The Sherlock Holmes Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained

Book Details

Originally published 2015

The Blurb

The Sherlock Holmes Book, the latest in DK’s award-winning Big Ideas Simply Explained series, tackles the most “elementary” of subjects — the world of Sherlock Holmes, as told by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Sherlock Holmes Book is packed with witty illustrations, clear graphics, and memorable quotes that make it the perfect Sherlock Holmes guide, covering every case of the world’s greatest detective, from A Study in Scarlet to The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, placing the stories in a wider context. Stories include at-a-glance flowcharts that show how Holmes reaches his conclusions through deductive reasoning, and character guides provide handy reference for readers and an invaluable resource for fans of the Sherlock Holmes films and TV series.

The Sherlock Holmes Book holds a magnifying glass to the world of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective.

The Verdict

An attractive coffee table volume best dipped into after reading a particular story.

My Thoughts

Dorling Kindersley’s Big Ideas, Simply Explained series is intended to provide broad and accessible introductions to a range of different topics. Other volumes had tackled topics like Politics, Philosophy and the works of Shakespeare, breaking down ideas to make them easily accessible and identifying key themes and developments.

The books are typically large format hardcovers (though there is a paperback version of this title), have a common layout and feature attractive graphics, charts and easy-to-read information boxes. While they can be read cover-to-cover, they are equally well suited to being dipped into as a more casual, coffee-table sort of read.

The Sherlock Holmes Book sticks pretty close to this formula. Its opening chapters provide biographies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the key characters in the series – Sherlock Holmes, Watson and Professor Moriarty. These are done well, offering some analysis into their characters and reference some of the real life figures that were sources of inspiration for them.

Following this we get to the meat of the book – a story-by-story exploration of the chronological canon of Holmes novels and short stories. Every one of the original stories is outlined and discussed with diagrams illustrating key deductions, plot points and relationships. In addition there are often sections that will explore a key reference or theme in more detail such as opium use, phrenology or myths about hell hounds.

At this point I probably should address the book’s ideal audience. The material here, while interesting and entertaining, is perhaps best pitched at the more casual Holmes fan rather than the complete newcomer or the aficionado. The inclusion of the solutions means that the entries should be read after reading the respective story and while I found some points of interest, the most seasoned Holmes enthusiasts will likely already know most of the material here.

In my own case I intend to make use of the book to browse in instances where I need to quickly refresh myself on a solution, make sure I am thinking of a correct title or to check a character name or identity. While I also own the ebook version, I much prefer to use the physical edition which is much easier to browse and more attractively laid out. The pricing is currently quite different however so if you are interested be sure to take a look at the sample pages to see which version suits you best (the physical edition can be sampled here).

The final fifth of the book discusses the enduring popularity and legacy of the character as well as his appearances in other forms, media and continuation novels. These cover many of the major releases through 2015 (it ends with Mr. Holmes) and unexpectedly for me this was the part of the book that offered me the most new information. There were several productions I was completely unaware of and I found myself making a list of other adaptations, reworkings and continuations to seek out.

Overall I am happy I picked up copies of this handsome book though I did so at a heavy discount. I enjoyed dipping into various entries and while I was aware of much of the information here already, I know this would have been enormously useful to me when I first began to delve deeper into the world of Sherlock Holmes. Whether it will have much value for you depends on how well you already know the canon and your interest in delving a little deeper into the background to the creation of those stories. For those with a stronger interest they might be better to look to some of the more scholarly works and journal articles about the series.

The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards

Book Details

Originally published 2017.

The Blurb

This book tells the story of crime fiction published during the first half of the twentieth century. The diversity of this much-loved genre is breathtaking, and so much greater than many critics have suggested. To illustrate this, the leading expert on classic crime discusses one hundred books ranging from The Hound of the Baskervilles to Strangers on a Train which highlight the entertaining plots, the literary achievements, and the social significance of vintage crime fiction. This book serves as a companion to the acclaimed British Library Crime Classics series but it tells a very diverse story. It presents the development of crime fiction—from Sherlock Holmes to the end of the golden age—in an accessible, informative and engaging style.

