The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

AdventuresThis is a revisitation for me as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was the first mystery book I ever bought. I was on a class field trip to a National Trust house and saw one of those cheap paperback copies in the gift shop and, remembering that my Dad likes mysteries thought he might enjoy it. Yes, I was one of those relatives though in my defence I was only eight years old.

It turns out that Dad, who had been a member of the Sherlockian society for years, already had read it but he read some of the stories to me and I worked through the others myself. I have frequently revisited them over the years though normally I pick at them rather than taking them in bulk as a collection.

Individual comments on each story will follow but I do appreciate the variety to be found in this collection. Most of these stories work because they are centered on very simple ideas and while the reader will have no chance of working out the solutions to many of them, they generally satisfy because of their creativity.

The best stories, in my view, are those which focus on a small, simple puzzle in which Holmes has to make sense of seemingly disconnected ideas. The Red-Headed League is a wonderfully imaginative story while The Copper Beeches boasts a very clever premise. The standard is pretty universally strong and while I think many of these stories are not fair play detective stories, most are excellent adventure yarns.

Of course, revisiting mystery stories does present problems in that it is hard to know just how well structured and clued a story is. In this case I read the book for the first time close to twenty years ago and many of the solutions stick clearly in my mind. Regardless I had fun revisiting these and think several of the plots are quite ingenious.

A Scandal in Bohemia

The king of Bohemia approaches Sherlock Holmes to get him to retrieve a set of compromising love letters from an ex-lover, Irene Adler, before he announces his engagement.

I am always a little baffled by this story’s status as one of the most iconic in the Holmes canon, in part because while it is entertaining there is not much of a puzzle here beyond working out what his plan will be. I am even more baffled though by how the character of Adler gets built up in adaptations and spin-off media to be a sort of romantic interest for him which I think ignores the source material.

In spite of those grumbles, I do appreciate the simplicity of the idea here but it has little to offer as a mystery.

The Red-Headed League

A pawnbroker comes to see Holmes because he is seeking his assistance in preserving a position he had recently attained with a group that awards pensions to red-headed men in exchange for several hours trivial work.

This is one of my favorite Holmes stories because the initial premise is quite wonderfully strange. Though the reader cannot guess every detail of the crime they can logically infer many of the key points of the case from the pawnbroker’s initial account and I enjoy the action in the conclusion.

A Case of Identity

A woman comes to see Holmes because her suitor has suddenly and mysteriously vanished.

This is a mixed bag. On the one hand I appreciate the explanation of what has happened as it is quite clever but the investigation is kept from the reader so they have no chance of reaching that conclusion naturally. On top of that, I can’t help but roll my eyes at the misogynistic note struck in its final paragraphs.

The Boscombe Valley Mystery

A man stands accused of murdering his own father. Primarily interesting for Holmes’ decision at the end, this story is not among the most dynamic or entertaining cases he ever works on.

The Five Orange Pips

A young man comes to see Holmes to seek his assistance with a strange letter. His uncle and father both received the same letter and died shortly afterwards and, it transpires, so has he.

Apparently Conan Doyle judged this to be one of his best stories but I would totally disagree. It is not just that it does not satisfy as a mystery – there is nothing here for the reader to deduce – but I do not think it works as an adventure either. Holmes’ involvement in the story is rather limited and the resolution does not satisfy.

The Man with the Twisted Lip

After a surprise encounter with Holmes, Watson is asked to accompany him as he searches for signs of a man’s disappearance and possible murder. This is one of the most imaginative stories in the collection and I think the puzzle of what happened to the man is clever even if it is predicated on a questionable social attitude. The best bit about it though is the manner of Holmes’ entrance which is excellent and adds an additional layer of intrigue to the story.

The Blue Carbuncle

In the run up to last Christmas I did an entire post dedicated to just this short story which is a wonderful festive adventure. The situation appeals to the imagination and while the reader has no chance of deducing the solution themselves, I appreciate the logical progression of the case. This is a short story that I think is deserving of its reputation as a highlight of the Holmes canon.

The Speckled Band

A young woman comes to consult Holmes about her fears that her stepfather is trying to kill her. Several years earlier her sister had died, emerging from her locked bedroom and saying “The speckled band”.

This is rightly remembered as one of the standout stories in the Holmes canon and one of the most frequently adapted. The villain of the piece is known from the beginning and his motivation is easily deduced but the question is how he plans to achieve his goal. There are a couple of issues with an aspect of the solution that are detailed on the wikipedia page for this story but it definitely is an imaginative and clever concept.

The Engineer’s Thumb

An engineer comes to see Watson to seek medical treatment for a severed thumb, telling him and Holmes the strange story of how he came to lose it. The concept of the story is intriguing enough but Holmes and Watson actually play only a small role in the proceedings.

The Noble Bachelor

An English noble consults Holmes about his American bride’s disappearance during the wedding breakfast. This is, as Holmes tells us, quite a simple case and I don’t disagree. The story here is slight and while his deductive process is sound, there is little to thrill here.

