Review: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Review: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan DoyleThe Complete Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
ISBN: 0553328255
Genres: Classic, Mystery
Pages: 1796
Format: E-Book
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four-half-stars

Ever since he made his first appearance in A Study In Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes has enthralled and delighted millions of fans throughout the world.

In January 2017, I undertook a reading challenge to read all the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: all 56 short stories and four novels. The idea behind the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge is to read the stories in the order in which they are set. I have had some quibbles with the exact order of these stories established in the chronology the challenge used, and it’s likely that disagreement regarding the exact chronology exists, though I admit I haven’t delved much into the matter. In any case, chronologically is not how Conan Doyle published them, and I wonder if something is lost when attempting to order them by the time setting rather than reading them as Conan Doyle collected them.

Of the collected stories, here is my personal top ten:

  1. The Hound of the Baskervilles: I love the atmosphere in this one. It seems to capture some of the best aspects of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and it is easily far and away the best of the four novels (the other three aren’t very good, in my opinion, as two are set partly in America, a place which Conan Doyle does not understand, and the other, while introducing Mary Morstan and having some good moments, is pretty racist).
  2. ” Scandal in Bohemia”: One likes to imagine Holmes was in love with Irene Adler, but he mostly presents as asexual. I like this one because it is one of the few stories in which a woman is a strong character. The Sherlock episode “A Scandal in Belgravia” was one of the best.
  3. “The Adventure of the Yellow Face”: I liked this one for two reasons, 1) Holmes didn’t figure it out and came away with egg on his face, and 2) Conan Doyle wasn’t typically racist. If I noticed one theme over and over, it’s that the white English characters find themselves to be superior to all other people in the world, and South Americans, Asians, and Africans are frequently described as barbaric in comparison. I am not a fan of that racist stereotyping, even in Victorian/Edwardian writing. The only problem with this one is its premise falls apart if you know that anti-miscegenation laws would have prevented the marriage at the heart of the mystery.
  4. “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans”: I liked this one for the setup and masterful way Holmes deduced what happened. The Sherlock episode based on it was great. Also, Mycroft!
  5. “The Adventure of the Final Problem”: Who can forget Homes and Moriarty going over the Reichenbach Falls?
  6. “The Five Orange Pips”: A famous one in which Holmes does not prevent his client’s death. Not so sure I buy the KKK angle, but I liked the setting.
  7. “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”: I liked this one for the codes. It was fun to see Holmes turn cryptographer.
  8. “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”: This is one of several governess stories, but I liked it the best of that lot.
  9. “The Man with the Twisted Lip”: I liked the opium den. So seedy.
  10. “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”: This one is a good setup for the reader as an amateur sleuth. There are red herrings and the reference from which the title of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is drawn.

The order is a bit arbitrary, particularly at the end. Something I have noticed about my own preferences is that I seem to like the stories when Holmes and Watson pack up for the countryside best. Not sure why because I also like the setting of 221B Baker Street. Re-reading the stories also demonstrated (at least to me) how clever the BBC Sherlock series is. They do a brilliant job showing the timelessness of the stories, adapting them for a modern era. They seem to approach capturing the character of Sherlock Holmes better than just about any other adaptations I’ve seen. Holmes can be arrogant, annoying, dismissive (especially of Watson), and those characteristics shine through most in Benedict Cumberbatch’s representation of the character.

And what a character. No wonder we are still reading these stories. Conan Doyle’s detective is the model for every detective character who has followed him. He’s the kind of character most writers would see as a gift. I understand Conan Doyle felt his Sherlock Holmes stories “stood in the way of the recognition of my more serious literary work.” That did happen. Because whatever that other stuff was, no one is reading it today. It is the character of Sherlock Holmes who ultimately established Conan Doyle’s legacy as a writer. One could do much, much worse.

