7 Canonical References in His Last Vow

Spoilers ahead; you know the drill. Continue at your own risk.


This episode was as canon-heavy as “Hearse” and “Sign,” so I’m simply hitting the high points here as I did with those.

1. The Drug Den

The place John finds Sherlock at the beginning of the episode is a direct nod to “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” in which Watson goes in search of a man named Isa Whitney at an opium den and finds not only him, but his friend and colleague, Sherlock Holmes, who is disguised and working on a case. In addition, John’s mistake of thinking the woman who comes to visit him and Mary is looking for her husband instead of her son is a sly reference to the fact that Isa is the woman’s husband in the story.

2. Watson Name Issues

This may be slightly debatable, but I find it too interesting not to include. “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” referenced above, is the story in which Mary Watson inexplicably calls her husband “James” instead of “John.” That the writers chose to reference that particular story in the same episode in which the viewers learn that Watson’s wife has a real name other than “Mary” is a delightful confluence of ideas.

3. Magnussen

Lars Mikkelsen’s Magnussen is an obvious parallel to Charles Augustus Milverton, Doyle’s master blackmailer, described by Holmes as, “the king of all the blackmailers. Heaven help the man, and still more the woman, whose secret and reputation come into the power of Milverton! With a smiling face and a heart of marble, he will squeeze and squeeze until he has drained them dry.” Doyle, in turn, based his creation off real-life blackmailer Charles Augustus Howell, who was found mysteriously murdered with a ten-shilling coin in his mouth.

Several of Magnussen’s specific traits come straight from Doyle, in particular his glasses and his disturbingly affable manner. There’s an overall skeeviness to Milverton that jumps off the pages of the canon, and Sherlock managed to capture it more perfectly than I’d hoped.

To learn more about Milverton, a villain well worth your time, have a look at this post and read “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” here.

4. Billy Wiggins

At the sound of his name, I heard millions of canon lovers shrieking in glee, through the haze of my own euphoria.

In canon, Billy is the name of Sherlock Holmes’s young page, and he’s featured in the novel The Valley of Fear and two stories, “The Problem of Thor Bridge” and “The Mazarin Stone.” He’s also featured in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes plays.

Wiggins is the name of another young character, the intelligent child leader of the Baker Street Irregulars, Holmes’s street-prowling network of urchins. He appears in A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four.

Cleverly, Moffat chose to unite two young associates of Holmes–one known for only his first name, the other only his last–into one single character of young but not childish age, smart enough to have the potential to carry on Holmes’s legacy, but also retaining Wiggins’s trademark cheeky personality.

5. Unreliable Narration

Throughout the canon, there are numerous times when Holmes and Watson say things about themselves that, through their actions, are shown to be untrue. It would take ages to pinpoint them all, but generally, Watson thinks he’s much less clever and more foolish than his actions display, and Watson and Holmes speak of Holmes as being much colder and devoid of human feeling than his behavior reveals him to be.

I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but the Sherlock writers’ continual insistence on having Sherlock describe himself as a high-functioning sociopath fits squarely in this category. In this series, particularly, the viewers have seen Sherlock repeatedly act in ways that are the opposite of sociopathic, and the lengths he’s willing to go in “His Last Vow” to protect the people he obviously loves go completely against the idea that he lacks empathy or is unable to form attachments. Even his obvious feelings for his brother go against the idea.

“His Last Vow” also included Mary in the assessment, having her agree that she, too, is a sociopath, which is clearly untrue, based on her genuine love for John and Sherlock, expressed in extremely unusual ways though it may be. This post is not long enough to do intricate psychological assessment, nor am I qualified to do so, but many of the actions of both Mary and Sherlock go against any definition of sociopathy, not just in the area of attachment, but in other areas as well.

Canon lovers tend to value the unreliability of Doyle’s narrative voice, recognizing the subtlety it took to craft characters who, like real human beings, often fail to understand or accurately characterize themselves. Sherlock, intentionally or not, has chosen a similar path.

6. Sherlock’s Personal Justice

Many people have done extensive analyses of Sherlock Holmes’s attitude toward justice in the canon. The Norwood Builder on Tumblr produced an excellent and easy-to-understand one here. The point is that Holmes often (according to TNB about 25% of the time) takes things into his own hands when the law cannot address them adequately.