Readers who enjoy classic crime will make fascinating discoveries and learn about forgotten gems as well as bestselling authors. Even the most widely read connoisseurs will find books (and trivia) with which they are unfamiliar—as well as unexpected choices to debate. Classic crime is a richly varied and deeply pleasurable genre that is enjoying a world-wide renaissance as dozens of neglected novels and stories are resurrected for modern readers to enjoy. The overriding aim of this book is to provide a launch point that enables readers to embark on their own voyages of discovery.

The Verdict

An entertaining thematic overview of crime fiction in the first half of the twentieth century. Just be aware that you will probably come away from this with a long list of obscure (and sometimes expensive) books to track down!

My Thoughts

Last week Jim at The Invisible Event released the third installment in his In GAD We Trust podcast. In that installment he interviewed Martin Edwards, touching upon his work with the British Library Crime Classics range and his two nonfiction titles – The Golden Age of Murder and The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

That conversation reminded me that I wanted to purchase my own physical copy of the latter. This is one of my (many) peculiarities as a reader – I am equally happy to read physical or ebook fiction titles but I find non-fiction, particularly reference books, much easier to navigate and absorb in hard copy.

In his introduction to the book, Edwards describes how he wrote the book to serve as a companion piece to the British Library Crime Classics range. That is not to say that it is about the books they have published – only a fraction of the titles highlighted are from that collection – but rather it provides a context for those releases and suggests further reading.

He also stresses in that introduction that the book has neither been developed to serve as an encyclopedia, nor is it an attempt to pick the 100 greatest works. There are certainly several works discussed that you might expect with multiple entries for Agatha Christie and Anthony Berkeley Cox, but the titles chosen are selected for how well they correspond to the theme Edwards is discussing in that chapter.

Edwards begins each chapter with an introductory essay that introduces a theme. Some are more developmental – focusing on aspects of plot construction – but most relate to an aspect of setting, style or theme. An example of this would be the sixth chapter, Serpents in Eden, which discusses examples of rural or village mysteries. Incidentally this and several other chapters share the names of short story collections that Edwards edited for the range, making these ideal reference points for readers curious how novelists approached those same themes and ideas.

The introductory essay discusses those themes in quite general terms, name-dropping plenty of authors and titles beyond the highlighted ones for curious readers to explore. This is followed by a number of shorter pieces – each of which is typically two to three pages long – that describe a particular work and how it addresses that theme.

Some of the titles Edwards selects will be familiar to many while others merit the label he applies to them of being ‘unashamedly idiosyncratic’. In a few cases I was surprised at one title by an author being selected ahead of another work I view as superior but I typically understood why by the end of the piece (an example would be The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but my assumption is that was avoided in favor of The Mysterious Affair at Styles because it is so hard to discuss without spoiling it).

The best thing about the book for me though was the number of titles Edwards mentions that I have yet to read and, in several cases, that I knew nothing about. For every The Hollow Man, there is a Death at Broadcasting House – particularly in the later, more thematic chapters.

I was pleasantly surprised, for instance, that the chapter on inverted mysteries opens with the Coles’ End of an Ancient Mariner – a book I am now really excited to go read. And which I now bought… As I did Anthony Rolls’ The Vicar’s Experiments along with four or five other books.

It is possible that The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books may be the most expensive book I have ever bought. This is not because it is outrageously priced – it is a standard softcover – but in the way it entices you to chase after books that are often long out-of-print. For those keen to delve a little deeper into the world of classic crime, this can be an entertaining and enlightening starting point, showcasing the diversity of the genre and in guiding you to some lesser-known or obscure works.

Detective Fiction: From Victorian Sleuths to the Present

VictorianSleuthsI was recently asked on Twitter how many books I consume a week and I said that I like to have three on the go at any time – a print book, a digital title and an audiobook. Typically I like to listen to the latter in the car on my way to work but as my little one gets older and starts to pay more attention I have had to be more careful about what I have playing around her.

For that reason I decided to pick up another lecture series on detective fiction to listen to on my morning commutes. Previously I had listened to and enjoyed a series produced by The Great Courses and when I spotted this Modern Scholar course I thought it would be interesting to listen to a different perspective on the genre.

Recorded Book’s Modern Scholar titles may be available through your local library though the range is now defunct. These courses are shorter in length, typically running between 6 and 14 lectures depending on the topic – this is a 14 lecture course spread across 7 CDs. The lectures are usually about a half hour long and the course is accompanied by a booklet that contains notes and, in this case, often a few extra details about some of the authors or titles mentioned.