Some passages in the stories move well past utilitarian and reveal Conan Doyle to be a skilled writer at the sentence level. In “His Last Bow,” The final story I read for the challenge and a tale in which Holmes foils the plans of a German spy by posing as one himself, thereby aiding in the war effort, these sentences: “One might have thought already that God’s curse hung heavy over a degenerate world, for there was an awesome hush and a feeling of vague expectancy in the sultry and stagnant air. The sun had long set, but one blood-red gash like an open would lay low in the distant west.” However, I admit that I didn’t care much for that story by the end. It smacked of inserting Holmes into World War I in a weird way. It’s not that it was implausible, but it was sort of like Conan Doyle was looking for an excuse to let Holmes fight the Germans and rescue the British. Not that he completely does: it is open-ended, with Holmes musing that “There’s an east wind coming, Watson.” Later, he adds, “such a wind never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.” I admit to a feeling of wistfulness when Holmes draws Watson to “Stand with me here upon the terrace, for it may be the last quiet talk we shall ever have.”

The stories are often funny, as well, which is something BBC’s Sherlock also captures. Here are my top ten Sherlock quips:

  1. “Cut the poetry, Watson,” said Holmes severely. “I note that it was a high brick wall.” (“The Adventure of the Retired Colourman”)
  2. “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.” (The Sign of Four)
  3. “We have got to the deductions and inferences,” said Lestrade, winking at me. “I find it hard enough to tackle facts, Holmes, without flying away after theories and fancies,” “You are right,” said Holmes demurely; “you do find it very hard to tackle the facts.” (“The Boscombe Valley Mystery”)
  4. “And a singularly consistent investigation you have made, my dear Watson,” said he. “I cannot at the moment recall any possible blunder which you have omitted. The total effect of your proceeding has been to give the alarm everywhere and yet to discover nothing.” (“The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax”)
  5. “I read nothing except the criminal news and the agony column. The latter is always instructive.” (“The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”)
  6. “He can find something,” remarked Holmes shrugging his shoulders; “he has occasional glimmerings of reason.” (The Sign of Four)
  7. “I knew my man, however, and I clapped a pistol to his head before he could strike. Then he became a little more reasonable.” (“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”)
  8. “By George!” cried the inspector. “How ever did you see that?” “Because I looked for it.” (“The Adventure of the Dancing Men”)
  9. “But there are always some lunatics about. It would be a dull world without them.” (“The Adventure of the Three Gables”)
  10. “I don’t take much stock of detectives in novels—chaps that do things and never let you see how they do them. That’s just inspiration: not business.” (The Valley of Fear)

Watson has a fair few good ones, too:

  1. “You would certainly have been burned, had you lived a few centuries ago.” (“A Scandal in Bohemia”)
  2. I believe that I am one of the most long-suffering of mortals; but I’ll admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. “Really, Holmes,” I said severely, “you are a little trying at times.” (The Valley of Fear)
  3. “I must admit, Watson, that you have some power of selection, which atones for much which I deplore in your narratives. Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations. You slur over work of the utmost finesse and delicacy, in order to dwell upon sensational details which may excite, but cannot possibly instruct, the reader.” “Why do you not write them yourself?” I said, with some bitterness. (“The Adventure of the Abbey Grange”)
  4. [T]he page had shown in a tall, clean-shaven man with the firm, austere expression which is only seen upon those who have to control horses or boys. (“The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place”)
  5. He was none the less in his personal habits one of the most untidy men that ever drove a fellow lodger to distraction. (“The Musgrave Ritual”)

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI have now read all 60 stories in Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge.

This challenge was enjoyable if for no other reason than it gave me an excuse to re-read all the stories. It had been quite a long time since I had done so.

If I re-read this series again, I think I’ll try it audio, and I will skip the stories I liked less. I will also not try to read it chronologically again. I think it was an interesting experiment, but Conan Doyle was a bit too sloppy with his timelines to make it work. Watson’s marriage was the most confusing aspect of the timeline. What Conan Doyle needed was some kind of spreadsheet to track events. In any case, it reminds me a bit of the inconsistency in J. K. Rowling’s books. One thing I definitely want to do whenever I finally get to visit London is see the site of Sherlock Holmes’s lodgings at 221B Baker Street, though I understand the Abbey National Building Society is on the real site of the address, while the Sherlock Holmes Museum, which has a blue plaque claiming it is at 221B Baker Street, is actually between 237 and 241 Baker Street.

