7 Canonical References in The Empty Hearse

Ahoy, Matey, here there be spoilers! Read on at your own risk.



Not only was Sherlock Series 3’s first episode a knockout example of television; it also contained the numerous references to the original Doyle stories that fans have come to expect. I’m listing seven, in no particular order, though there were many more, some I’m sure I haven’t even thought about.

1) Reunion in disguise

In “The Adventure of the Empty House,” which features the return of Sherlock Holmes after the Great Hiatus, Holmes first greets Watson disguised as an elderly bookseller, and only after Watson fails to recognize him does he reveal his true character.

BBC Sherlock has been light on actual disguise up to now, but Mark Gatiss chose to pay homage to the canon when he had Sherlock disguise himself as a waiter to surprise his friend after his two-year absence and supposed death. The sheer lack of emotional acuity this required will no doubt be discussed for years to come.

2) Big Bad Moran

The plot of “The Empty Hearse” bears little resemblance to “The Empty House,” but Gatiss did choose to stick with Moran as the villain of Sherlock’s return story. In canon, Moran is Moriarty’s second-in-command and the key to taking down his organization. Sherlock did not borrow that plot point from Doyle, but did retain the idea of Moran as a powerful, shady figure with sinister plans.

Gatiss (and co.) also connected Moran to the giant rat of Sumatra, a brief canon reference and perennial fan favorite.

3) John or James

In “The Empty Hearse,” a mysterious enemy sends Mary a text that contains a code. Many of the words are irrelevant, but sharp-eyed fans will have noted the phrase “John or James,” which is most likely a nod to the fact that in the canon, Mary Morstan once famously called her then-husband John Watson “James,” a continuity issue that has puzzled fans for generations.

4) Deduce-Off

In one of the most amusing sequences of “The Empty Hearse,” Sherlock and Mycroft engage in a competition of deductive skill. This directly mirrors their interaction in Doyle’s story “The Greek Interpreter” in which they similarly put their skills to use and Mycroft proves even cleverer than his younger brother.

5) Mrs. Hudson’s Hysterics

Una Stubbs added warmth and comic relief throughout “The Empty Hearse,” but her frying pan-wielding hysterics were straight from the canon. In “The Empty House,” Holmes casually tells Watson that he, “threw Mrs. Hudson into violent hysterics,” by returning from the dead, and Sherlock certainly took the idea literally.

6) Sherlock’s Nonchalance

One of the biggest conversations fans across the globe are having post- “Empty Hearse” is about Sherlock’s perceived lack of emotional sensitivity upon his return, most notably to Watson, but to his other friends as well. This tracks completely with Doyle’s description of Holmes’s return in “The Empty House,” during which Holmes says to Watson that he “had no idea that you would be so affected” and generally acts like perceived death and extended absence are no big deal. Love it or hate it, Gatiss’s characterization of Holmes in the episode mirrors Doyle’s, both in its tenderness and, at times, baffling lack of human understanding.

7) Mary’s Tolerance

The fan community had a certain amount of trepidation about Mary’s characterization in “The Empty Hearse,” but she proved to be sweet, strong, complex, and ultimately invested in the deep friendship of her fiance and Sherlock Holmes. Her character in general dovetailed with the descriptions of her throughout Doyle’s Sign of Four, but more specifically, her willingness to intercede with John on Sherlock’s behalf speaks to the fact that for a great deal of the Doyle canon, she allows her husband apparently unrestricted and unhenpecked freedom to pursue his crimefighting activities with the detective. This, along with her positive interactions with Holmes in The Sign of Four, suggests that she has a high opinion of Holmes much like the one “Empty Hearse” has begun to establish.


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.

30 thoughts on “7 Canonical References in The Empty Hearse

  1. Many more than seven, but good work! “Trepoff,” plus the patient who Watson thought was Holmes (bookseller in The Empty House), using the hat in the Deduce-off references The Blue Carbuncle…so many references, so little time! Love it.

  2. Also, Holmes paraphrases a bit of Watson’s narration from the beginning of Study in Scarlet, about London drawing all sorts, and Watson quotes the end of Final Problem near the end of the episode.

  3. So many more, but yes it would have been a very long blog post indeed! I think the moustache/mustache was a nod to the original drawings of Watson which never showed him as clean shaven. One of the patients Watson saw was also a nod to a relative of Holmes(?) who took over Watson’s practice so he could return to Baker Street.

  4. Another one – There was a reference to ‘A Case of Identity’ where a client and stepfather come to Holmes over the matter of a disappearing Pen Pal. The name Windibank, also corresponds to the character in that story.

  5. I had one problem with an otherwise superb programme, namely that neither the platforms nor the cars (carriages) belonged to the District Line which connects St James Park and Westminster. Mind you, who cares ?

    • All opinions welcome. I formed mine while rereading “The Empty House.” Holmes’s entire attitude toward his return is really odd in that story, and I thought Gatiss did well replicating it.

  6. Pingback: The Sign of Three, Sentiment, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle | Girl Meets Sherlock: A Holmesian Blog

  7. Pingback: 7 Canonical References in His Last Vow | Girl Meets Sherlock: A Holmesian Blog

  8. Just finished watching in US. In the credits there were several letters highlighted in red. They spelled Weng Chiang. Anyone know more about this? New villain’s codename? Google search produces an old Doctor Who episode as the top result.

  9. I Will Sell My Soul To Moffat This Very Instant If He Is Referencing Doctor Who In Those Credits. I Legitimately Lost Sleep Trying To Figure Out What Those Letters Spelled. Moffat! *Shakes Fist*

  10. Nice catalog from you and your commenters, Amy. A canonical reference I missed the first time but caught on a second viewing: When Mycroft and Sherlock are together in London for the first time, discussing Sherlock’s dismantling of Moriarty’s organization, Mycroft mentions Baron Maupertins and Sherlock uses the word “colossal” to describe the Baron’s schemes — a reference to the undocumented adventure of “the colossal schemes of Baron Maupertins” that was noted in “The Adventure of the Reigate Squires.”

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