“The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” is notable because it contains one of the most striking examples of this. For those who are unfamiliar with it, in the original, Holmes looks on as Milverton is killed. He does not pull the trigger himself, but he does nothing to stop or turn in the woman who does, because he considers her act to be justified.

In “His Last Vow,” Moffat chose to have Holmes himself carry out the execution, but the spirit is very much the same. Magnussen is an unspeakably vile man whose power places him outside the reach of normal retribution. Holmes’s strong internal view of justice cannot let him go unpunished, particularly as Magnussen endangers the lives of his friends and loved ones. As he does many times in Doyle’s stories, he chooses to carry out justice himself.

7. Sherlock as a Spy

The idea of Sherlock Holmes going undercover as a government operative comes from “His Last Bow,” a story from the latter part of the Doyle canon, in which Holmes goes undercover to aid the English war effort on the eve of World War I.

BONUS: Janine

In the canon, Sherlock Holmes gets engaged one time, to Charles Augustus Milverton’s housemaid. When he tells Watson, his friend is first delighted and then horrified to learn that the relationship is completely for the benefit of the case. As in “His Last Vow,” however, Agatha the housemaid doesn’t end up caring any more than Janine does.

In an episode heavy with action and emotion, it was great to get this nod to one of the funniest things (in my opinion) that Doyle ever wrote. Seeing poor John try to understand the idea of Sherlock in a romantic relationship is a mental picture that will live with me for years to come.

And One Non-Canonical Reference: William Sherlock Scott Holmes

The writers of Sherlock have made it very clear that they are fans not only of the Doyle stories, but of other adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, such as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. When they gave Holmes’s full name as William Sherlock Scott Holmes, they were not channeling Doyle, but rather a reference to the Wold Newton family, a massive fan creation that connects many fictional characters, including Holmes. Learn about it here.


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.

The Sign of Three, Sentiment, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: A Canonical Defense

This post will contain spoilers for the first two episodes of Sherlock Series 3.

Sherlock - Series 2

Let’s get one thing out of the way at the outset, namely, what this post is not intended to do: This post is not intended to convince anyone to like “The Sign of Three,” Sherlock the show, or anything else. Liking is a matter of taste, and no one should be bullied because their taste is different from someone else’s.

That aside, what is the purpose of this? Well, it’s pretty obvious by now that this series of Sherlock has been polarizing from the get-go, particularly “The Sign of Three,” which aired January 5th and has been the source of debate ever since. Some people loved it; some people hated it–I’ve seen very few opinions in between. The specific criticism I’m addressing in this post is the idea that the level of emotion, sentiment, and overall warm-fuzzies in “The Sign of Three” was somehow anti-traditional, in opposition to, or different from the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I’ve now written two posts outlining canonical references in “The Empty Hearse” and “The Sign of Three.” What I’m doing now is mounting a more in-depth canonical defense of “Sign,” using specific ideas and quotes originated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I’m going to do this three ways: Holmes’s character arc, story themes, and direct quotes. By no means is this intended to be an exhaustive survey of the whole canon; we could be here all day. I’m simply providing a jumping-off point to remind us all how Sir Arthur, surely the ultimate authority on the character of Sherlock Holmes, wrote, and what he actually had his character do and say and how that relates to “The Sign of Three.” After all, if we’re going to throw around comparisons to the canon, we want to know what it actually says, right? Let’s get into it.


Part I: Holmes’s Character Arc

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was in his 20s when A Study in Scarlet, the introductory Sherlock Holmes story, was first published. He was nearly 70 when The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes was published. In the intervening years between the two, he published over forty stories about Holmes, and those stories, contrary to cultural perceptions of Sherlock Holmes, do not paint a picture of a static character who remains entirely the same.

The protagonist of A Study in Scarlet is very young (only a few years out of university, Watson tells us) and certainly the seemingly cold, calculating, socially awkward Sherlock we meet in “A Study in Pink.” He continues that way for some time, leading Watson to say of him in one of the earliest stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” that, “All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.”