 

four-half-stars

Sherlock Holmes: Nearing the End of the Challenge

I’ve waited a few weeks to do a write-up of my progress with the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. Since my last post I’ve read:

  • “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client”: Sir James Damery consults Holmes on a delicate matter. Violet, daughter of General de Merville has fallen in love with a rogue, and Damery needs Holmes’s help to unmask his evil ways before Violet marries him.
  • “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier”: This story is narrated by Holmes (one of only two). James Dodd seeks Holmes’s help because he hasn’t seen his friend and fellow soldier Godfrey Emsworth, and he fears for the man’s life.
  • “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place”: John Mason, head trainer at racing stable Shoscombe Old Place has noticed some odd events, and he calls on Holmes to investigate.
  • “The Adventure of the Creeping Man”: Professor Presbury’s secretary and future son-in-law Trevor Bennett is concerned about the professor’s unusual behavior and seeks Holmes’s help to get to the bottom of it.
  • “The Adventure of the Dying Detective”: Holmes may be at death’s door, but he calls on Watson help him bring in Culverton Smith.
  • “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”: The second story narrated by Holmes. Set after Holmes has retired to Sussex, in this case, Holmes examines a local man’s mysterious death, only to see the same strange attack repeated on a dog and another man.

Of these stories, “The Creeping Man” and “The Dying Detective” left the most impression. I barely remember reading the first three on this list, and the final is fresh in my mind only because it’s the most recent read. Only “The Dying Detective” has made its way into the storytelling of BBC’s series Sherlock in the guise of “The Lying Detective.” In this episode, Culverton Smith is a philanthropist who has committed murder through the use of a secret passageway in a hospital, where he kills anyone being treated in a specific room. Holmes starts taking drugs again so he can fall ill and be committed to Smith’s hospital and lead the man into the trap of trying to kill Holmes. The episode is actually a pretty good one, with Toby Jones playing Smith. One of the reasons “The Creeping Man” left an impression is it’s so far-fetched. Really? Injecting yourself with an extract obtained from monkeys is going to make you act like a monkey? Come on, Conan Doyle. One might be tempted to believe Conan Doyle was more or less phoning it in toward the end of Holmes’s career, given the fact that the stories are not as memorable.

“The Illustrious Client,” “The Blanched Soldier,” “Shoscombe Old Place,” “The Creeping Man,” and “The Lion’s Mane” Rating: ★★★☆☆

“The Dying Detective” Rating: ★★★★☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the 54th-59th stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is the final story in the challenge, “His Last Bow.” I plan to write a wrap-up post when I review that story next week.

Sherlock Holmes: Six Stories Catch-Up

The Three Garridebs
Illustration from “The Three Garridebs” by Howard K. Elcock for The Strand

I have been keeping up with the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge, but I haven’t posted reviews for the stories I’ve read since my last update in January:

  • “The Problem of Thor Bridge”: Holmes investigates the mysterious “murder” of Maria Gibson. Things look bad for her husband, especially when Holmes discovers Neil Gibson had fallen in love with his child’s governess and the alleged murder weapon was found in her room.
  • “The Adventure of the Priory School”: School principal Dr. Thorneycroft Huxtable seeks Holmes’s help in finding a missing pupil, Lord Saltire.
  • “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire”: Robert Ferguson, believing his Peruvian wife is a vampire, writes to Holmes for help after he believes his wife has tried to suck their baby’s blood.
  • “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”: Shattered busts of Napoleon might not seem to be of much consequence, but Lestrade is puzzled and seeks Holmes’s help on the suspicion that there is more to the odd cases of vandalism. He’s right.
  • “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs”: Nathan Garrideb writes Holmes seeking his help. If he can find a third man with the last name Garrideb, he stands to inherit a lot of money.
  • “The Disappearance of Lady Francis Carfax”: Holmes sends Watson to continental Europe to start searching for Lady Francis Carfax. Holmes fears for her life, but Watson is quite out of his element without the help of the detective.

