Canon Thursday: Studying Sally Donovan

This week’s character study takes the subject of an antagonist, Scotland Yard’s Sally Donovan. Even though Sally is not a direct adaptation from the Holmes canon, she is a representation of canon concepts. As with last week’s study, this one was written before Sherlock’s second series aired.


Deducing Sally: A Character Study

Sherlock Holmes is a polarizing figure, no matter when or where he appears. Some, like John Watson and Mrs. Hudson, learn to accept and even love Sherlock for his brilliance and eccentricity and in spite of his frequent coldness and lack of expressed emotional sensitivity. Others, found in every incarnation of Holmes’s world, dislike and oppose him, arguably a more normal and expected response to some of his behavior. These characters are not villains or heroes on a grand scale. They are Sherlock’s everyday irritants, the wrenches in the works of The Game. One such character is Sergeant Sally Donovan of Scotland Yard, a skilled, cynical police officer with a personal vendetta against her boss’s favorite secret weapon. The following sections will evaluate her character in detail.

Meeting Sally

Sally is one of the very first characters introduced in A Study in Pink, and she appears in her professional capacity as Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard’s right-hand officer. The immediate implications are clear: Sally is almost certainly skilled, intelligent, and upwardly mobile, or she would not have reached her position at her age. Her frustration with Sherlock Holmes is also made clear very quickly because of her negative reaction to his text-message disruptions of Scotland Yard’s press conference. Lestrade is bemused, but Sally is angry, a difference that carries throughout the series.

As the story continues, Sherlock shows Sally and forensic specialist Anderson an uncharacteristic level of animosity when they oppose his work at the LauristonGardens crime scene. Sherlock is dismissive of most people, but he takes the time to verbalize his deductions about the affair between Sally and Anderson and is obviously aware of the discomfort it causes them. Anderson’s embarrassment is apparent, and he seems to know that he cannot compete with Sherlock’s mind, so he seethes internally. Sally, on the other hand, seems resigned to Sherlock’s barbs, angry, but also cynical, as if she expects nothing else from him. The dynamics of this encounter are worth noting because they indicate a negative prior history between the characters.

Sally acts out her dislike for Sherlock when she becomes part of the drug bust Lestrade uses to blackmail him in A Study in Pink. She forms part of the group Lestrade wryly calls “very keen” to implicate Sherlock in illegal activities. Again, a contrast can be seen between her overt distaste for Sherlock and Lestrade’s more cordial feelings. For Sally, the bust is clearly an attempt to get back at Sherlock for everything she hates about him. For Lestrade, it is a tool to nudge cooperation from an asset he admires but cannot figure out how to motivate.

Through A Study in Pink and The Great Game, Sally turns most of her attention to John Watson and tries to dissuade him from trusting or forming a close friendship with Sherlock. She tells him that Sherlock “gets off on” murder and calls him a psychopath who will some day be responsible for a murder himself. Later, as she sees John’s involvement increasing, she again tries to convince him to abandon the relationship. Her motives for her repeated warnings seem mixed and are not completely clear. Perhaps she wants to hurt Sherlock by ruining his one real friendship; perhaps she feels some genuine concern for John; perhaps she sees herself in John and wants to spare him the angry disillusionment with Sherlock she herself seems to have experienced in the past. Whatever her full motivations, Sally acts as a constant, unavoidable antagonist in Sherlock’s life, a woman who is unwilling to be impressed with his abilities no matter how impressive they are shown to be and who opposes him personally and professionally as much as possible, even to the point of trying to drive a wedge between him and his flatmate.

Meaning of the Role

Fans of the BBC’s Sherlock find themselves divided in their opinions of Sally, with some liking and admiring her character’s unwillingness to accept Sherlock’s rudeness and others deploring her inability to see his brilliance. Either way, Sally is an inescapable part of the first series and serves several purposes. This section will look at her character in three ways: Sally as a composite, Sally as a contrast, and Sally as a window into Sherlock.

First, Sally serves as a composite of several Holmes canon characters. Many different stories feature minor antagonists to Sherlock, unconvinced law enforcement officers and others who dislike his methods and do not believe in his brilliance. At times, Inspector Lestrade is one of these. The creators of Sherlock chose to focus on a different side of Lestrade, the more supportive and paternal side that leads him to become Sherlock’s ally and even, at times, to act as his friend. As a result, they were left with an opening in an area that is almost always filled in Conan Doyle’s stories, the role of the irritant who should be on Sherlock’s side but chooses to oppose him instead. Rather than inventing a series of forgettable characters to fill this position, the Sherlock team chose to create Sally, a recurring character with an unexplained history of antagonism toward Sherlock and an insatiable appetite for insulting him. Sally may not be a popular character, but she is a strong, capable, and believable update of a canon concept.

Second, Sally serves as an accessible contrast between the world’s conventional view of Sherlock and John’s unrelenting friendship. Theoretically, from observing Sherlock’s behavior, viewers can easily surmise that he would be likely to engender dislike in a great number of people. Sally is a specific example of how virulent this dislike can be, and her responses are not difficult to understand. The idea that Sally has formed a low opinion of a man who is constantly rude, abrupt, and arrogant is logical and believable. This is why her behavior provides a wonderful counterpoint to John’s. In the face of extremely eccentric and sometimes sociopathic behavior, John is the anti-Sally, the friend who continues to care for Sherlock no matter what the world thinks. Having Sally as a physical example of the opposite view makes John’s behavior seem all the more poignant.

Finally, Sally provides a window into Sherlock himself through the responses she provokes from him. As referenced above, Sherlock’s response to most people is to dismiss them without a great deal of thought. In Sally’s case, however, he behaves with actual antagonism in response to hers. His behavior can be interpreted in several ways, but some of his reactions seem to be the results of genuine pain. As he tells John early in the series, most people cannot stand him because of the knowledge his deductive abilities give him about them. Bank employee Sebastian bears this out in The Blind Banker when he says that none of Sherlock’s university classmates liked him. Sally’s treatment of Sherlock is an extension of the dislike that has followed him all of his life. Instead of coldly shrugging off her antagonism, Sherlock seems to feel the need to defend himself, proving that he capable of being hurt. Without Sally, this dimension of Sherlock’s humanness would be less apparent.


The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

1 thought on “Canon Thursday: Studying Sally Donovan

  1. Reblogged this on M. B. Scully and commented:
    It’s not often that I find a post exploring Sally as an actual character, rather than just bashing her for her treatment of Sherlock. While we as an audience love Sherlock because we know why he acts the way he does and can look deeper into his character, I’ve found that Sally’s treatment of him is actually how most of us would treat a person like Sherlock in real life. A post like this shows that Sally isn’t just a flat, irritating character who’s only job is to provide a bit of conflict.

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