Lots of entertaining adventures and comradeship ensues, and then something big happens, something huge, in fact. In “The Final Problem,” Sherlock Holmes decides that giving his life is worth saving his friends. He leaves a note. Let’s talk about it. In this short death-note to Watson, Sherlock Holmes calls him “dear” no less than three times, and states, “I fear that it is at a cost which will give pain to my friends, and especially, my dear Watson, to you.” This is a man who has friends and acknowledges them and regrets giving pain to the one he cares most about. It’s not a stretch to imagine the man who penned these words penning a speech that calls John Watson, “the bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing,” as Sherlock did in “The Sign of Three.”

Moreover, in the canon of BBC Sherlock, all of series three is taking place post-hiatus, when Sherlock is back from the dead. Most scholars of Doyle would, I believe, agree that there are some general differences in the canonical Holmes stories pre and post-hiatus. One of the most notable, in my opinion, is a believable softening of Holmes’s character as he ages. In his first return story, The Empty House, he says, “So it was, my dear Watson that at two o’clock to-day I found myself in my old armchair in my own old room, and only wishing that I could have seen my old friend Watson in the other chair which he has so often adorned.” This is hardly a man who shies away from stating his obvious affection for his best friend.

As the stories continue, so continues the increasing warmth. Famously, in “The Three Garridebs,” Holmes says to a criminal, “By the Lord, it is as well for you. If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive. Now, sir, what have you to say for yourself?” The idea of Holmes making his first and last vow to protect his friend and family in “The Sign of Three” mirrors this quote closely.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll stop here, but an examination of Holmes’s character from the beginning to the end of the canon reveals subtle changes. A young man becomes an old one, and a mind that begins by valuing everything else above friendship is ultimately unafraid to acknowledge his warm attachment. For maximum evidence of the character’s progress, pick a story from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and a story from The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes and read them in immediate succession.

Now that we’ve discussed the changes in canonical character of Sherlock Holmes, let’s move on to the pride of place that sentiment has in many stories from the canon.


Part II: Story Themes

This is the section that threatens to get away from me with respect to length, because the idea that the level of sentiment inherent in the execution of the wedding theme in “The Sign of Three” is somehow in opposition to the canon of Sherlock Holmes is so erroneous that almost every story disproves it somehow. Nevertheless, I’ll try to hit some of the high points, while strongly encouraging those in doubt to go back to canon for themselves.

First, the mother of them all, A Study in Scarlet. For those who are unaware, the plot of Holmes’s first story is entirely based on romantic passion. It’s about a man named Jefferson Hope exacting revenge against those responsible for the death of the woman he loved. The section of this novel that concerns their love story (“The Country of the Saints”) has some of the purplest prose anyone could ever wish to find. For example, this description of Hope’s beloved,

“Many a wayfarer upon the high road which ran by Ferrier’s farm felt long-forgotten thoughts revive in his mind as he watched her lithe, girlish figure tripping through the wheatfields, or met her mounted upon her father’s mustang, and managing it with all the ease and grace of a true child of the West. So the bud blossomed into a flower, and the year which saw her father the richest of the farmers left her as fair a specimen of American girlhood as could be found in the whole Pacific slope.”

Suddenly, Sherlock’s gentle assertion that Mary is worthy of John in “The Sign of Three” barely seems to register on the sentimentality scale, and this is but one quote from a novel filled with such passages.

Let’s continue. Several Holmes stories contain weddings and wedding themes. Off the top of my head, I can think of “The Noble Bachelor,” “A Case of Identity,” and “A Scandal in Bohemia,” in which Holmes ends up being part of the ceremony.

Other stories are sentimental in other ways. “The Yellow Face,” which is notable for Holmes making a mistake in it as well as its intense lack of modern political correctness, is centered around a family melodrama, the climax of which is as follows:

“’And now to-night you at last know all, and I ask you what is to become of us, my child and me?’ She clasped her hands and waited for an answer.

It was a long ten minutes before Grant Munro broke the silence, and when his answer came it was one of which I love to think. He lifted the little child, kissed her, and then, still carrying her, he held his other hand out to his wife and turned   towards the door.”

Such emotional scenes are never far from Doyle’s pen, and several stories contain them. Additionally, “The Dying Detective” has a plot that almost entirely centers around Watson’s ever-increasing emotional desperation over the fact that he thinks Holmes is dying. It’s hardly a cracking caper; it consists of a middle-aged man trying to save his friend while experiencing utmost distress.