I liked all of these stories. Two dealt with the friction between older siblings and younger siblings. Yet again, Conan Doyle can’t seem to write about people from other countries without being racist or inaccurate. I think he should have avoided trying to write about Americans. He just can’t get them right. And it seems like anytime he has a black or brown character, they have some “primitive” qualities. Two women in these stories come from South America, and Conan Doyle’s description of them made me roll my eyes. Laying those issues aside, though—not to say they’re insignificant but more a sign of the times in which they were written—I’d say pretty much all of these stories are four-star stories. Two stories are mentioned in BBC’s Sherlock: “The Three Garridebs” comes up in “The Final Problem,” when Sherlock has to identify which of the three Garrideb brothers committed a murder or his sister Eurus will kill them all, which she does anyway after Sherlock determines which one is the murderer. “The Six Napoleons” is referenced in “The Six Thatchers,” though the reason for the smashed busts of Margaret Thatcher are more interesting than the reasons for the smashed busts in of Napoleon.

“The Three Garridebs” is interesting for another reason. Watson is wounded, and Holmes freaks out and betrays the tiniest bit of concern. Watson thinks he could probably live on that little glimmer of emotion for the rest of his life.

It was worth a wound—it was worth many wounds—to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.

Get a grip, Watson.

Rating: ★★★★☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the 48th-53rd stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.”

 

Sherlock Holmes: Caught Up

Dancing Men Cipher
AM HERE ABE SLANEY Cipher by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I’m all caught up on the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. I read “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot,” “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” and “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” over the last week.

“The Abbey Grange” involves one of the sharper murder schemes in the series. When Sir Eustace Brackenstall turns up dead, no one much laments, and Inspector Hopkins thinks the notorious Randall Gang might be behind it. But Holmes, as usual, notices a few things that everyone else has missed and puts the pieces together.

In “The Devil’s Foot” Watson thinks he and Holmes are in for some rest and relaxation in Cornwall, but instead find themselves confronting a grisly scene. Three members of the Tregennis family are found sitting around their table. One of them is dead, and the other two are mad. What could have caused it? Obviously not the devil, but that’s how it looks… at first.

In “The Dancing Men,” probably one of the more famous Sherlock Holmes stories, Mr. Hilton Cubitt approaches Holmes with a mystery: several notes with stick figure men. Surely, they are only childish drawings… except they horrify his wife, who has expressly forbidden Cubitt from asking about her past. Holmes solves the cipher to determine why Mrs. Cubitt feels threatened, but he arrives too late to save his client from the menace behind the coded messages.

In “The Retired Colourman” Josiah Amberley hires Holmes to investigate his wife’s disappearance. He accuses his wife of eloping with a friend of his and making off with a great deal of money in cash and securities. Holmes naturally smells a rat and enlists Watson to dupe Amberley so that he can do some investigating on his own.

BBC’s Sherlock alludes to “The Dancing Men” in two episodes. Ciphers feature in “The Blind Banker,” and the “AM HERE ABE SLANEY” cipher appears on a chalkboard at the end of “The Final Problem” episode. I didn’t notice any other references to these other stories in the series.

“The Abbey Grange”  Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Devil’s Foot” Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Dancing Men” Rating: ★★★★★
“The Retired Colourman” Rating: ★★★½☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the 44th, 45th, 46th, and 47th stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “Thor Bridge.”

Three Sherlock Holmes Stories

The Missing Three-Quarters
Illustration for “The Missing Three-Quarters” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I’m slowly catching up on the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. I read three stories today: “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger,” and “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter.” I’m now caught up to where I should have been as of mid-December. I need to read four more stories to catch totally up.

