The Woman: My Love Letter to Irene Adler


I was accidentally involved in one of those discussions this morning, where Holmes fans were ranting about Irene Adler, claiming she’s only mentioned in one story and overused in adaptations. Pity the poor fan who had dared to say she liked Irene and wanted to read more about her. To each their own, I say, and if people dislike The Woman, that’s their prerogative. But it got me thinking about exactly why I like her and why she’s half-protagonist of my three novels.

First off, because I’m pedantic that way, Irene is actually mentioned in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Blue Carbuncle,” “A Case of Identity,” and “His Last Bow.” Those alone give her as many stories as Mycroft Holmes, but there’s a fairly obvious (though continuity-problematic) slanted reference to her in “The Five Orange Pips” as well.

Also, I will make so bold as to say that if Irene is overused, it’s at least partly Doyle’s fault (gasp) for making her one of precious few women Holmes pays even the slightest bit of attention to and perhaps the only one he has much of any sort of emotional reaction toward (emotion in the general sense, not necessarily romantic). Now, that isn’t to say I appreciate all characterizations of Irene, but I personally find it hard to argue that someone specifically characterized as The Woman is unimportant, relatively rare though her canonical appearances may be.

That said, why do I, personally, like Irene Adler?

The voice of Irene that speaks in my novels came to me, as it were, from the aether. Recent research shows that the reason authors sometimes feel this way is that we’re able to partially mute the judgy parts of our brains and amplify the creative parts when we write, so that it seems, to our conscious minds, like words are being dictated to us from some great beyond, even though we’re actually making them up. Be that as it may, and horrific run-on sentences aside, Irene was just there one day, as I sat down to participate in National Novel Writing Month 2011.

In retrospect, I think she was a bit of a reaction against the stereotypical femme fatale role she often gets cast into in pastiches and adaptations. I had, at the time, just re-read the Holmes canon, and all the mentions of her were fresh in my mind. The person who spoke to me from the pages of Doyle was not an over-the-top villainess or an oversexed vixen. She was clever; she was cunning; and she wanted to live her life on her own terms. I loved her for it.

Maybe she reminded me of myself, a little bit. I’m no Mary Morstan from The Sign of Four, fantastic woman though she is. I’m not nearly that dutiful or beautiful, or, well, good. I’m also no Violet Hunter from “The Copper Beeches,” one of my favorite canon stories. She’s brave and plucky, but, well, she doesn’t seem to be having all that much fun, and I want to enjoy myself. I’m no gun-toting Milverton assassin, either. That’s a bit extreme, when all I really want is to don a disguise and go tease someone on their own doorstep… I think I’d have made a very bad Victorian, and Irene Adler is a very, very bad VIctorian indeed.

Irene Adler is flawed; there’s no getting around it, and it makes me appreciate her even more. Later in the canon, when Holmes is (rather unsuccessfully, if you ask me) narrating his own adventure “The Lion’s Mane,” he gives a somewhat (again, in my curmudgeonly opinion) twaddle-filled ode to a woman named Maud Bellamy that he calls a “complete woman” (whatever that means). Irene Adler is not a complete woman. She has broken places within her and a problematic past behind her. She’s no image of Victorian perfection, but she’s real. Not a perfect woman, but The Woman.

The reason I, in my books, foresee a future friendship and sometimes-partnership for Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler is that he’s no perfect, complete man, either. He can be selfish, cold, calculating, histrionic, insensitive, and difficult. He can also be tender, kind, thoughtful, loyal, and sacrificial. In other words, he, too, is real. That’s why I once wrote a chapter of fanfiction that ended with the line, “To Irene Adler, he is always The Man.” Two sides of a coin, with different personalities and goals, but equally flawed and equally brilliant in their own ways. That’s why, though Irene may only make her mark once in Holmes’s canon life, that mark is so indelible that I can’t resist following the ink stain of her vivid characterization through the canon and beyond, into my own universe.

Perhaps it’s Jack Kerouac who best expressed, in his classic work On the Road, what it is about Irene Adler that I can’t stop exploring:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”

Irene Adler is neither commonplace nor normal. In boy’s clothes or a wedding dress, she is madder than the maddest characters in all of literature. She does not walk in and out of the life of Sherlock Holmes, she burns, and when she’s gone, the landscape of his world is never the same–to the very last of his stories. She’s the roman candle whose explosion lights the night sky of my imaginary universe.

She’s The Woman. And that’s why I love her.


