Sherlock Holmes: Beyond the Elementary by James Krasner

Audiobook Details

Originally published in 2021
This work is exclusively available through Audible to its members

The Blurb

Every hero works to soothe the fears of the people during their period in history. Heroes are not only brave, but they’re also able to navigate the convoluted corridors of society, and to see through the respectable pretense of others to detect the evil that lies within.

So, who better to take on the foggy, crime-ridden streets and strict social mores of Victorian London than the iconic literary detective Sherlock Holmes?

In Sherlock Holmes: Beyond the Elementary, you’ll investigate the history behind Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s whip-smart, charismatic detective. James Krasner, a scholar of British Victorian literature, will play the role of “Watson” as he offers a clearer picture of the imaginative influence Sherlock Holmes has maintained over readers from the 19th century through today. While you examine the secrets of novels like A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles and stories like “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “The Final Problem,” you’ll deepen your appreciation of these enduring works. You’ll also gain insights into Holmes’s continued relevance to the social problems we face in our own world.

What does the relationship between Holmes and Watson tell us about friendship? Is Sherlock Holmes just a “thinking machine”? How do these adventures lay bare gender dynamics in surprising ways?

The answers are far from elementary.

The Verdict

An interesting and well-paced exploration of Holmes and the themes found in the canon. Ideally designed for those who have read all the stories and want to dig a little deeper.

In this series we’ll talk about the history behind Sherlock Holmes and we’ll talk about how his adventures take us right into the heart, and sometimes the seedy underbelly, of Victorian England.

My Thoughts

Several years ago I blogged about The Secrets of Great Mystery and Suspense Fiction, a lecture series from The Teaching Company’s Great Courses range that discussed the history and breadth of the mystery and suspense genres. I credited that series for encouraging me to explore the genre more widely and bringing a number of authors and sub-genres of crime fiction to my attention.

In recent years in addition to their broader video and audio courses, The Teaching Company have partnered with Audible to create shorter lecture series specifically designed for the audio format. These are often on more tightly defined topics (such as the life of Prince Albert or the history of holiday celebrations) and recently became part of the Audible Plus library that are available to subscribers (edit: this may only be true of the US Audible service – see comments below) without using up any credits. This new short course is one of those Audible Originals, discussing the Sherlock Holmes stories in depth.

The first thing to emphasize is that Sherlock Holmes: Beyond the Elementary is not designed for newcomers to the Holmes stories. Krasner discusses key plot developments of a number of stories including often identifying the villains or the manner in which they are caught. Instead it is designed for those who have read the stories and are keen to dig a little deeper with each installment teasing out and discussing certain themes that run throughout the stories.

For example, the first lecture discusses the importance of the city of London and the way it is depicted within the stories. Krasner discusses this in terms of the growth of the city in the nineteenth century and the anxiety about aspects of city life that is reflected in a number of stories. This was one of the most interesting installments for me as it focuses on how these stories were being received specifically in the period in which they were first published.

Other topics include the characters of Watson and Holmes, the construction of mystery stories, the role of women and the supernatural in the stories. There are also lectures on the relationship between Doyle and his creation and how the character has been depicted on stage and screen. The material is well-structured and varied enough that there is not much repetition between the various sections. I include a full list of the lecture titles at the end of this post.

I found Krasner’s material most engaging when he goes beyond the Doyle stories to discuss how they align with themes being developed in other stories written during the period. This places the material in a slightly different context to the way I have usually encountered it in terms of the development of the mystery genre and I enjoyed getting to consider it from that slightly different perspective.

Krasner is clearly a fan of the character, something he establishes in his introduction where he talks about dressing up as Holmes on several occasions during his childhood, but he discusses the Holmes phenomenon with enough distance to be able to make some occasionally surprising comparisons such as with Twilight, Star Trek and the Harry Potter series, particularly in relation to the development of its fan culture.

One difference between these Audible Originals and the original Great Courses releases is that the lack of visuals allows the presenter to speak directly from a script. This means that there are no hesitations or stumbles but it can also mean that in spite of the lecture label, that it feels more like a reading than a spontaneous performance. I feel that is the case with this release, though Krasner speaks clearly and I found him easy to listen to.

One slight disappointment for me was that the lectures focus pretty exclusively on the books’ and the character’s reception in the anglophone world. This is unfortunate as I believe that one of the things which most defines Holmes is his global fanbase. It is a shame that this means there is no discussion of the appeal of these stories to that global audience or of adaptations like Miss Sherlock. I do appreciate though that obviously with a limited running time a line has to be drawn somewhere and obviously these have more limited audiences than the likes of Downey Jr’s or Benedict Cumberbatch’s takes on Sherlock.

Overall I found this an enjoyable and engaging listen and if you have an Audible subscription I certainly think that it is worth the listen if you are someone who has read all the stories and wants to start to dig a little deeper. And if someone from The Teaching Company or Audible happens to read this, I’d be very interested to see a similar series developed on the works of Agatha Christie.

Lecture Titles Listing

Lecture 1: The Victorian City
Lecture 2: My Dear Watson
Lecture 3: Sherlock Holmes: Man or Machine?
Lecture 4: How to Write a Mystery Story
Lecture 5: Doctors and Detectives
Lecture 6: Nice Work If You Can Get It
Lecture 7: Women and Sherlock Holmes
Lecture 8: The Supernatural and Sherlock Holmes
Lecture 9: The Final Problem: Sherlock Holmes and Popular Culture
Lecture 10: Adaptations of Sherlock Holmes

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Book Details

Originally published in 1913.
Expanded from a short story published in 1911.