Sherlock’s brother Mycroft shows up in “The Bruce-Partington Plans” to enlist Sherlock’s help in a matter of great importance to the government: plans for a submarine have been stolen, and one of the men who might have done it has been found dead in the subway.

“The Veiled Lodger” is a story about a former circus worker who wants to unburden her soul and tell her story to Sherlock Holmes before she dies.

In “The Missing Three-Quarters” Sherlock is on the case to find a missing football star.

Of the three stories I read today, my favorite was easily “The Bruce-Partington Plans.” Mycroft is a great character. The atmosphere in the story also plays a brilliant role: London is so foggy in this story that just about any crime might be committed. Parts of this story find their way into the BBC Sherlock episode “The Great Game”: Andrew West’s name is similar to murder victim Arthur Cadogan West in the story, and their deaths are similar; John Watson’s blog post also refers to the Bruce-Partington Plans. “The Veiled Lodger” was kind of weird and forgettable. There was no real mystery to it. “The Missing Three-Quarter” was a little better than “The Veiled Lodger,” but only because there was at least a little mystery to solve—although it does have some choice Sherlock Holmes-style sarcasm. I don’t think any parts of “The Veiled Lodger” or “The Missing Three-Quarter” have found their way into BBC’s Sherlock.

“The Bruce-Partington Plans” Rating: ★★★★★
“The Veiled Lodger” Rating: ★☆☆☆☆
“The Missing Three-Quarter” Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the 41st, 42nd, and 43rd stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Abbey Grange.” I am about four stories behind.

 

Reading Challenge Check-In

I finished my first book for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge this week. My husband and I listen to audiobooks when we cook dinner. He hadn’t read Jane Austen before. I’ve actually read all of the complete Jane Austen novels; I haven’t read the juvenilia, letters, Lady Susan or Sanditon. I steered him away from Mansfield Park, and Emma is a sort of long one. I actually recommended Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, but Steve wanted to try Northanger Abbey because he’d heard that it was a send-up of gothic novels. It is also one of the shorter Austen novels, and it’s her earliest novel, though it wasn’t published until after she died. I’m counting this novel under the category of favorite classic re-read. I wouldn’t say it’s my absolute favorite classic novel, but it had been about ten years since I read it, and Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors. I hadn’t re-read this one as I had Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, so it was probably time. My husband loved Mr. Tilney’s sense of humor and shook his head at Catherine’s drama. He figured out the Thorpes were horrible right away. A couple of observations: I teach teenagers, and man, teenage girls have not changed at all in 200 years. Re-read any of the parts detailing Catherine and Isabella’s intrigues and it could be set today. Actually, this novel might not make for a bad modernization à la Clueless. In fact, even Catherine’s infatuation with gothic stories works if one takes the vampire/werewolf/witch fads under consideration. One of the reasons I love Jane Austen in general and this book, in particular, is Austen’s famous wit. Juliet Stevenson read the audiobook, and she was excellent.

I’m also slowly catching up on the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. We had two snow days this week, so no school, and I read five Sherlock Holmes stories:

  • “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”: Sherlock Holmes’s client John Hector McFarlane is a young lawyer accused of murdering one of his own clients but despite the mounting evidence, Holmes smells a fraud. Rating: ★★★★☆
  • “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez”: Inspector Stanley Hopkins seeks Holmes’s help to solve the murder of a young secretary Willoughby Smith, in the employ of invalid professor Coram. Rating: ★★★★☆
  • “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist”: Violet Smith seeks Holmes’s help when she notices a man following her as she rides her bicycle to the train station to return home on weekends from her job as a music teacher. While the man never harms her, she is uneasy about him, and she is also uneasy about her employer Mr. Carruthers and his weird friend Mr. Woodley. Rating: ★★★☆☆
  • “The Adventure of the Three Students”: University lecturer Hilton Soames contacts Holmes for help preventing a scandal. He left an exam he planned to give three students competing for a scholarship on his desk, but his servant left the key in the door, and Soames knows that one of the students has looked at the exam. Rating: ★★★☆☆
  • “The Adventure of Black Peter”: Peter Carey, a former whaler known as Black Peter, is found gruesomely murdered with a harpoon. While most people agree he probably had it coming, Holmes and Stanley Hopkins team up again to solve the murder. Rating: ★★★★½