Yet another aspect of the canon, seen in The Sign of Four in particular, is the Baker Street Irregulars, the network of children Holmes employs to prowl the London streets looking for clues. Holmes fondly calls them, “the unofficial force,” and Doyle pens them with equal parts humor and sentiment. Those who found either the sentiment of “The Sign of Three” or the humor found in sections like Holmes’s encounter with the little boy named Archie anti-traditional would do well to re-read the chapter Doyle named for the Irregulars.

Now that we’ve looked at some (though far from all) of the sentimental themes in the canon, let’s look at specific Doyle quotes that echo the tone of “The Sign of Three.”


Part III: Direct Quotes

Again, we would be here all day if I reproduced every single sentimental quote from the canon, so I’ll limit myself to a few meaningful ones:

“I think she is one of the most charming young ladies I ever met and might have been most useful in such work as we have been doing.” (Holmes on Mary Morstan in The Sign of Four)



[ it said ]:I write these few lines through the courtesy of Mr. Moriarty, who awaits my convenience for the final discussion of those questions which lie between us. He has been giving me a sketch of the methods by which he avoided the English police and kept himself informed of our movements. They certainly confirm the very high opinion which I had formed of his abilities. I am pleased to think that I shall be able to free society from any further effects of his presence, though I fear that it is at a cost which will give pain to my friends, and especially, my dear Watson, to you. I have already explained to you, however, that my career had in any case reached its crisis, and that no possible conclusion to it could be more congenial to me than this. Indeed, if I may make a full confession to you, I was quite convinced that the letter from Meiringen was a hoax, and I allowed you to depart on that errand under the persuasion that some development of this sort would follow. Tell Inspector Patterson that the papers which he needs to convict the gang are in pigeonhole M., done up in a blue envelope and inscribed “Moriarty.” I made every disposition of my property before leaving England and handed it to my brother Mycroft. Pray give my greetings to Mrs. Watson, and believe me to be, my dear fellow
Very sincerely yours, SHERLOCK HOLMES.” (Holmes’s farewell note in “The Final Problem”)


“Then my friend’s wiry arms were round me, and he was leading me to a chair.

’You’re not hurt, Watson? For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!’

It was worth a wound — it was worth many wounds — to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.” (“The Three Garridebs”)

Many, many more such quotes pepper the canon, and I cannot recommend discovering them for yourself highly enough.



The Doyle canon spans years of a writer’s life and a character’s soul. It is filled with the entire range of human existence. Yes, there is murder and mayhem, but there is also a bevy of weddings and romances and embraces.

It is Doyle’s Watson himself who goes from telling us in “A Scandal in Bohemia” that love and emotion are abhorrent to the mind of Sherlock Holmes to telling us that the detective loves deeply and is in possession of “a great heart as well as of a great brain.” Similarly, the creators of BBC Sherlock introduced us to a man who believed the only reason he needed a friend is because genius must have an audience and proceeded to develop that man, through trial and experience, into someone who understands the value of companionship and love, to the point of recommending it to his own brother.

Doyle was a writer who understood that reason and emotion are both necessary parts of a full life, and he peppered the canon with both, through his characters, his themes, and his plots. In its first two series, Sherlock showed us a great brain. In “The Sign of Three,” it gave us an equally great heart. I believe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would approve.


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.

7 Canonical References in The Sign of Three

Spoilers ahead—read at your own risk!


“The Sign of Three” is one of the most canon-heavy episodes of Sherlock to date, and there are many more references than I’m listing here. This is just a short exploration of some of my favorites.

  1. Clever Mary

“The Sign of Three” had numerous obvious references to The Sign of Four, the canonical novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in which Watson and Holmes meet Mary Morstan, and Watson falls in love with her.  One of my favorites, which went through the episode, was the strong indication of Mary’s intelligence. During the wedding planning scenes, Mary remarks that she can tell when Holmes is fibbing, even when Watson can’t. She also has several conversations with Sherlock in which she relates to him on a level that shows her awareness of his positive qualities and his awareness of hers.

