Irene Adler is a curiosity of a character in the world of Sherlock Holmes. In the canon, as authored by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle she appears in a single story (and is mentioned in a few others). She is not, in the story, a love interest of Holmes (who never has one throughout the series, apparently being celibate in his devotion to his intellectual pursuits). She is an opera singer and actress encountered on the cusp of passing from a fleeting romance with an impetuous royal to a lifelong commitment to a steadier man. And yet, a curious thing happens when writers in later eras seek to pull elements out of the original stories for reconstruction with contemporary storytelling tropes. Adler becomes a love interest to Holmes, and not a shy or virginal one either. To the contrary, Adler is typically depicted as not only able to hold her own against Holmes in wit, but in being a wild performer in the bedroom as well.

For example, in the Robert Downey, Jr. late 2000s film take on the character, she is played by Rachel McAdams as an agent of Holmes' nemesis, Moriarty, and as Holmes former (and occasional) lover. It is shown that they have shared a stormy enough sexual past that she is not only able to lure him to their "usual" hotel room, but is there able to handcuff him to the bed, with no pretense on Holmes' part that this is anything other than their usual sexual activity. In the British revival, Sherlock, Holmes is as nonsexual as ever, but instead of simply being an ingenue, Adler is a dominatrix, a literal leather-clad whip-wielding sex-goddess first seen having lesbian playtime with a client who happens to be a member of the British royal family. When Holmes first calls upon her, she deprives him of clues as to her capacities by coming out to entertain his visit unabashedly in the nude. And in the parallel US reinvention of the works, Elementary, Adler is again quite clearly a former lover of Holmes (it must be established that her daughter is not by him), and in addition to that is a criminal mastermind. In all of these depictions it is additionally made clear that Adler is infatuated with Holmes -- never the case in the canon, where Adler jousted with Holmes intellectually while fleeing a former lover (the King of Bohemia), to marry and settle down with a lawyer named Godfrey Norton, a man she feels is much more honorable, and so she writes to Holmes, about the king: "I love and am loved by a better man than he."

Though there is certainly the implication in the story that Adler led, by choice, a life of more excitement than that know to most women of the era -- she is referred to in the story as an "adventuress" -- she is never a love interest of Holmes, nor a criminal in any act beyond hinting that she will use a desperately-sought photograph taken with the King to upset his marriage to a new woman. But modern times demand love interests and wilder coincidences than Arthur Conan Doyle wove into his carefully confined episodic treatments. And so it seems that any author now taking hold of the story of Sherlock Holmes for adaptation plucks this clever woman out of her canonical relationship and remolds her into something much more serviceable to the salacity perceived in their own audience.


Clockmaker notes: "I should also point out to you that »adventuress« in those days meant something very different to what »adventurer« means to us now. It's something halfway between »gold digger« and »con artist«. It's not complimentary at all, and it isn't meant to imply that she has dashing treasure-hunting escapades. It means that she tries (or in this case, tried, and doesn't want her future husband to know) to make her fortune in absolutely unacceptable, dishonest ways."

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