Of these five stories, I probably liked “The Adventure of Black Peter” best, if only for the image of Holmes whacking away at a pig carcass with a harpoon to see how much strength it would take to murder someone with said instrument. Spoiler alert: a lot. “The Adventure of the Three Students” is one of those weird stories when Conan Doyle seems to be trying to prove his open-mindedness. For another example, “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” serves well. Of the three students, two seem more likely to cheat than the third mainly because this third is easygoing, clean-cut, and white, while the other two are 1) an Indian, and 2) a panicky, ragey guy that Soames suspects is probably behind it, but he doesn’t discount the Indian guy because he’s, you know, Indian. It’s almost like Conan Doyle is trying to say, “See? I made the bad guy be the clean-cut white guy and not the Indian or the dude with obvious issues.” “The Solitary Cyclist” is one of those damsel in distress stories that are fairly yawn-inducing. Give me Irene Adler who can take care of herself. Speaking of damsels in distress, it’s a weird thing, but no mention is made of Mary Morstan Watson. She just disappears, and all of a sudden Watson is living with Holmes at Baker Street. I know it’s mentioned in one of the stories that she died, but I don’t recall reading it. I mean, what gives? “The Norwood Builder” and “The Golden Pince-Nez” were pretty much run-of-the-mill Sherlock Holmes stories. The only reference to any of these stories from the BBC series Sherlock that I caught was from “Black Peter.” Holmes shows up covered and blood and carrying a harpoon in “The Hounds of Baskerville.”

I am now caught up with the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge through November, so now I’m just a month behind.

Sherlock Holmes: Behind Again

I let myself get very behind in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge, so I’m attempting to catch up a bit. I read four stories: “The Adventure of the Empty House,” “The Adventure of the Wisteria Lodge,” “The Adventure of the Three Gables,” and “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone.” I will briefly summarize the plots of each story:

  • Conan Doyle wrote “The Empty House” after public pressure to revive Sherlock Holmes following the detective’s death in “The Final Problem.” In this story, gambler Ronald Adair is killed, but no one could have entered his room, which was locked from the inside. How did it happen? Holmes is convinced one of Moriarty’s lieutenants is behind it.
  • In “The Wisteria Lodge,” Holmes receives a note from a client, Scott Eccles, who insists he has been party to a “grotesque” event. While Eccles visits Holmes to describe his case, the London constabulary show up to arrest Eccles on suspicion of murder. Eccles is innocent, and Holmes takes his case, though Holmes meets his match in Inspector Baynes, one the only police officers in the stories to be able to reason like Holmes.
  • In “The Three Gables,” a street tough named Steve Dixie shows up to threaten Holmes, which only inspires Holmes to pursue the hint of a case Dixie brings in his door; he discovers a desperate woman eager to prevent a scandal attempting to steal a book her former lover had written about her from the possession of the young man’s unknowing mother.
  • “The Mazarin Stone” introduces a case of a stolen diamond. Holmes believes the man holding the diamond will try to murder him, and he has a brilliant wax effigy constructed to help fool the man into both revealing the location of the diamond and preventing his own murder.

I liked “The Empty House.” The device of the airgun was clever, and the BBC show Sherlock adapted it for the episode “The Empty Hearse.” I didn’t care for “The Wisteria Lodge,” which didn’t hold my attention and was overlong, and I really didn’t like “The Three Gables,” where once again, Conan Doyle’s racism is on full display in his inept characterization of Steve Dixie. However, “The Mazarin Stone” was pretty good, though odd for not being told in the first person from Watson’s point of view. I discovered this is because it was adapted for a play, and Watson doesn’t actually appear much in the story. I missed the first-person point of view, but the story didn’t suffer too much from its lack. I don’t think BBC’s Sherlock used any elements from any of the last three stories I read.

