such as Reynold’s and Lloyd’s, although about real events, were written in such a way that ‘they were read more as fiction or entertainment than as news’ (Brown, 1985: 96). Moreover, crime fiction, (including the Sherlock Holmes stories) regularly maintained the idea that the police were incompetent or incapable of solving serious crimes, particularly unusual cases such as the Prefect in Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin story ‘The Purloined Letter’ (1845) and also Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868). Consequently, it is easy to understand how the emergence of the consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, fulfilled the public’s need for an individual who employed trusted methods of logic, science and reasoning to solve mysteries. Holmes also created an illusion of safety, a world where wrongs are always discovered, and puzzles can be explicated. However, rather than melodrama simply becoming obsolete, I think Doyle absorbed and frequently transformed components of the melodramatic form in his Sherlock Holmes stories, especially in his utilisation of stock characters, codified gestures, behaviour and clothes, the melodramatic rationale of morality and plot structure.

Stock Characters

On a basic level, the characters in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are often similar to the characters found in typical nineteenth-century melodramas, as they both employ archetypes. Scanning numerous cast-lists of nineteenth-century melodramas quickly confirms the most common characters: the hero, the heroine, the villain and either the doting or overbearing father. All these types are palpable in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories too. Holmes embodies the hero figure, who is pitted against antagonists such as Professor Moriarty in ‘The Final Problem’ (1893). Many of Holmes’ clients were often distressed heroines like Helen Stoner in ‘The Speckled Band’ (1892) where she is described as being ‘in a pitiable state of agitation, her face all drawn and grey, with restless, frightened eyes, like those of some hunted animal’ (Doyle, ‘The Speckled Band’, 2008: 172). This is similar to Maria Martin’s murder in the melodrama, The Murder in the Red Barn (c. 1840). Here

Merchandise produced in the aftermath of the killing.

Maria’s actions of begging on her knees, screaming and clinging to her killer, present her too as a terrified victim. Using characters familiar to his audience helped Doyle’s stories offer security on the one hand, as readers knew what to expect and on the other hand, it produced a greater impact when he created characters which deviated from their stereotypes.

However, despite criticisms of Doyle’s conventional and well-used characters as being ‘merely … contrived cardboard constructions’ (Gvella, 1976: 48) there is evidence that on a deeper level Doyle’s characters often transformed and broke their habituated moulds. For example, although Doyle used the stock character of the troubled heroine, very often he portrayed them with strong personalities, even though being in danger, such as Miss Smith in ‘The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist’ (1903). Moreover, Doyle went beyond presenting women as victims and gave them the role of villainess instead. Irene Adler, the perpetrator of A Scandal in Bohemia (1891), demonstrates effectively how Doyle forged new effects from typical melodrama characters. This is evinced by the other characters’ perceptions of Irene Adler, which contrast with her real role in the story. Watson feels ‘heartily ashamed’ (Doyle, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, 2008: 23) of himself when he sees the ‘beautiful creature against whom… [he] was conspiring,’ (Doyle, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ 2008: 23) yet, by the story’s denouement this guilt has diminished as Watson reflects that ‘the best made plans of Mr Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit’ (Doyle, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, 2008: 29). Presenting femininity as strong and intelligent is significant, as it veers away from how women are often depicted in melodrama, regularly being relegated to functions like victim, such as Maria in The Murder in the Red Barn, or as inferior accomplices such as Mrs Lovett, who assists Sweeney Todd in The String of Pearls (1847) by George Dibdin Pitt.

