In Sherlock season 4, episode 2: "The Lying Detective", why does Smith ask the nurse and the guy in the mortuary as to how long they've worked at the hospital? What does he calculate with their duration at the hospital?

  • I wondered this as well. My theory was that it was going to turn out he was killing people based on their length of service, but I was wrong and it went nowhere.
    – Darren
    Jan 19, 2017 at 16:39
  • @Darren I thought so too. If you've been here 5+ years and you've annoyed me in any way, you're my next target sort of thing
    – Ivan
    Jan 19, 2017 at 17:25
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    @ivan "So, how long have you been on StackExchange? 18 days now? That's interesting."
    – Criggie
    Jan 19, 2017 at 19:45
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    In general, asking someone a question like “How long have you been there?” is a first step towards a power play. Any answer can be rebutted with something like, “I’ve been here longer than you, let me show you the ropes…” or “We’ve basically been here the same amount of time yet you don’t understand this thing?” or even ‘For someone who has been here this long you should know better.” In general, a lot of cold questions like this are setup to make the answerer feel in control when the reality the person asking the question will twist the meaning to suit their own needs. Jan 20, 2017 at 3:10

3 Answers 3


He usually asks people's employment longevity when they have criticised or questioned something he has done or when they refuse to immediately do something he has requested.

The way he asks often hints at some sort of subtle threat to their future employment (he seems to be insinuating that it would be a pity if that turned out to be their full longevity at the hospital.)

So the reason he asks is (implicitly) a threat to enforce their understanding that he has power over their future employment and it would be better if they always did as he asked and never questioned him.


As each occurrence happened when a member of staff was trying to restrain him or not bend to his will, I believe it was simply his not-so-subtle way of reminding them that he had the power to remove them from their jobs at his whim, should they question his actions again:

With the nurse:

Um, Mr Smith, I'm just wondering, maybe this isn't a suitable subject for the children.

Nurse Cornish, how long have you been with us now?

Seven years.

Seven years. OK.

And in the morgue:

Everyone out.

Mr Smith, we're actually in the middle of something.

Saheed, isn't it?

Saheed, yes.

How long have you been working here now?

Four years.

Four years. Well, that's a long time, isn't it? Four years!


In many employment settings, seemingly more often in unionized environments, seniority determines ranking within classes - so someone who has been working somewhere longer outranks someone who has been working there less time. Calling attention to differences in seniority provides a reminder of differences in status, and may increase the probability of deference to the more senior person's opinion.

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    The man who owns the hospital outranks a nurse who works in the hospital, no matter how long the nurse has worked there.
    – Moyli
    Jan 20, 2017 at 7:57
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    Unlikely that that's the scenario here. The much simpler explanation is the one already given, i.e. "If you want to keep working here, don't question my orders.". Jan 20, 2017 at 12:15
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    @Moyli - Smith didn't actually own the hospital. He was a benefactor. Based presumably on Jimmy Saville Jan 21, 2017 at 8:53

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