“The Empty House” Rating: ★★★★½
“The Wisteria Lodge” Rating: ★★★☆☆
“The Three Gables” Rating: ★☆☆☆☆
“The Mazarin Stone” Rating: ★★★★☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the 32nd, 33rd, 34th, and 35th stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Norwood Builder.” I am about ten stories behind.

Sherlock Holmes: Charles Augustus Milverton and The Final Problem

The Final Problem
Illustration of “The Final Problem” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

I have once again fallen behind in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge, which seems to have become a refrain. In any case, I read two short stories this morning, “Charles Augustus Milverton” and “The Final Problem.” I don’t claim to know a whole lot about it, but it’s my feeling that both are among the most popular stories—I can say with certainty that the latter is.

The first story, “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” concerns Holmes’s attempt to turn criminal himself and steal incriminating letters purchased and collected by odious master blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton. A client engages Holmes to help her negotiate with Milverton, who is threatening to divulge the contents of her letters to her fiancé, but Milverton will not accept her terms. Holmes disguises himself as a plumber and gains the confidence (and affection) of Milverton’s maid. Holmes enlists Watson to help him burgle the Milverton House, but the two are nearly discovered when Milverton enters his study right after Holmes has cracked his safe. However, Milverton has another surprise visitor that night, and the adventure doesn’t end up exactly as Holmes planned.

“The Adventure of the Final Problem” is famous for being Conan Doyle’s attempt to kill off his famous detective. Holmes is pitted against criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty, who unsuccessfully attempts to convince Holmes to stop pursuing him. Holmes meets his match in Moriarty, who will stop at nothing to defeat Holmes. After several attempts are made on Holmes’s life at the behest of Moriarty’s gang, Holmes convinces Watson to travel with him to mainland Europe, where Holmes ostensibly dies at Reichenbach Falls, taking his nemesis over the falls with him. Of course, Conan Doyle would later famously resurrect his great detective amid public outcry.

I enjoyed both of these stories quite a bit and would rank both of them among the best I’ve read. The BBC series Sherlock adapted both stories. Charles Augustus Milverton becomes Charles Augustus Magnussen, and he is played by the brilliant Lars Mikkelsen, brother of Hannibal actor Mads Mikkelsen, in the episode “His Last Vow.” Magnussen is a master blackmailer like Milverton but keeps his information locked in his “mind palace. Sherlock winds up shooting Magnussen and has a great deal of trouble getting out of being punished for the crime. I was interested to learn that Milverton was based on a real person: Charles Augustus Howell, who was an art dealer by trade and is believed to have blackmailed many of his former friends. Of course, Sherlock adapted “The Final Problem” in one of its most popular episodes, “The Reichenbach Fall.” The episode features Sherlock faking his suicide to convince John Watson that he is dead and then going into hiding as his own Moriarty kills himself on the roof of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital. Sherlock wonders for the rest of the series if Moriarty has managed to escape death and is hiding, biding his time until he can defeat Holmes for once and for all.

“Charles Augustus Milverton” Rating: ★★★★★
“The Final Problem” Rating: ★★★★★

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the thirtieth and thirty-first stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Empty House.”

Sherlock Holmes: Three Short Stories

The Red-Headed League
Illustration of “The Red-Headed League” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

After school started again, I fell a bit behind in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge, in part because I needed to finish our all-school summer reading book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. As of today, I’m all caught up, having read “The Copper Beeches” and “The Red-Headed League.” I had read “The Blue Carbuncle” some time back but neglected to blog about it.

“The Blue Carbuncle” takes place at Christmas and involves the loss of a large, blue jewel. An innocent man is accused of stealing the jewel. After the jewel is found in the crop of a Christmas goose (geese don’t have crops, by the way), Holmes deduces how the theft was carried out and by whom.