Doyle also utilised and adapted another stereotypical character in his Sherlock Holmes stories: the villain. Quintessential features of a nineteenth-century melodrama villain were aristocratic birth, being inherently evil and acting as a foil to the hero. However, in successive decades, a new type of villain emerged. Judith Flanders notes how criminals were evolving in literature, becoming ‘more psychologically reflective and … [were] not only educated … [they were] cleverer than anyone else’ (Flanders, 2011: 293). An early example of this is Count Fosco in Wilkie Collin’s Woman in White (1860). This is because unlike melodrama villains, who were naturally bad, Count Fosco’s villainy was only exercised when necessary, rooted within his superior intelligence. Within the novel he is shown to have a caring side in his devotion to his pets and also appears likeable. A similar thing is perceptible in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ stories, in figures such as Professor Moriarty who is a maths professor, not an aristocrat. He only became a powerful criminal through his intelligence and cunning and Holmes sees their conflict as a psychological battle, ‘as the most brilliant bit of trust and parry work’ (Doyle, ‘The Final Problem’, 1996: 488). Nevertheless, Doyle did make his own innovations. In particular he showed that most villains are in fact ordinary people acting upon base human desires. ‘A Case of Identity’ (1891) epitomises this as the villain is an ordinary man, Mr Windibank, who is desperate to hold onto his stepdaughter’s money. He cleverly fools her into promising only to marry him, whilst disguised as another man, to then just disappear without a trace. This new villain had important implications for the hero, as in literature if criminal intelligence was increasing, as indicated by Flanders, then the hero/detective needed to match this.

The hero and the villain, staple figures of nineteenth-century melodrama are also transformed by Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’ stories when he shifts the focus from the villain to the hero. In nineteenth-century melodrama, ‘villainy’ was the ‘propelling force’ (Powell, 2004: 158) and consequently the heroes were not often the protagonists, their role was a defensive one, to react against the villain’s machinations. The Bells (1871) by Leopold Lewis asseverates this, as it is Mathias’ (the villain’s) descent into guilt induced madness which accelerates the marriage of his daughter to Christian (the hero figure) and ultimately his madness leads him to believe he has been caught, which leads to a heart attack. Doyle changed this by placing the emphasis on the hero who solves the mystery rather than malefactor who causes it. This is demonstrated through Doyle’s presentation of Sherlock Holmes. His status as a hero is conveyed in numerous ways. Firstly the majority of the stories are narrated by Watson who as Holmes’ biographer succumbs to hero worship; ‘I had often admired my friend’s courage, but never more than now’ (Doyle, ‘The Final Problem’, 1996: 491). As a result, Watson consistently portrays Sherlock Holmes as a hero, with superior powers and authority. The celebrity recognition Holmes receives in the stories reinforces this, as exemplified by ‘The Adventure of the Six Napoleons’ (1904), where upon Holmes solving the case Watson and Inspector Lestrade spontaneously applaud him. This suggests how the other characters are frequently in awe of Holmes’ powers of deduction and reasoning.

By promoting the hero’s status, Doyle diverged from the forms appropriated by nineteenth-century melodramatists as often their heroes had less prestige and power such as Stephano in Thomas Halcroft’s A Tale of Mystery (1802) and Christian in The Bells. Both characters, although typified as heroes are uninvolved in the villain’s downfall, as in A Tale of Mystery it is other characters’ who bring about Count Romaldi’s comeuppance and in The Bell’s, it is Mathias’ insanity that precipitates his demise. Doyle also developed the hero’s role in his stories through his lexical choices. Unlike nineteenth-century melodramas he frequently added rhetorical language to Sherlock Holmes’ speech. ‘Wisteria Lodge’ (1908) illustrates this when Holmes says ‘We can’t let such a situation continue. If the law can do nothing we must take the risk ourselves’ (Doyle, ‘Wisteria’, 1993: 257). The combination of the dominant personal pronoun ‘we’ and the imperative deontic modal verb ‘must’ displays Holmes as heroic, valiant and as a knightly champion. Ian Ousby asseverates this saying ‘the stories present Holmes as a solitary crusader on behalf of the weak and helpless individual’ (Ousby, 1976: 166). This portrayal of the hero differs to heroes in nineteenth-century melodramas as Holmes is depicted as dynamic and active. Furthermore, his language style was usually given to Villains in nineteenth-century melodramas. Sweeney Todd in The String of Pearls for example uses dramatic rhetoric when murdering Mrs Lovett: ‘Idiot! You should have known Sweeney Todd better … Behold! [Murder takes place] … Now let the furnace consume the body … and destroy all evidence of my guilt’ (Pitt, 1974: 255). Here too personal pronouns are employed for dramatic effect, reflecting how Sweeney Todd dictates the situation and holds the power, which is something that Holmes himself often possesses, due to his superior height, authoritative presence and intellect.


