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Irene Adler is a fictional character featured in the Sherlock Holmes story "A Scandal in Bohemia" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, published in July 1891. She is one of the most notable female characters in the Sherlock Holmes series, despite appearing in only one story.


Her surname is the German word for "eagle". As Miss Adler was an American, one might expect that her first name would have been pronounced in the American manner (final e silent). However, dramatisations and dramatic readings of "A Scandal in Bohemia" often use the British English pronunciation of "Irene" with a long final "e" (eye-REE-nee). Granada Television's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (where she was played by Gayle Hunnicutt) used the French (and also German and Dutch) pronunciation with a schwa in the final syllable (ee-RAY-nə).)

Fictional character biography

She was reportedly born in New Jerseymarker in 1858. Though not explicitly stated, her family name gives the impression that she was of German American background. She followed a career in opera as a contralto, performing in La Scalamarker, Milanmarker, Italymarker, and a term as prima donna in the Imperial Opera of Warsawmarker, Polandmarker, indicating that she was an extraordinary singer. Adler retired in her late twenties and moved to Londonmarker.

Dr. Watson refers to her as "the late Irene Adler" at the time of the story's publication. The reasons for her death are not stated. It has been speculated, however, that the reason of both her early retirement and her early demise was a hidden health problem. On the other hand, the word "late" can also mean "former". She married Godfrey Norton, making Adler her former name. Doyle employs this same usage in "The Adventure of the Priory School" in reference to the Duke's former status as a cabinet minister.

On March 20, 1888, according to the story, Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein and hereditary King of Bohemia, makes an incognito visit to Holmes in London. The King asks the famous detective to secure a photograph from Adler.

The monarch reigned from Praguemarker but, in 1883, he reportedly paid "a lengthy visit to Warsawmarker" where he "made the acquaintance of the well-known adventuress, Irene Adler." The two became lovers; afterward, Adler had kept a photograph of the two of them. The 30-year-old King explained to Holmes that he intended to marry Clotilde Lothman von Saxe-Meningen (an unseen character), second daughter of the King of Scandinavia; a marriage that would be threatened if his relationship with Adler came to light.

Using his considerable skill for disguise, Holmes traced her movements and learned much of her private life. He then set up a faked incident to cause a diversion that would let him discover where the picture was hidden. When he came back to snatch it, he found Adler gone, along with her new husband and the goods, which had been replaced with a letter to Holmes, explaining how she has outwitted him, but also that she is happy with her new husband and has more honourable feeling than her former lover, and will not compromise him, provided the King does not try anything against her in the future.

At a time when ladies were supposed to be ladies, Adler had "the face of the most beautiful of women, and the mind of the most resolute of men," according to the King. She had the wit to outdo Holmes, and he admired her for it.


Irene Adler is also is mentioned in the following stories:

In "The Five Orange Pips", Holmes mentions that he has been beaten four times, three times by a man and once by a woman. Since "The Five Orange Pips" is set in September 1887, before "A Scandal in Bohemia", which is set in March 1888, the woman Holmes mentions who beat him cannot be Irene Adler if the chronology is correct. Doyle had made clear chronological mistakes in other Holmes stories, and no other woman is mentioned to ever be held in the same regard by Holmes or to have beaten Holmes. Also, in "A Case of Identity", Watson mentions that Adler is the only person he has ever known to have beaten Holmes.

Holmes's relationship to Adler

Adler earns Holmes's unbounded admiration. When the King of Bohemia says, "Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity that she was not on my level?" Holmes replies scathingly that Ms. Adler is indeed on a much different level than the King (by which he means higher, an implication lost on the King).

The beginning of "A Scandal in Bohemia" describes the high regard in which Holmes held Adler:

This "memory" is kept alive by a photograph of Irene Adler, which had been left for the King when she and her new husband took flight with the condemning photograph of her and the King. Sherlock asked for and received this photo as his payment for his part in the case. This photograph is one of his most prized possessions.

