Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories Volume I
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Bantam Classic edition, 1986
How does one review Sherlock Holmes? I mean, these are classic stories. And reading them, one recognizes why they are. Holmes is a compelling character, and the crimes he solves are improbable and often quirky; the stories themselves are generally short and satisfying. The relationship between Holmes and Watson is charming, sort of.
This volume I have encompasses the earliest Holmes stories from A Study in Scarlet to The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, which ends with the somewhat unmemorable "The Adventure of the Second Stain". I have been reading it for probably two years now, picking it up now and then when I need something diverting, and I was finding that I was having a hard time getting in to anything else with the gorgeous reef fish distracting me.
(Seriously, I did spend copious amounts of time just lying on our deck looking down into the water to watch the fish. It was tremendously relaxing.)
Let me state upfront, I am an unabashed Sherlock Holmes fan. He is an ornery bastard, cocky and arrogant, and sexist, classist, and racist in the ways a highly-educated Victorian bachelor gentleman could be. He insults Watson frequently and Watson, in awe as he is, just rolls over. So why do I love the man? I can't explain it. I think it's largely because he is so sure of himself, and both intelligence and a strong sense of justice are sexy. But even more, I think it is that I have such a crystal clear sense of his character, and did from A Study in Scarlet on. As a character he is complete and fully-formed and fascinating. And my final thought is that it's almost as if Watson infects me as a reader; I don't care that some of Holmes' deductions are based on the extremely ridiculous pseudo-science of physiognomy. I don't care that his opinion of women is generally obnoxious. I just want more. I love that he solves the crimes so easily, generally, and that he only wants the mysteries that have a little quirk or oddness to them, and that he has a slightly insecure need for applause.
Some of the stories are weaker than others, of course. Among my favourites are the classic funny "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" and the frankly frightening "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" -- combined with my absolute favourite, "Silver Blaze", I would say that these three consist of the must-reads of the canon. I'm also partial to "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" and "Five Orange Pips" is certainly creepy in its own right.
Before getting through this collection, I'd never read "The Final Problem" in which Holmes was to have met his match in Moriarty, and his demise. I'd thus never realized that Moriarty was only ever present in one story, and I kept waiting to meet him; I'd always built him up to be a much more consistent character across the canon. So it was a bit of a surprise to me that he only appears in one short story -- and not a very good one, at that, to be honest. It smacks of the worst sort of deus ex machina -- "Hey Watson, all these crimes I've investigated over the years, it was this dude running the show! Who I never mentioned before! And I've never mentioned that I think there might be some sort of ringleader! I've never even alluded to it!" And once they're over the Falls, Moriarty is done, though he certainly does cast his shadow over a few of the following short stories.
This surprises me a little, in that I'd heard that the stories following "The Final Problem" were mostly ridiculous and slapdash because Conan Doyle didn't really want to keep writing Holmes, but I actually found "The Final Problem" to be the worst of the group, where the one immediately following, "The Adventure of the Empty House" is actually pretty decent for a feat of narrative gymnastics in which you bring a character back from the dead. I don't dislike "The Final Problem" because Holmes "dies," but because of the way it's done. It's very much Doyle being done with his character and getting rid of him as conveniently as possible, and it comes across as lazy. I don't know if I would have found it to be as thin and see-through if I hadn't known there were more stories coming; but I can certainly believe I would have been shocked and appalled as a reader, because the "final" story really doesn't do the character justice. It's no wonder to me that Conan Doyle was forced to bring him back, and I must admit I think it serves him a little bit right for being so sloppy in the writing of "The Final Problem".
I have The Hound of the Baskervilles sitting on my desk at work, and I'm rather itching to get back to Mary Russell in Laurie R. King's wonderful series (though I do not like her treatment of Watson). The above short stories, save "The Final Problem", are the ones I recommend to first-time Holmes readers, as giving a sense of both the character and the author at his best. And I recommend everyone reading some Holmes at some point, because his influence appears everywhere in our culture. I wouldn't recommend reading this collection straight through, as it is MASSIVE and towards the end, especially, some of the stories start to run together. But as a pick-up-put-down diversion, I'm not sure Sherlock Holmes can be beat.