Those habits of observation and inference which I had already formed into a system…I had not yet appreciated the part which they were to play in my life.
—"The Adventure of the Gloria Scott"
Not until the fifth story of the Memoirs, first published in the Strand and then in Harper's Weekly in America in April of 1893 does the collection merit its eventual name. In a reversal of the previous narrative trend established by both the Adventures and the early novels, Holmes begins to recall to Watson his earlier exploits. Perhaps most telling of these tales is the “Gloria Scott,” placed by many readers as Holmes’s “first case,” although this distinction is not one that Holmes himself endorses and is probably more suitably reserved for some later mystery. The detective goes on to name several, including “the Tarleton murders, and the case of Vamberry, the wine merchant, and the adventure of the old Russian woman, and the singular affair of the aluminium crutch, as well as a full account of Ricoletti of the club-foot, and his abominable wife”) and we know by virtue of the detective’s later tale that the third case was “The Musgrave Ritual.” However, Holmes never suggests an order of events that occurred between the “Gloria Scott,” and his consultancy. As such, we might instead think of the “Gloria Scott” as Holmes’s first attempt at deduction beyond the mere realm of the theoretical, or abstract. This is Holmes’s first time playing, as it were, for real stakes.
The “Gloria Scott” also stands as one of the monumental stories which inaugurate Sherlockian scholarship, most notably through Ronald A. Knox’s 1911 mildly satirical speech for the Gryphon Club, entitled ‘Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes.’ Knox addresses some key points of contention with the narrative (with tongue firmly in cheek):
The ‘Gloria Scott’ is condemned… partly on the ground of the statement that Holmes was only up for two years at College, while he speaks in the ‘Musgrave Ritual’ of ‘my last years’ at the University…The ‘Gloria Scott’ further represents Percy Trevor’s bull-dog as having bitten Holmes on his way down to Chapel, which is clearly untrue, since dogs are not allowed within the gates at either university.
“Either” university, according to Knox and later, more serious-minded Sherlockians like William Baring-Gould, would be, in Holmes’s case, Oxford or Cambridge. Famously, Baring-Gould contended amid the scant evidence available that Holmes somehow went to both schools. While two years is quite shy of the amount of time required to complete studies, it would even be further away from any serious course of study if one divided one’s time between universities. Indeed, we are reminded of Watson’s comment in A Study in Scarlet that Holmes appeared bereft of “any course of reading which might fit him for a degree in science or any other recognized portal which would give him an entrance into the learned world.” While Sherlockians may continue to attribute scholarly locales to the great detective, it would appear that Holmes described himself as a graduate of the school of hard knocks—and “Gloria Scott” demonstrates a ample first test of his deductive powers.