Cover art for an eBook edition of "The Adventure of the Dying Detective".

"The Adventure of the Dying Detective" is a Sherlock Holmes short story by the British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It first appeared in print in the November 22, 1913 issue of Collier's magazine in the United States and in the December 1913 issue of The Strand magazine in the United Kingdom. It was published again in October 1917 as part of the anthology His Last Bow.

In the story, Dr. Watson becomes convinced that his friend, the brilliant consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, is dying from a highly contagious disease which is usually found only in Asia. Holmes refuses to allow Watson to examine him. Instead, Holmes tells Watson to bring a man called Culverton Smith to see him. Culverton Smith has no professional medical training but he knows more about the disease which Holmes claims to be suffering from than anyone else in the world. Holmes admits that he and Culverton Smith are not on friendly terms because Holmes suspected that the man had some part in the death of his nephew.

"The Adventure of the Dying Detective" has been adapted for radio, film and television.


It has been two years since Dr. Watson married and moved out of the apartment which he once shared with his friend Sherlock Holmes. One day in November, Holmes' landlady Mrs. Hudson goes to see Watson. She tells him that Holmes is dying. He has had nothing to eat or drink for three days. He has been getting steadily worse throughout that time but has refused to see a doctor. He has finally allowed Mrs. Hudson to fetch Watson but still refuses to see any other doctor.

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Sherlock Holmes in bed. 1913 illustration by Frederic Dorr Steele.

Watson enters Holmes' bedroom and is struck by how ill his friend looks. He speaks in a weak and croaky voice and constantly gasps for air. While speaking, Holmes often strays off the subject and begins talking about half crown coins and oysters. According to Holmes, he is suffering from a tropical disease which is usually confined to Sumatra. Holmes says that an investigation recently took him to the docks in the East End of London and that he must have caught the disease through contact with Chinese sailors there.

Sherlock Holmes refuses to allow Dr. Watson to examine him, saying that the disease can be passed on by touch. When Watson says that would never stop him examining any patient, Holmes says that Watson is not qualified to examine him because he has no specialist knowledge of tropical diseases. Watson is hurt by the remark but offers to fetch a specialist, naming three acknowledged experts in tropical diseases who are currently in London. As Watson is about to leave and fetch a specialist in tropical medicine, Holmes suddenly springs out of bed, locks the door and takes the key. He tells Watson that he can fetch an expert in tropical diseases in two hours time, at six o'clock in the evening. However, the specialist which Watson fetches must be the man that Holmes names and nobody else.

Dr. Watson

Holmes tells Watson not to touch the ivory box. 1913 illustration by Walter Paget.

Holmes appears to fall asleep. Watson grows restless and begins to look around Holmes' bedroom. Among the clutter on the mantelpiece, he notices a small black and white ivory box with a sliding lid. Holmes suddenly shouts at Watson not to touch the box, claiming that he cannot bear to have other people handle his possessions.

Just before six o'clock, Holmes tells Watson to turn on the gas lights but to make sure they remain only half lit. Watson is told not to draw the blind. Holmes tells Watson to move some objects onto the bedside table, including the ivory box. Watson is told to use some sugar tongs to pick up the box.

Watson is then given the name and address of the man Holmes wishes to treat him, Mr. Culverton Smith. Watson says that he has never heard of Culverton Smith. Holmes is not surprised to hear this because Culverton Smith has no professional medical training. However, he knows more about the disease which Holmes claims to be suffering from than any doctor in the world. Culverton Smith is currently visiting London but is a resident of Sumatra where he owns a plantation. The plantation is in a remote location and it is difficult for aid to reach it. When there was an outbreak of the disease on his plantation, Culverton Smith was forced to study it himself and became an expert on it. Culverton Smith has precise habits and Holmes knew that he would not be in his study before six o'clock. Holmes acknowledges that Culverton Smith may refuse to treat him. Holmes suspected Culverton Smith of causing the death of his nephew Victor Savage. Consequently, Smith bears a grudge against Holmes. However, Watson is told to persuade Smith to see Holmes, not to force him. Watson is also told that he and Smith should not travel back to Holmes' apartment together and that Watson should make some excuse to avoid that if necessary.

On the street outside Holmes' apartment, Dr. Watson sees Inspector Morton of Scotland Yard. Inspector Morton asks Watson how Holmes is. When Watson says that Holmes is very sick, it briefly seems to Watson that Morton is happy to hear that.

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Watson talks to Culverton Smith. 1913 illustration by Frederic Dorr Steele.

Culverton Smith instructs his butler to tell Watson that he will not see anybody that evening. Watson, however, bursts into Smith's house uninvited. Watson persuades Smith to come to see the dying Holmes. As Holmes had instructed, Watson makes an excuse when Culverton Smith suggests that they go to Holmes' apartment together.

Watson arrives back at Holmes' apartment before Culverton Smith. Holmes tells Watson to hide behind the headboard of his bed and not to move, regardless of what happens.

