Irene Adler, everybody knows the name. Many people outside of this hobby of ours could be forgiven if they think of Miss Adler as a romantic interest for Sherlock Holmes or a shrewd con artist who is always one step ahead of the detective.
"A Scandal in Bohemia" kicks off The Adventures, and is many readers' first introduction to Sherlock Holmes. So it's not surprising that Irene Adler makes such a strong impression on many people. Her wit beat the best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, so the contralto does deserve accolades. But does she deserve the popularity and theories that have grown up around her over the years?
This character has been conflated into someone that who become almost synonymous with Sherlock Holmes. Irene Adler appears in ONE story. She has only one more canonical appearance than that heretical phrase, "Elementary, my dear Watson."
She speaks only three lines in the entire Canon:
"Is the poor gentleman hurt much?"
"Surely. Bring him into the sitting-room. There is a comfortable sofa. This way, please!"
"Good-night, Mister Sherlock Holmes."
That's it! Three lines. Of course she has that great letter explaining how she outwitted the world's first consulting detective, but is that why she has been lionized over the years? There are plenty of other characters who are wonderfully cunning throughout the Canon, so I doubt it.
Is it because Holmes says that she is "the daintiest thing under a bonnet on this planet"? Holmes is actually quoting all of the men who work on Miss Adler's street. (A lot of people seem to forget that this phrase doesn't actually come from Holmes.)
Is it because she has seduced a prince or followed Holmes incognito? I doubt it.
I think it's Watson's fault.
Doctor Watson, that helpless romantic, kicks off the first adventure of Sherlock Holmes this way:
"To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex."
The reader is now primed to elevate this woman to mythical status. Watson even immediately follows those three sentences with, "It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler." But the die was cast. With those introductory sentences, Irene Adler was catapulted to a height that no other canonical character would ever reach. Countless adaptations and pastiches have turned them into romantic interests (even though Watson SPECIFICALLY say they were not), she's spun off into her own series of adventures, and William Baring-Gould even wrote that Sherlock whispered "Irene" with his dying breath.
All of it is nonsense and it's time for everyone to admit that Irene Adler was a great adversary, but that's it. Let her live her life unencumbered by Sherlock Holmes because we have 59 other stories where Holmes is unencumbered by her. Irene doesn't cross his path again, she's not Sherlocked, and they don't have a child named Nero Wolfe. Their paths diverge after she fled the continent, never to return again.
Let it go. And we should also start referring to her correctly. Her name is Irene Norton.