For the most part I think lecturer M. Lee Alexander makes good choices about how to organize her material and she is never hard to follow. I do question the omission of locked room fiction which is such a significant sub genre and I think it could have been included within the Golden Age lecture. Similarly the lack of discussion of Berkeley/Iles feels like a significant omission.

My feeling is that I did not learn a huge amount within these lectures though I think they would be a good introduction for someone who is interested but is taking first tentative steps into the genre. The lecturer is careful to avoid spoiling the books (with the exception of Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution) though readers will probably get more out of these lectures if they read the suggested titles before listening to the discussion.

If you are looking for a more comprehensive course I would certainly steer you towards the Great Courses set which, while more expensive, is about double the length and is able to go into much more depth – particularly when it comes to international crime works.

The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction

SecretsOne of the things I promised back when I began this blog was that in addition to posting reviews of the books that I am currently enjoying that from time to time I would write something about a work or person that particularly inspired my interest in mystery fiction. While Professor David Schmid’s Great Courses lecture series came towards the end of that journey, I have been wanting to post about it for some time.

The Great Courses are a series of lectures sold as DVDs, Audio CDs and as digital downloads on a wide variety of subjects. The range has been in existence for some years now and is published by The Teaching Company. In the past few years I have been something of an addict to their history and religion courses but when this one turned up I was curious to see what it would cover.

SchmidProfessor Schmid’s course is comprised of 36 half hour lectures that aim to give a broad overview of the development of crime and suspense fiction and of some sub-genres and categories that can be seen to fall within those genres. It is designed to be an entry level course and so outlines some key works and figures rather than exhaustively covering every book or writer in a field.

The first six or seven lectures can feel a little repetitive as they cover Edgar Allan Poe’s three Dupin mysteries in considerable detail but as the series goes on it opens up considerably, going on to cover topics such as Native American mysteries, The Dime novel, stories in which the Police serve as an antagonist and Gay and Lesbian crime fiction (for a complete list check here). It is in these more specialised sections that I think the course is particularly interesting as I invariably came away from these with long lists of titles I was interested in investigating.

To give an example, in the course of the Locked Room episode he mentions the following works and authors:
Murder in the Rue Morgue – Poe (and The Case of the Purloined Letter which he notes is not a locked room but its rules are similarly constructed)
The Mystery in the Yellow Room – Leroux
French tradition: Simenon, Leblanc and Halter
Japanese tradition: Edogawa Rampo, Akimitsu Takagi and Soji Shimada
John Dickson Carr (Specifically The Hollow Man – he discusses elements of the mystery that play some role in the conclusion but does not explain how they relate to each other)

Other lectures focus on discussing the way crime fiction has addressed a theme such as urbanization, changing attitudes towards violence or the meaning of justice and these can be quite interesting as starting points for considering those topics.

Unfortunately a few key works do get spoiled along the way although generally you get a little warning when that is about to happen. From memory it is the three Poes and Christie’s The ABC Murders and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd that get the most in depth discussion. This didn’t bother me particularly as it is hard to imagine any course covering these topics without doing so but I would certainly recommend that if you have a copy of The Murders in the Rue Morgue that you’ve been itching to read that you finish it before starting this series.

Schmid is a passionate and engaging speaker and is easy to follow whether watching the video or simply listening to the lectures. While a few visual aids pop up as he talks, most of the time these are cover illustrations or photographs of authors and do not contribute much so you will not be missing out if you opt for the cheaper audio option.

Cost is, unfortunately, an issue with this whole range of releases which price themselves out of the casual market if you buy them at list price. Fortunately I’ve found that quite a few libraries carry them and the audio download is eligible for a single credit Audible purchase (you can download the course guide through them too). The Teaching Company also started an unlimited streaming option for a monthly fee a year or so back and when I watched this it was through that service.

So, what role did this set play? I think it energized me and sparked me to broaden my reading horizons and explore subgenres of crime fiction I had never felt confident reading before because I didn’t know which authors to begin with. In doing more research about some of the authors mentioned, including John Dickson Carr, I stumbled upon many of the blogs I now follow and love reading each day. For that I can be very grateful!