In The Sign of Four, upon being told that Watson intends to marry Mary Morstan, Holmes remarks, “I think she is one of the most charming young ladies I ever met, and might have been most useful in such work as we have been doing. She had a decided genius that way: witness the way in which she preserved that Agra plan from all the other papers of her father.” During this same conversation, Holmes says that he cannot congratulate Watson on marrying Mary and taking away the potential for her to become a detective.

In “The Sign of Three,” Holmes also speaks about not (initially) being able to congratulate Watson, but ultimately does so, basing his congratulations on the fact that the Mary found in Sherlock is worthy, just as Doyle’s version was.

  1. Mycroft’s Weight Issues

One of the humorous through-lines in Sherlock is Mycroft Holmes’s ever-present battle with his waistline. In “The Sign of Three,” we see him exercising, and Sherlock intimates that this is something he does regularly.

The creators of Sherlock have updated the concepts of drug use and smoking to be friendlier to a modern context, and this concept has been treated in a similar way. During “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” Doyle has Watson describe Mycroft this way, “Mycroft Holmes was a much larger and stouter man than Sherlock. His body was absolutely corpulent, but his face, though massive, had preserved something of the sharpness of expression which was so remarkable in that of his brother.”

To update Mycroft for the modern, fitness-obsessed world (and connect Mark Gatiss with one of his finest performances ever), the writers of Sherlock have let him lose the corpulence but continue to engage in a very human struggle with his weight.

  1. The Speech

Sherlock’s Best Man toast is undoubtedly iconic in the canon of Sherlock, and it made numerous references to stories from the Doyle canon. In particular, at the beginning, when he addresses his disdain for love and marriage, he paraphrases Watson’s description of him from “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which reads, “All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position.”

Of course, Holmes’s actions in “The Sign of Three” belie his claims of being without love, just as his actions throughout the canon, and particularly post-Great Hiatus, give lie to Watson’s assertions about him.

  1. Mary’s Maid of Honor

“The Sign of Three” features Holmes enjoying an awkwardly gentle flirtation with Mary’s Maid of Honor, something it would have been difficult to imagine him doing at the beginning of the series, but which jives nicely with his character development in Series 3.

Similarly, in Doyle’s “The Lion’s Mane,” one of the few stories narrated by Holmes himself, he describes a woman named Maud Bellamy, “She listened to a short account from my companion, with a composed concentration which showed me that she possessed strong character as well as great beauty. Maud Bellamy will always remain in my memory as a most complete and remarkable woman.” It would be difficult to imagine the protagonist of A Study in Scarlet saying this, but Doyle did not make Holmes a static character.

Like a real person, the canonical detective grows and changes, and part of this change includes a softening toward people in general and women in particular. The writers of Sherlock have chosen to show this development in a similar way.

  1. Sholto

In Doyle’s The Sign of Four, Major Sholto is a friend and army colleague of Mary Morstan’s father. The character and circumstances are very different from those in “The Sign of Three,” which provides an entertaining puzzle for canon lovers watching Sherlock who can’t help wondering whether or not his actions will mirror those of the original Sholto, much like in “The Hounds of Baskerville,” which similarly used canonical characters in new ways.

  1. Holmes and Children

One of the most humorous sequences in “The Sign of Three” concerns Sherlock coaxing and bonding with a young boy named Archie, who ends up entirely taken with the detective and his gruesome occupation. Giving Holmes the ability to connect well with children is entirely Doylean.

The Sign of Four contains a chapter named for the Baker Street Irregulars, the group of children Holmes employs, and generously compensates, for prowling the streets to gain information for him. It’s obvious from Watson’s brief description of Holmes’s relationship with the children that they adore him and that he, in turn, is very fond of them.

Sherlock has largely used Holmes’s homeless network as a stand-in for the Irregulars, but it’s nice to see a reference to the detective’s canonical ability to enchant the younger generation. Interestingly, “The Sign of Three” also features Sherlock promising Archie that he will ask a grownup about something—indicating that he thinks of himself as more of a child than an adult, echoed in his final words to Mary and John at the end of the episode.

  1. C.A.M.

Mary and John receive a wedding telegram from someone with the initials C.A.M., which is the set of initials that belong to the antagonist of Doyle’s “Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” What exactly this means for Sherlock’s characters we have yet to discover.


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.