Structure is another area in which Doyle used and transformed components of nineteenth-century melodrama. Both Sherlock Holmes stories and nineteenth-century melodramas have a strong sense of formula. They commence with an equilibrium that is disrupted due to conflict caused by the villain, but is ultimately restored, mostly through providence in the nineteenth-century melodramas and reasoning/logic in the Sherlock Holmes stories. This repetition creates familiarity for the audience/reader and again offers reassurance that good will defeat evil.

Furthermore, despite Doyle elevating the hero’s role in his stories, he still used narrative structures from melodrama which made the villain more prominent. In many of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes allows the villain to narrate the revelation scene at the story’s denouement and expounds his actions. ‘The Cardboard Box’ (1892) epitomises this as the murderer confesses and is able to explain why he killed his wife and her lover. This technique is found in nineteenth-century melodramas such as The Bells where throughout the play it is Mathias’ remarks which identify him as the murderer and reveal his mercenary motives. For example he says ‘the people about here are such idiots they suspect nothing … that girdle did us a good turn – without it … we are ruined’ (Lewis, 1964: 363 – 364). Although this supports Doyle using nineteenth-century melodrama conventions, the role it performs in each text differs significantly. In the nineteenth-century melodramas, the villain is required to divulge the truth to the audience as corroborated by the above example, because without it the truth would inevitably remain concealed. Whereas, in the Sherlock Holmes’ stories, Holmes often uses the criminals to narrate their crimes to confirm what he already knows and this only occurs after he has apprehended them.

Moreover, Doyle also modified nineteenth-century melodrama formula by pacing the revealing of information within his stories. The String of Pearls and Doyle’s ‘His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes’ (1917) is a good example of this difference. In The String of Pearls the audience quickly discovers Sweeney Todd is a barber who kills his customers for their possessions. Whilst in ‘His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes’ information is disclosed slower. It is not until near the story denouement that the real identity of Altamont and the chauffeur are revealed as Holmes and Watson, who were working undercover to catch German spies. Another example of Doyle’s delaying information includes ‘The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter’ (1904), where Holmes receives an incoherent message, which postpones the disclosure of the case details. This has the effect of increasing tension and excitement.

Another way Doyle diverged from the structural conventions of nineteenth-century melodrama is by using different techniques within his stories to find the truth. Holmes is frequently depicted as an advocate of reasoning and science as the true methods of solving crime. Doyle achieved this in many ways such as the inclusion of scientific objects in his stories, which reinforced the association between Holmes and science such as in the opening sentence of ‘Shoscombe Old Place’ (1927); ‘Sherlock Holmes had been bending for a long time over a low-power microscope’ (Doyle, ‘Shoscombe Old Place’, 1993: 195). In addition, Holmes’ language emphasises the importance of scientific method as in ‘The Copper Beeches’ (1892) he exclaims, ‘Data! Data! Data! … I can’t make bricks without clay’ (Doyle, ‘The Copper Beeches’, 2008: 279). This contrasts to the nineteenth-century melodramas where the criminal is recurrently caught by fate or providence, such as in The Murder in the Red Barn, where the other characters are first suspicious of Maria having been killed after her mother dreams about her and when William Corder is caught he says, ‘Fate – fate thou hast indeed caught me’ (Anonymous, 1974: 233). The change from seeking reassurance through providence to science is symbolic of the increasing importance placed upon science in Victorian culture. Critics such as Stephen King have noted that Victorian culture at the time had an ‘aura of science … the steady collection and analysis of data,’ (King, 1980: 79) which the character of Sherlock Holmes embodies. Moreover, when Doyle was writing, many other writers registered the zeitgeist of the time, this belief in the power of science and created detective characters who manifested these qualities of reasoning, deduction and scientific principles. Professor Van Dusen, known as the Thinking Machine created by Jacques Futrelleare and Malcolm Sage in ‘The Surrey Cattle Maiming Mystery’ by Herbert Jenkins are but a few of the numerous examples and this prevalence of similar scientific detectives supports the change from faith to science.

