Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Book Review Club: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

(This is the February 2010 contribution to Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For a complete list, click the icon at the end of this review.)

If you were to ask readers with only a passing knowledge of Sherlock Holmes to name some of the famous tales, chances are good that more than one would be from the first collection of stories. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891-92) brings together the first twelve short stories Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Holmes and Watson. These follow Holmes's introduction in the first two novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four. Indeed, in two listsfavorites of the author himself and the Baker Street Irregulars (the society of Holmes aficionados)no less than four stories from the Adventures make the list. Interestingly, the top two vote-getters are the same on both lists.

Of all the stories in the Canon, the one that strikes me as most interestingboth in its timing and its subjectis A Scandal in Bohemia. It leads off the Adventures and it's famous for being the one story in which Holmes is beaten and by a woman, no less. I suspect dissertations have been written about this story so I won't belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that this story has remained one of my personal favorites ever since I first read it over two decades ago.

Aside from Bohemia and the sole Christmas tale in the Canon, The Blue Carbuncle, (my take), I had forgotten many of the nuances of these tales. I remembered The Red-Headed League involved a guy transcribing the Encyclopedia Britannica but that was all. I remembered the Speckled Band involved a serpent. Other than that, it was like reading these stories again for the first time.

As a writer, knowing that these were Conan Doyle's first attempts at short story writing make this collection an nice testament to the man's skill with the pen. Most of the stories average out to 8,000 words and they follow a similar pattern. A person arrives at 221B Baker Street with an interesting problem. Holmes hears the facts of the case and, before he even arises from his chair, he's got half the problem solved. There are usually one or two little incidents and the case is resolved. It's a clever structure and one that loses nothing in the retelling.

What I had forgotten was how many stories didn't include a crime for which the perpetrator could be tried. A Case of Identity shows a dasterdly and selfish motivation for the problem but one that can't be prosecuted. The Man with the Twisted Lip has interesting overtones with our current economic situation but no villain.
Another trait of some of the stories is the ending. In a couple of these chronicles, we readers don't earn what we consider the villain's just desserts. Frankly, reared on books, movies, and TV where the bad guy always gets it in the end, having one set of criminals escape and another lost at sea makes the entire story rather unfulfilling. It's also bad for Holmes since the wet he set never produces a kill.

But these trifles do not detract in the slightest the pure enjoyment I experienced (again!) from reading these stories. Holmes and Watson come alive under Conan Doyle's pen and his excitement is palpable on the page. He may not have invented the detective story but he ran with it and made it his own. His descriptive powers are excellent and, barring a few Victorian colloquialisms, these stories are as fresh and modern as any you find today. Can't recommend them highly enough.

Note: if you've got the inclination, the New Annotated Sherlock Holmes provides scores of footnotes for every story, contemporary photos of places and people from the Victorian Age, and many of the original illustrations from the Strand Magazine, which first published the cases. However, if you just want to enjoy some great adventures, any edition will do.

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pattinase (abbott) said...

Few things are timeless but these stories are. I wonder how he managed to make them feel fresh forever.

Chris said...

Sounds like a great edition for fans. My wife loves her annotated version of Pride and Prejudice.

Spot on review, as always! Not sure when I'll get the chance to check any of these out, but I definitely at least want to!

Ellen Booraem said...

You're making me want to re-read these stories. I love Sherlock Holmes, and an annotated version sounds like the way to go. Thanks for the reminder!

Barrie said...

For Christmas, I bought Child #2 The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes. I wish I'd thought to buy the annotated version. Hmmm....maybe for his birthday. :) Thanks!!

Richard Robinson said...

Makes me want to take out the Complete... and start reading all over again. Thanks.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

you have a wonderful site!

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Anonymous said...

Great review of the story. I used this at school as a great example of describing a book eloquently.