Doctor John Watson declares that his friend and former housemate, Sherlock Holmes, is a man with a “cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind,” especially when it comes to the topic of women and emotional attachments. Yet despite his abhorrence of anything akin to “love,” Watson recalls, there is one woman, Irene Adler, who “eclipses and dominates the whole of her sex.” To Holmes, “she is always the woman.”
Watson prefaces his narrative with an explanation of Holmes’s relationship with Irene, offering readers essential insight into Holmes as a character: he is intelligent and unemotional, except in the case of one woman who impressed him. It also establishes that this story is not so much about the events that transpired, but rather about setting the stage for this monumental matching of wits between Holmes and Irene.
Recalling when Holmes met Adler, Watson notes that he had recently gotten married, and their difference in lifestyles had, for a time, kept them apart: Watson was enjoying life as a married man, while Holmes continued to cloister himself in his apartment, either in a drug-induced haze or working tirelessly on a new case. Watson misses Holmes, so when he happens to be walking nearby 221B Baker Street, he stops in to visit.
The relationship between Holmes and Watson is also an essential aspect of all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, although it seems slightly distant here due to their differences in lifestyle. Watson notes both Holmes’s dedication to detective work and his cocaine addiction (an affliction that was common in the late Victorian era), painting Holmes as a reclusive obsessive.
Watson can tell that Holmes is happy to see him, despite his typical cold and calculating manner. Holmes greets Watson and immediately lists off details of Watson’s life that Holmes has gleaned from his exceptional observational skills: he informs Watson that he has gained seven pounds, has recently been in the rain, has a clumsy servant girl, and that he has been practicing medicine again. Watson is astounded by the accuracy of Holmes’s observations and deductions, all of which are correct. Holmes insists that it is all a simple process of observation—Watson only sees, while Holmes observes the world around him.
Watson is deeply loyal to Holmes, and accepts his personality flaws as a necessary element of his genius. In this scene, Holmes demonstrates that genius by deducing specific pieces of information from some of the smallest details, and Watson delights in the display. This interaction also establishes the dynamic between the two men, in which Watson is clearly Holmes’s sidekick, unable to replicate the detective’s genius.
Holmes invites Watson to read the letter he has received from a potential client, who announces that he will visit the detective wearing a mask to hide his true identity. The two men discuss the peculiarities of the letter, deducing that it was written by a native German speaker using paper made in Bohemia. As they finish this intellectual game, the client pulls up in an expensive coach.
Holmes takes on the role of the teacher and mentor in this scene, guiding Watson (and, by extension, the reader) through his process of deduction, illustrating how nearly everything they observe could contain a valuable clue. Holmes also makes it clear that he is already one step ahead of his visitor, who believes himself to be incognito.
The man enters the apartment wearing a mask and dressed luxuriously, calling himself Count von Kramm, a Bohemian nobleman. Holmes insists that Watson be allowed to stay for the consultation, and the man begins to tell his story. He has come to see Holmes due to his reputation as an exceptional detective, and he needs help with a case that could “seriously compromise one of the reigning families of Europe.” When Holmes says he knows he is speaking with Wilhelm von Ormstein, King of Bohemia, the man tears off his mask and acknowledges his real identity.
The visitor comes to Holmes for help with a case, yet he somehow believes that he can deceive the brilliant detective by wearing a mask and offering a false name. Holmes quickly unmasks him as the King of Bohemia, illustrating his deductive skills and the power that those skills bring. The King is portrayed as oblivious and self-centered, and Holmes is unimpressed with him, even as he acknowledges the King’s royal status.
The King explains that he is engaged to marry the Princess of Scandinavia, but that when he was younger, he had a short relationship with a “well-known adventuress” and opera singer, Irene Adler. He sent her a number of letters and a photograph of the two of them together, and she is now threatening to use these items to ruin the King’s marriage to the Princess of Scandinavia. The King’s men have tried to buy and even steal the photo and letters but have had no luck. Holmes takes the case, telling Watson to return at three o’clock the following day.
The case revolves around the King’s past indiscretion and its impact on his future marriage plans, but more importantly, the case introduces Holmes to the most important woman in his life, Irene Adler. The word “adventuress” may be an apt term for Adler, a young, unmarried woman on her own, touring Europe and meeting royalty. Yet she is also portrayed from the beginning as formidable, having resisted and fooled the King’s men up to this point.