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Sherlock Holmes and Alcohol: Partners in Solving Crime

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," 2011
© Warner Bros. | Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," 2011
The Great Detective of English fiction was a keen observer of life around him – not least the behavior of drinkers.

The legendary fictional investigator Sherlock Holmes has been introduced to a new generation of fans via a swathe of fresh films and TV productions, as well as a book – "The House of Silk" – authorized by the estate of the detective's creator, Arthur Conan Doyle.

What Holmes's fans may not know is that he much enjoyed propping up the bar at London and country pubs.

Naturally, he had a logical reason for doing so: to pick up on local gossip. He discovered many a clue while nursing a glass at the Green Dragon, “an old-fashioned tavern” in Berkshire (mentioned in "Shoscombe Old Place"); the Alpha Inn, “a small public-house at the corner of one of the streets which runs down into Holborn” ("The Blue Carbuncle"); the Black Swan, “an inn of repute in the High Street in Winchester” ("Copper Beeches"); and the Red Bull and the Fighting Cock, in the Peak Country ("The Priory School"), to name but a few.

Holmes also used his knowledge of wine, spirits and the habits of those who drink them to solve some of his most difficult cases.

In "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor," he located a lovelorn miner, retrieved an errant heiress and foiled the plans of a lordly suitor, all by understanding the quality/price ratio of fine wines. The mystery man "had settled his bill at one of the most select London hotels.”

Dr Watson: “And how did you deduce the select?”

Holmes: “...eight pence for a glass of Sherry pointed to one of the most expensive hotels. There are not many in London which charge at that rate.”

In "The Adventure of Black Peter," Holmes’ awareness of the relationship between a person’s favorite drink and his character and occupation exonerates a suspect (“Do you imagine that this anaemic youth … was the man who hobnobbed in rum and water with Black Peter?"), and unmasks the real murderer, to the awestruck admiration of police inspector Stanley Hopkins: 

“Mr. Holmes,” said Hopkins, “even now I do not understand how you attained this result.”

“Simply by having the good fortune to get the right clue from the beginning," replies Holmes, adding that the murderer's amazing strength, plus the rum and water, "all pointed to a seaman.”

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson in "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," 1939
© Public Domain | Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson in "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," 1939

In Conan Doyle’s canon, drunks often become unintentional accomplices, in some cases for the good – as when Mr Toller, stupefied on drink, leaves the way clear for Miss Alice’s escape from Copper Beeches.

Others participate in their own downfall, for example when Black Peter’s horrific cry as the harpoon pierces his body is erroneously taken for his usual drunken roar.

And in "A Study in Scarlet," Enoch Drebber’s insobriety makes him easy prey for Jefferson Hope’s murderous revenge. The canny Mr Hope then escapes from policeman John Rance by performing a hammy but effective interpretation of a rolling drunk, a performance that does not fool Holmes:

“I’ve seen many a drunk chap in my time," [Rance] said, “but never anyone so cryin’ drunk as that cove. He was at the gate when I came out, a’leanin’ up ag’in the railings and a’singin’ at the pitch o’ his lungs about Columbine’s New-fangled Banner, or some such stuff. He couldn’t stand, far less help.”

“I’m afraid, Rance, that you will never rise in the force,” is Holmes’s dry reply.

Holmes also depends heavily upon his wine knowledge when he visits Abbey Grange. The victim, Sir Eustace, was a bellowing beast when under the influence of alcohol, and wine and its paraphernalia — decanter, cork, wine bottle and glasses — provide our detective with vital clues.

The villains, it appears, have refreshed themselves with a bottle of Sir Eustace’s wine. The long, deeply colored cork – a clue in itself that the wine is of high quality – has been ruined by the use of a screw not more than an inch and a half long. This proves that the corkscrew kept in the dining room had not been used. Holmes concludes that one of the culprits has “one of those multiplex knives.” Could there be a more telling clue to a fellow’s character?

Then there is the sticky problem of the three wine glasses so conveniently left by the intruders. To Inspector Hopkins, this suggests that three thirst-quenched robbers are now at large. But Holmes is not convinced. He notes that the bottle is two-thirds full, yet only one of the glasses contains beeswing, the deposit that sometimes develops in older bottles. To him, this is a clue “that only two glasses were used, and the dregs of both were poured into a third glass, so as to give the false impression that three people had been here. In that way all the beeswing would be in the last glass, would it not?”

Mr Hopkins’s theory that the crime was perpetrated by a gang of burglars is refuted by Holmes, who muses, “I should say that it was most unusual for such men to leave a bottle half empty.”

This observation, as with others of the Great Detective’s insights into the behavior of his fellow man, is based on experience that could only have been gleaned over a drink at the bar.

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