Dramatic Gestures

Exaggerated gesture and displays of emotion are concepts strongly associated with melodramas as a theatrical form, since in its beginnings it was often performed outside licensed theatres and therefore prohibited by law from using dialogue. Yet when it was performed within theatres, the amplified displays of sentiment were continued. Overstated gesture served an important function in conveying essential information to the audience about characters’ feelings and intentions. Critics like Deborah Vlook support this, suggesting that external signs’ in nineteenth-century melodrama were used to aid ‘understanding of the human psyche’ (Vlook, 1998: 34). Ticket of Leave Man (1863) by Tom Taylor exemplifies this as May signifies her despair through her body language by sinking into a chair and putting her face in her hands. This way of displaying emotion can be seen in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, not just in plot content and character response but also in the artwork which accompanied the stories. By examining the two illustrations below, (Figures 1 and 2) strong similarities can be observed between the two and the emotions/information they wish to convey. Both drawings show a woman kneeling at a man’s feet and the gestures used here depict the female figures as miserable and the male figures as angry. It can be conjectured that by the men looking away from the women, that the women have displeased them.

However, on closer examination of the Sherlock Holmes stories, it is noticeable that Doyle did more than copy this melodrama technique. Doyle adapted it for his own purposes, which are to suggest that outward appearances can beguile as well as reveal and also to undermine the seriousness of such dramatic gestures. This is exemplified when Holmes uses dramatic gestures for his own means. Within the stories, Holmes usually has two reasons for deploying exaggerated gesture. The first is that it enables him to discover information secretly. In ‘The Reigate Squires’ (1883), Holmes’ face is said to have ‘suddenly assumed the most dreadful expression. His eyes rolled upwards, his features writhed in agony and with a suppressed groan he dropped on his face upon the ground’ (Doyle, ‘The Reigate Squires’, 1996: 385). This focus on facial expression and the use of negative adjectives such as ‘writhed,’ ‘agony’ and ‘dreadful’ all present Holmes as acting melodramatically. This scene becomes all the more a performance when it is realised later that Holmes only feigned illness in order to distract the criminals.

Melodramatic gesture, as mentioned above by Deborah Vlook is supposed to make it easier to understand a person’s thoughts and feelings, but here it is the opposite and becomes a form of deception. This shows how Doyle used a nineteenth-century melodrama convention, yet simultaneously challenges it and breaks the pattern of codified behaviour, making human behaviour less predictable. The second reason Holmes uses dramatic gesture is because he loves performing, which is documented extensively in the stories. The Valley of Fear (1915), illustrates this effectively as Holmes acknowledges this trait in himself: ‘Watson insists that I am the dramatist in real life … some touch of the artist wells up within me, and calls insistently for a well-staged performance’ (Doyle, The Valley of Fear, 1996: 301). This implies that Holmes sees life as a drama and that to perform his role as the greatest consulting detective he needs to act in a certain way. This attribute is often visible when Holmes catches the criminals. ‘The Mazarin Stone’ (1921) exemplifies this, as Holmes not only listens in on the criminals’ conversation by switching places with a mannequin, he also creates a sense of drama when returning the jewel to Lord Cantlemere by putting it inside his coat pocket, whilst pretending he is struggling with the case. Within this story Holmes summarises his use of performance saying, ‘I can never resist a dramatic situation,’ (Doyle, ‘The Mazarin Stone’, 1993: 65) which reinforces how Doyle utilised expressive gesture in his stories. This deployment of body language contrasts to its application in nineteenth-century melodrama, where it is used to display genuine emotion.

