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or a few trifling observations on
The Master’s income sources

by Kate Karlson, ASH (Kitty Winter), BSI (The Evening Standard)

We Sherlockians routinely examine every aspect of Holmes’ life — some of them perhaps better left unexposed — with a scrutiny that would put his high-powered lenses to shame. So I am not the first devotee to look at The Master’s penchant, nay, predilection, for gambling. The same abilities which made Holmes a great detective also assisted him in developing winning strategies at the track, the fight ring, and the card table. It was not just the amassing of odds and ends of out-of-the way knowledge, but the application of what he learned by observation and study.

We hear of his “curious gifts of instinct and observation” in VEIL. We learn that “his methods were a mixture of imagination and reality” in THOR; that he “loved precision and concentration of thought” in NAVA; and that he “systemized common sense” in BLAN. Combine those indigenous mental processes with his keen judgment of human character, so often seen in the Canon (BERY, CARD, ILLU, COPP). Holmes understood what made people tick inside, even when their exteriors were giving nothing away—what better skill could a gambler have?

Gambling, that is, successful gambling, represented an important step towards financial independence for Holmes. He was a pioneer in his field, and we know that his early career was filled with impecunious governesses and the like. You do not immediately grow wealthy as the world’s first consulting detective. We know he “worked for the love of his art rather than the “acquirement of wealth” (SPEC) and that “my professional charges are

upon a fixed scale. I do not vary them, save when I remit them altogether.” (THOR). Baring-Gould points out that by 1891, at the time of FINA, Holmes tells Watson he could retire and still live comfortably. So how did he arrive at such a stage of financial independence in such a relatively short time?

Because Holmes had inside information that helped him win horse races, boxing matches, and the occasional card game. It’s hard to know if his personal attraction to the sports of horse racing and boxing made him take more of a professional interest in those activities, especially their criminal underbellies, or vice versa. Whichever way the cards were dealt, Holmes knew when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.

Boxing was one of Holmes’ preferred sports in college, and we have numerous examples of his bettering opponents against whom lesser men would suffer serious injuries. “I emerged as you see me. Mr. Woodley went home in a  cart.” (SOLI) In later years though not an active participant in the sport, Holmes was so well up on the boxing scene as to identify Steve Dixie as “a bruiser” (3GAB) and to know the crime he had committed.

As for cards, there are a couple of intriguing clues within the Canon that point to Holmes’ considerable interest. He was very well aware of those London clubs which

exist solely to provide card playing venues for their members. Two of the most intriguingly titled unpublished cases are about this form of gambling: Major Prendergast and the Tankerville Club Scandal (FIVE), and the atrocious conduct of Colonel Upwood at the Nonpareil Club (HOUN), a known card scandal. Clearly Holmes knew which card tables to avoid and whom to watch when they cut the deck.

For my money, one of the most telling statements is Holmes’ description of Moriarty in VALL in which he states the professor “stood at the head of the criminal chain which ended with the minor criminal such as the card sharper.” A card sharper? I find this peculiar because a person has to be an active participant to be cheated at  cards – it’s quite the opposite of being a random victim of street crime such as armed robbery or property theft, which is what comes to my mind as an example as minor crime. But for Holmes, the card sharper was someone who could seriously imperil his own financial stability, and as such, worthy of professional attention.