Culverton Smith arrives. Holmes tells him that he is suffering from the same disease which killed Smith's nephew Victor Savage. Culverton Smith says that it was "uncharitable" of Holmes to point out that he was an expert in the same disease from which his nephew died, a disease usually only found in Sumatra but which Victor Savage caught in London. However, believing that Holmes is dying, Culverton Smith admits that he did kill Victor Savage. He also says that Holmes is wrong to think that he caught the disease from Chinese sailors. Smith reminds Holmes that he recently received an ivory box in the mail. Holmes says that, when he opened the box, a metal spring came out which pricked him and made him draw blood. Culverton Smith sees the box and puts it in his pocket to remove any evidence that can tie him to the death of Holmes. When Holmes asks Culverton Smith to turn up the gas lights, Smith happily obliges, happy to be able to see Holmes die more clearly.

Dying Detective

Culverton Smith is arrested. 1913 illustration by Walter Paget.

Sherlock Holmes suddenly appears to recover. Inspector Morton and some other police officers come into the room. The turning up of the gas lights is revealed to have been a prearranged signal between Holmes and Morton. Culverton Smith is arrested for the murder of Victor Savage and the attempted murder of Sherlock Holmes. The police are told to be careful of the box which they will find in Smith's pocket. Smith is confident that he will not be convicted, saying that there is no real evidence against him and that it is simply Holmes' word against his. Holmes tells Watson to come out of hiding. Watson heard everything that Culverton Smith said and can testify against him.

Later, Holmes reveals that he was never really ill. He believes that Culverton Smith used a trick box to infect Victor Savage with the disease. Holmes was not infected because he has learned to be cautious of all packages which he receives in the mail. However, Holmes realized that Culverton Smith could be fooled into making a confession if he believed that the detective was dying. Holmes says that it was necessary to fool Mrs. Hudson in order to fool Watson. It was necessary to fool Watson because Watson is not a convincing liar. He never could have persuaded Culverton Smith that Holmes was dying if he did not believe it himself. Holmes appeared to be seriously ill largely because he had not eaten or had anything to drink for three days. His look was accentuated by some improvised make up. Holmes did not allow Watson to examine him because, as a competent doctor, Watson would soon realize that the detective was not sick at all.


WV Sumatra map

Map of Sumatra.

A short British silent film adaptation of "The Adventure of the Dying Detective", starring Ellie Norwood as Holmes, was released in 1921. The 1944 American movie The Spider Woman, starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson, makes use of plot elements from "The Adventure of the Dying Detective', "The Final Problem", "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot", "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" and The Sign of the Four.

The third episode of the BBC TV series Sherlock Holmes, starring Alan Wheatley as Holmes and Raymond Francis as Watson, is an adaptation of "The Adventure of the Dying Detective". The episode first aired in the United Kingdom on November 3, 1951.

"The Adventure of the Dying Detective" was adapted as the second episode of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the fourth and final Granada TV Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett. It first aired in the United Kingdom on the ITV network on March 14, 1994. The action begins before the death of Victor Savage. His wife, Adelaide Savage, approaches Sherlock Holmes because she is worried that her husband is becoming an opium addict and believes that his cousin Culverton Smith is corrupting him. Victor Savage is taken ill at a party at his house, which is attended by Holmes, Watson and Culverton Smith. It is Watson (played by Edward Hardwicke) who first becomes convinced that Smith murdered Savage. The scenes in which Holmes appears to be dying take place not in the detective's bedroom but in his living room with Holmes lying on a couch instead of on his bed. Watson hides behind a curtain rather than behind the headboard of a bed. Smith admits to Holmes that he killed Savage by placing an infected mosquito at his neck while he was in an opium-induced stupor. Instead of a small ivory box, Smith sends Holmes a large wooden box of tobacco with two small infected tacks inside it. After he is arrested, Smith tries to destroy the box and infects himself in the process.

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock.

"The Lying Detective", the second episode of the fourth season of the British TV series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is a loose, modernized adaptation of "The Adventure of the Dying Detective". In the episode, Culverton Smith is the most prolific undiscovered serial killer in British criminal history and a wealthy man who hides behind the respectable facade of being a philanthropist and a hospital patron. Rather than infecting them with exotic diseases, Culverton Smith administers various drugs to his victims. The episode first aired on BBC One in the United Kingdom, on PBS in the United States and on Channel One in Russia on January 8, 2017.

A radio adaptation of "The Adventure of the Dying Detective", starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson, first aired on BBC Radio 4 in the United Kingdom on February 2, 1994. A flashback describes how Culverton Smith comes to resent his nephew Victor Savage. Culverton Smith and Victor Savage are both orphans who are raised by Culverton Smith's grandfather (Victor savage's great-grandfather). From an early age, Culverton Smith shows an interest in Asian people and cultures, originally learning about them from books in his grandfather's library. This interest is met with scorn by Victor Savage, who has no time for anyone who is not white. The same interest ultimately leads Culverton Smith's grandfather to call his grandson a traitor to the British Empire and to deny him access to the library. When Culverton Smith's grandfather dies, his entire fortune is left to Victor Savage. Smith kills Savage by getting him to try on a mask which depicts a demon from Sumatran folklore. Two small infected pins are hidden inside the mask. Smith admits to Holmes that he murdered Savage in order to inherit his fortune. However, he stresses that he planned to use the money to fund further research into the disease which wiped out the laborers on his plantation in Sumatra.

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