As stated before one of the reasons for using exaggerated gesture was to codify characters’ behaviour. However, once more, Doyle took an established nineteenth-century melodrama convention and gave it a new function. In particular, Doyle combined the concept of codifying humans via external features with Holmes’ deductions, which astound characters when he tells them personal details about themselves, based on their appearance. Furthermore, these details are more advanced than the inferences audiences of nineteenth-century melodrama would have been expected to make. For example, when Sherlock Holmes examines a pipe his client left behind in ‘The Yellow Face’ he deduces that the man was ‘muscular … left handed, with an excellent set of teeth, careless in his habits, and with no need to practice economy’ (Doyle, ‘The Yellow Face’, 1996: 303). This example demonstrates how Doyle transformed codified behaviour, clothes and objects into a pseudo-science.


Morality is an important concept in both nineteenth-century melodrama and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. The morality of melodramas was very black and white such as in The String of Pearls where murder is clearly shown as wrong and Sweeney Todd is brought to justice. This clear-cut portrayal of morality helps provide audiences with a firmly defined moral code and reassurance that misdeeds will be punished. In Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories this is greatly complicated. On the one hand, the stories have the same role as melodramas in administering reassurance to its readers that good will triumph. Holmes and Watson are presented as figures that fight for justice. This is exemplified in ‘The Adventure of the Priory School’ (1903), when Holmes says, ‘perhaps the scent is not so cold but that two old hounds like Watson and myself may get a sniff of it’ (Doyle, 1995: 111). This not only shows them as pursuers of justice and truth but also intimates how innate this pursuit is to them.

Notwithstanding this, there are times in the stories where morality is ambiguous and Doyle deviates from the strict moral system found in nineteenth-century melodramas. Both ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ (1892) and ‘The Devil’s Foot’ (1910) illustrates this, as in each case Holmes works outside of the law and does not inform the police of who commits the crimes, believing in the first that the thief will not steal again and in the second can sympathise with one of the murderers’ motives. Moreover, Doyle also presented a different system of morality in his stories, as they do not provide reassurance by showing the hand of providence but through the determination and skill of Sherlock Holmes. This helps reinforce ‘the image of the detective as a triumphant spokesman for human reason … who succeeds … in restoring order to a murderous world’ (Gilbert, 1976: 23). The key phrase here is ‘spokesman for human reason’ as it suggests that science and reason is the way forward for society to progress, improve and become safer. ‘The Blanched Soldier’ (1926) supports this point as reasoning is used to solve the mystery, in this case, James Dodd’s friend who is hiding because his family thought he had leprosy and did not want him institutionalised and it was medical science that proved this fear was unnecessary. This illustrates how science can be used to demystify situations. From these examples it can be argued that Doyle’s usage of nineteenth-century melodrama morality is more of a challenging response to it and tries to show the inadequacy of it, which is evinced by the fact that ‘only 18 of the 60 Holmes stories ended in an arrest’ (Flanders, 2011: 438)

In conclusion, the presence of melodrama conventions within the Sherlock Holmes canon is very evident within the language used, the creation of characters, the use of dramatic gesture and displays of emotion and the structure of the stories. However, Doyle goes further than simply utilising these techniques and components of melodrama, instead often challenging them, and giving them new functions in order to reflect changes in society and literature alike. Moreover, the familiarity that these conventions provide and the schematic patterns they produce help to emphasis when Doyle did do something different. Although, it should be remembered that despite these differences, both the Sherlock Holmes’ stories and the melodramas that preceded them shared a common purpose of creating a world, which could be understood and was secure, so even if horrible crimes were committed, there was always someone or some way for justice to prevail.


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