How to get my newest book:

(Book 3) The Detective The Woman and The Silent Hive is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USAAmazon UKWaterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide from Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle.

How to get the previous two books in the series:

(Book 1) 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.

(Book 2) 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.

11 thoughts on “The Woman: My Love Letter to Irene Adler

  1. I have to say that when I read Holmes on my own (or the first half anyway) I never picked up on the significance of Irene Adler so when I got plugged more into the Holmes zeitgeist, when I saw the comeback that Steven Moffat got when he characterised her, I was quite taken aback. I thought that was a great Sherlock episode but the criticism that stuck with me was how could “she” have any infatuation for “him”.

    I read it again, in the light of this, and I have to say I’m still a bit perplexed how some people are so precious as to how “untouchable” Irene Adler is. What’s more surprising, to me, is that in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ she gets married so it’s not as if she’s some heartless ice maiden. I still think Steven Moffat did a bang up job.

  2. Brett is an excellent actor but from the few episodes I’ve seen with him I think he plays Holmes a little bit TOO icy.

    That said, his version of “A Scandal in Bohemia” was absolutely perfect. “A Scandal in Belgravia” was good too, though I hated the ending (not the Sherlock rescuing Irene thing, which I thought was fine, but the “Sherlocked” thing, which was beyond idiotic).

  3. That said, I have a theory for the Belgravia episode: Sherlock did NOT know that “Sherlocked” was the password, but he was running out of ideas. So he decided to bluff and act as if he’d figure it out, and luckily for him the gamble paid off when Irene let the mask fall.

    So his goal wasn’t specifically to say “I’ve used logic to figure out that ‘Sherlocked’ is the password”, but rather “I think ‘Sherlocked’ is a legitimate option, and maybe if I bluff and act as if I’ve figured it out Irene will slip and accidentally reveal I’m right”. And it worked.

    I think there’s enough contextual evidence in the episode itself that this is a valid interpretation, and I like it more.

      • And for Irene’s part, she’d choose “Sherlocked” BECAUSE she was in love with him. She was banking on the fact that the concept of choosing the name of somebody you love would be something totally alien to Sherlock.

        So although the purpose of the scene in the show was to make Sherlock look like a machine, in reality it shows that Sherlock had a much deeper appreciation for matters of the heart than anybody realized. “Sherlocked” as a password was literally Sherlock’s very last resort. He doesn’t think Irene would let sentiment rule over her emotions so much. But when he’s forced to think it through he realized that maybe she’s banking on him thinking that, and so gambles by pretending he’s figured it out.

  4. Baring-Gould’s biography, “Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street”, defines Holmes’s later meeting and escalated relationship with Irene, and the subsequent resultant child, Nero Wolfe.

    Carole Nelson Douglas wrote eight excellent books about Irene Adler, proving that she had found Irene’s tin dispatch box.

  5. What I found interesting about the Carole Nelson Douglas books were the Holmes/Watson interactions which she managed very well, I didn’t enjoy the Adler Huxley parts as there was too little deduction and rather a lot of happy coincidence involved in the crime solving.

    • One thing that was especially fun about the Douglas books was how Adler and Huxleigh were involved behind-the-scenes in some of the Canon cases, much like how “Back to the Future II” showed what was happening in “Back to the Future I” from a different perspective. I used to email Carole Nelson Douglas years ago about the direction that her series was going, and how I saw Irene ending up as Nero Wolfe’s mother, in spite of how well CND had written about Godfrey Norton and Irene’s marriage. (I think that poor Godfrey died in 1890.) She didn’t disagree, and told me that there was plenty of time for that to happen between her books and the meeting in Montenegro in 1891. Since she stopped writing about Irene a few years ago (except for one short story) I’ve tried to encourage her to start again, but no such luck.

  6. I never liked the interpretation, whatever Baring-Gould says, that Holmes and Adler hook up romantically. I simply do not see Sherlock’s personality working in that way.

    I always found it fascinating that in the first of his Holmes short stories, and the story that would introduce most readers to the world of Sherlock Holmes (his original two novels were never very popular until after the fact, if I recall correctly), Conan Doyle made his hero LOSE, and not ambiguously either. He did not accomplish his goals, and only got what he wanted because Irene gave it to him.

    It’s a testament to ACD’s writing ability that even despite this Holmes still came off looking remarkably impressive. “Losing” to Adler did not diminish Holmes’s skills at all.

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