The Beryl Coronet

A banker approaches Holmes about the disappearance of part of a jeweled coronet the night before. He had been holding the expensive item as collateral for a loan but his son is found with the broken coronet in his hand in the middle of the night and his guilt seems all the more certain for his refusal to answer questions about the incident.

Another story that is certainly more adventure than mystery, the reader has little chance to deduce what has happened though they may guess part of the solution easily enough. It’s not terrible but there are far better stories in this collection.

The Copper Beeches

In the final story of the collection, a young woman comes to ask Holmes’ advice on whether she should accept a position as governess. It pays remarkably well but there are a few strange, small conditions being put on her that concern her but she cannot understand why.

It is rather hard for me to tell how well this story works if you do not already know the plot. I think there are some strong ideas here and I like the apparent strangeness of the crime. As such it is one of my favorite stories of the collection and it ends the collection on a high note.

11 thoughts on “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was the first mystery novel I ever bought

    I do sincerely apologise for being “that guy”, but if we wish to preserve any meaning in the English language then, well, this simply can’t be true….right?

    I do so enjoy reading posts on the Holmes collections, because I was in my 20s when I first read them — I was a late bloomer, and had been reading Tom Clancy in my teens (I know, I know…) — and being somewhat unversed in the annals of detective fiction I was…underwhelmed. Nevertheless, ‘The Red-Headed League’ still stands out in my memory as a brilliantly oblique piece of thinking, and ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ is a deserved highlight. Most of the rest are good-to-forgettable, and it’s only with the benefit of hindsight and much wider reading that I now appreciate their importance.

    That said, my favourite Holmes story is and will always be ‘The Yellow Face’ from the Memoirs. How that story isn’t more widely discussed and celebrated I’ll never know.

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    1. I don’t mind the correction but what is the offending element in the sentence (I clearly didn’t mean novel so that needs to be corrected but I assume you weren’t referring to that)?

      I think Holmes is likely to frustrate detective fans because so few of the cases are structured for the reader to solve. We are supposed to just be dazzled by Holmes. As such they are probably best enjoyed as adventures which I have no problem doing!

      It is a little hard for me to work out how strange the solutions are at this point because I know all of these stories so well.

      I don’t remember The Yellow Face by title so I will have to check and make sure I have read it!

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      1. No, you’re correct in your error-spotting: this isn’t a novel. I’ve not yet amassed enough data about your life to be able to discern your precise purchase history, so I couldn’t be faulting your claim to it being the first one you bought. Gimme a couple of weeks, though… 😛

        It’s interesting to me how much Holmes is held up as this paradigm of The Great Detective when he actually does so little detecting. Indeed, the point is made at some point in the canon (though refutred by Holmes) that he frequently knew the guilty party from the off and really just needed to confirm his suspicions — so essentially he adopted a priori methods to convince himself independent of any evidence. That’s the sort fo thing that gets cases thrown out of court these days.

        The interesting question would be, then, who actually was the first Great Detective, as in someone who actually did some detecting? Brown? Van Dusen? We don’t really see enough of Dupin for him to qualify, I feel, and my knowledge of pre-GAD breaks down pretty quickly once we start heading backwards from about 1921…

        Not, I appreciate, that this is the intended focus of your post. Godammit, I have to stop doing this. Noah and I ended up talking about what constitutes a bonkbuster on his vblog the other week — I’m honestly amazed that anyone puts up with me… 😀

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      2. Ah, okay! I will fix that when I have access to my computer.

        You are spot on in saying that he doesn’t really have much detecting to do here. There are a couple of cases where he doesn’t really do anything to resolve the case at all and in a few examples there is just one suspect. I think he does show a logical, methodical approach though and I can kind of squint at the cases and say that it is an inevitable feature of short form crime fiction that the mysteries are rarely mysterious!

        I am sadly not remotely qualified to answer that question but it is fascinating. I would be interested to hear anyone else’s opinion on the matter.

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      3. If it has to be either Van Dusen or Father Brown, then it’s the former since he appeared before the good clergyman.

        I’ll put forward M. McDonnell Bodkin’s Paul Beck as the first great detective from the English speaking world. First appearance.1899. Interestingly, Bodkin had a lady detective in a later novel, Dora Myrl. She later married Beck and they had a son who in turn stars as the detective in yet further novels. Now that’s a family for you!

        The very first, if we exclude Dupin, is probably Monsieur Lecoq, Gaboriau’s detective. He first appeared in 1866.

        Though I’ve not read either, so I cannot swear that they are deductive reasoners, any of them.

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  2. “The Copper Beeches” will always live in my memory from the Brett adaptation. What a wonderful piece of TV drama that was. So very, very creepy at times.

    Otherwise, my opinion of Sherlock Holmes is generally that they are wonderful stories but fairly poor mysteries, which I guess sort of mirrors what you (and J.J. in his comment) think, though I’m perhaps a bit more harsh in my choice of words. 🙂

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    1. That adaptation is one of my favorites from the whole Brett series. That first season of stories was probably the most successful in my eyes due in large part to the quality of the source material and Brett’s energy.

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