Later appearances in fiction

In his fictional biographies of Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, William S. Baring-Gould puts forth an argument that Adler and Holmes reconnected after the latter's supposed death at Reichenbach Fallsmarker. They performed on stage together incognito, and became lovers. According to Baring-Gould, Holmes and Adler's union produced one son, Nero Wolfe, who would follow in his father's footsteps as a detective.

Perhaps the most important post-Conan Doyle contribution to the Holmes/Adler canon is a series of mystery novels (presently eight) written by Carole Nelson Douglas featuring Irene Adler as the protagonist and sleuth, chronicling her life after her famous encounter with Sherlock Holmes and which feature Holmes as a supporting character. The series includes Godfrey Norton as Irene's supportive barrister husband; Penelope "Nell" Huxleigh, a vicar's daughter and former governess who is Irene's best friend and biographer; and Nell's love interest Quentin Stanhope as supporting characters as well. Historical characters such as Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Alva Vanderbilt and Consuelo Vanderbilt, and journalist Nellie Bly, among others, also make appearances. In the books, Douglas strongly implies that Irene's birth mother was Lola Montez and her father possibly Ludwig I of Bavaria. Douglas provides Irene with a back story as a pint-size child vaudeville performer who was trained as an opera singer before going to work as a Pinkerton detective.

In the 1976 film Sherlock Holmes in New York, Adler helps Holmes and Watson to solve a bank robbery organised by Holmes' nemesis, Professor Moriarty, after he takes her son hostage to prevent Holmes from investigating the case (Holmes and Watson later rescue the boy). Although the boy's father is undisclosed, Adler comments that he has intellectual powers similar to Holmes'.

Irene Adler later appeared in the 1992 TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady, where she was played by Morgan Fairchild opposite Christopher Lee as Holmes.

In an episode of the PBS Kids show Wishbone actress Sally Nystuen Vahle portrays Irene Adler for the adaptation of "A Scandal in Bohemia" entitled "A Dogged Espose".

She is portrayed by Rachel McAdams in the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes.

References in popular culture

  • In "Angels of Music" by Kim Newman, published in Tales of the Shadowmen Vol. 2 (2006), Erik, the Phantom of the Opera gathers his own Charlie's Angels-like team of female agents, the so-called "Angels of Music", consisting of Christine Daaé, Irene Adler and Trilby O'Ferrall. She also encounters Erik and Christine in Nicholas Meyer's 1993 novel, The Canary Trainer.
  • In Shadows over Baker Street, Irene Adler appears in the short story "Tiger! Tiger!" by Elizabeth Bear, which is set in Indiamarker in 1882.
  • Irene Adler appears in the short story "The Adventure of the Retiring Detective" by Michael Mallory, which is set in 1903, and is included in the collection The Adventures of the Second Mrs. Watson.
  • DC Comics featured Irene Adler as a character in one of Eclipso's story arcs. Here, Adler is possessed by one of Eclipso's black diamonds, killing both the King of Bohemia and her husband, before Dr. Watson is himself possessed by Eclipso and stops her from killing Holmes. She later throws herself through a skylight in order to save Holmes from the possessed Dr. Watson, dying from the fall.
  • Irene Adler is mentioned twice in the Case Closed anime series, once in "The Murder at Mycroft Manor", where a book about her 'mocking' portrayal was the motive for the murders, and once in the feature film The Phantom of Baker Street, where she is a player character inside the VR game's Victorian England level. She is shown as the main character Shin'ichi's mother Yukiko Kudo.
  • In a series of novels by John Lescroart, it is stated that Adler and Holmes had a son, Auguste Lupa, and it is implied that he later changes his name to Nero Wolfe.
  • Irene Adler is also the name of the main female character in the novel The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte. The story was loosely adapted by Roman Polanski as The Ninth Gate.
  • In the fifth season episode of House M.D., entitled "Joy to the World", Wilson makes up a character named Irene Adler who is described as a patient once treated by House in Christmas of 2001, whom he fell for but never ended up with.
  • Marvel Comics had a character named Irene Adler, a foe exclusive to the X-Men. The former lover of Mystique and adoptive mother of Rogue, she was a mutant precognitive who went by the codename "Destiny". Before she became a mutant terrorist Irene Adler worked as a detective in Austria.

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