In “The Copper Beeches,” a young woman consults Holmes over whether she should accept a governess job that seems too good to be true. The pay is three times as high as typical pay, but she will need to cut off her long chestnut hair, wear a blue dress, and sit in a window. Discomfited by the odd requests, but attracted by the pay, the client retains Holmes’s help after finding a hidden room in an unused wing of the house.

“The Red-Headed League” is the story of a mysterious beneficence offered to redheaded men in exchange for light work four hours a day. Jabez Wilson consults Holmes after showing up for this work only to see a cardboard sign indicating the League has been dissolved. Holmes quickly deduces that Wilson has been taken in and that a more serious crime is about to take place.

All three of these stories are classics, frequently filmed or otherwise anthologized. I enjoyed all three. It had been a long time since I had read them. All three are excellent examples of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at the height of his mystery-writing powers. If forced to pick a favorite of the three, I’d say “The Copper Beeches” for its atmosphere.

None of the three is explicitly the focus of any BBC Sherlock episodes on their own, but the deduction competition in the episode “The Empty Hearse” has a phrenology reference similar to the one in “The Blue Carbuncle.” Other than that minor reference, I can’t recall any references to either “The Copper Beeches” or “The Red-Headed League” in the series.

“The Blue Carbuncle” Rating: ★★★★☆
“The Copper Beeches” Rating: ★★★★★
“The Red-Headed League” Rating: ★★★★½

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the twenty-seventh, twenty-eighth, and twenty-ninth stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “Charles Augustus Milverton.”

Sherlock Holmes: The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Hound of the Baskervilles
Illustration for The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sidney Paget for The Strand

The Hound of the Baskervilles is the fourth and final novel in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It’s one of the most memorable stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon, and as such, is one of the most frequently adapted stories. Dr. James Mortimer consults Sherlock Holmes regarding the mysterious case of a legendary curse on the Baskerville family. Sir Charles Baskerville has recently died under suspicious circumstances, and his heir and nephew will soon arrive from Canada to claim his inheritance. Dr. Mortimer hopes young Henry Baskerville will not also inherit the Baskerville family curse. Holmes agrees to take the case, but even before Henry Baskerville leaves London for his Devonshire estate, strange things happen. Someone seems to be following him, and one of his shoes turns up missing. Holmes sends Watson on to Baskerville Hall with Henry Baskerville and asks Watson to keep him updated regarding events until he can extricate himself from a case. Watson soon discovers that there may be some truth the family legend of a vicious dog that hunts Baskervilles, and he also discovers the dog may not be the only mysterious being hiding on the moor.

This story is easily one of Conan Doyle’s best Sherlock Holmes mysteries. It has everything that Conan Doyle does well, including an atmospheric setting, suspense and mystery, and a hint of the supernatural. It also refrains from including some of the things Conan Doyle doesn’t do as well, such as exotic settings (India, America). Conan Doyle plants enough clues that many astute readers will begin to suspect the truth behind the mystery, but not so many that it feels obvious to everyone. It’s easily the best of Conan Doyle’s four Sherlock Holmes novels, and it ranks among the best of his Sherlock Holmes stories in general for this reader. The setting of Baskerville Hall and the surrounding moor is captured well, and it perhaps the setting that is most remembered about this story.

The BBC series Sherlock adapted this story in the episode “The Hounds of Baskerville.” In this modern adaptation, Sherlock and Watson take on a case at Baskerville, a military research facility. Henry Knight claims his father was killed by a gigantic hound on the moor, but it turns out that the hounds are images produced as the result of mind-altering drugs, and H.O.U.N.D. was a secret government project adapting the drugs as chemical weapons. Because this story is one of the most popular Sherlock Holmes stories, Sherlock creator Mark Gatiss has said he felt he needed to be more careful to keep the most well-known aspects of the story intact. The story is, however, updated to reflect modern concerns.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is the twenty-sixth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Blue Carbuncle.”