The Blurb

One damp November evening on the Marylebone Road, a couple sits in silence. Though their thoughts are the same—money and the lack thereof—the time has long since passed when Mr. and Mrs. Bunting could find comfort in sharing their anxieties with each other. Now every word is a reproach—a reminder of luxuries forsaken and keepsakes pawned. Retired servants, the Buntings sunk every last shilling into their London lodging house. Now they are trapped. The rooms are empty, the rent is due, and ruin awaits. When the paper boys’ cry of “Horrible Murder! Murder at St. Pancras!” rings out in the street, Mr. Bunting risks his wife’s ire to buy the Evening Standard. The latest exploits of the killer known as the Avenger will give him something to think about besides his own misery.

Just when he is settling in with the paper, there is a knock at the door. Mr. Sleuth enters, seeking “quiet rooms” to rent. He bears no luggage, save one nearly empty leather bag, and his demeanor is odd, to say least. The beautiful sitting room on the second floor interests him not at all, but the obsolete gas stove on the underfurnished third floor is exactly what he has been looking for. Best of all, he wants to pay a month’s rent in advance. Mr. and Mrs. Bunting believe that the new lodger is a godsend until a dark fear grips their hearts. Could the strange Mr. Sleuth be the Avenger in disguise? And if he is, can they afford to know?

The Verdict

Though I prefer the tighter, punchier original short story, the book’s creation of dread is quite masterful.

On the top of three steps which led up to the door, there stood the long, lanky figure of a man, clad in an Inverness cape and an old-fashioned top hat.

My Thoughts

After suffering several unfortunate misfortunes, the respectable Buntings have found themselves on the brink of destitution. Following years in service the couple had attempted to open a lodging-house but have difficulty letting their rooms. This forces them to pawn almost everything of value including Mr. Bunting’s suit, leaves him unable to find occasional work.

Their prayers seem to be answered when a man turns up asking to see their rooms. After a brief examination he declares the rooms on the top floor to be satisfactory as a place to conduct his experiments but tells Mrs. Bunting that as he does not wish to be disturbed he will rent the rooms below as well, paying a full month in advance. He also insists that he should not be waited on and plans to make minimal demands of them, saying he will call for them if needed.

The new lodger, who calls himself Mr. Sleuth, is a strange fellow but they are certain that he must be a gentleman. His habit of creeping out in the middle of the night is odd but they are too happy at their return to financial security to question his behavior too much. It is only as they learn more about a spate of murders committed by a mysterious figure calling himself The Avenger that they separately start to wonder about the true nature of their lodger…

The Lodger was apparently conceived following a dinner when Lowndes spoke with a man who shared the story of how a pair of his father’s former servants believed a murderer had stayed at their lodging house before committing one of his crimes. Lowndes took inspiration from this to write a short story which was published in 1911 before being expanded into a novel two years later.

The story is a psychological one and I think you can make an argument that it is an inverted story, though it should be said that Lowndes spends much of the novel dealing in suspicion rather than statements of fact. The reader will likely assume that those suspicions are right, if only because if they’re not it wouldn’t be much of a tale, but it is inverted by inference rather than design. What is more important though is that Lowndes chooses to focus not on the details of the crimes but the responses of two bystanders who come to suspect the killer’s identity.

Why is that important? Lowndes is far more interested in the way her characters respond to a crime, particularly of the gory and sensational type that is shown here, than in exploring what happened. This is reflected in the text which avoids going into much detail about exactly what the Avenger does. We get a sense of what that may be through Mrs. Bunting’s distaste for the news reports and the tone of the newspaper headlines, but often we are shown their reaction to information rather than being told exactly what was said. As a technique I think this is rather effective as it allows the reader to project their own ideas onto the situation.

Some of those ideas the readers may well have drawn on would have had parallels in two then-recent cases: the Ripper murders in London and the crimes of Dr. Cream, the Lambeth Poisoner. Lowndes seems to have combined elements from both their crimes, depicting some of the press fervour of the Ripper crimes as well as the killer’s exclusive targeting of women while physically describing Cream and using ideas like his having committed crimes in multiple countries. From this basic framework, Lowndes then further develops her killer, giving him traits like a religious mania, extreme discomfort around women and a furtive and spiky personality, creating a pretty richly drawn character who is a striking and disconcerting presence whenever he is near.

While Sleuth is a strong presence, our empathy and focus falls on the Buntings. The early chapters do an excellent job of describing how they came to be in their situation and helping to connect the reader to their sense of desperation. This is teeing things up for later in the novel where we will need to accept their silence while retaining our sympathy for them – a tough ask but one I think Lowndes mostly achieves. Certainly I had no doubt that the couple really did face ruin without his money and I think she is very effective at conveying the gradual realization on the part of them that he could pose a danger to them.

What this means is that the book is structured to focus on a point of conflict where they will have to confront the nature of what they believe their lodger to be and decide what to do about it. This ought to be a really impactful moment and certainly we get a lot of buildup that really elevates the tension, creating a sense that we are headed for something explosive – an idea that seems to be confirmed by the choice of the location of that climactic sequence.

Unfortunately though I think Lowndes whiffs the ending. For all the dread generated in the lead up to these final chapters, the actual resolution struck me as highly frustrating and unsatisfying. I think the problem is that while she sets up the notion that the Buntings will have to make a choice, the resolution is quite different and done in such a way that we never have to see them make that hard choice.

In the short story that ending doesn’t bother me at all – it not only seems appropriate to the length of the piece, it also reflects that we have spent significantly less time exploring whether the Buntings will do something to act on their suspicions. That story felt really sharp and compact – two things that I do not think could be said of the novel. For that reason alone I would suggest that the short story is the more essential read.

Still, while the pacing can feel a little too slow and deliberate at points and the ending seemed to diminish the roles of our two protagonists, I do think this is an interesting and highly worthwhile read. It is a study in the creation of dread and I am happy to say it succeeds in keeping that up til the very end.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

Book Details

Originally Published in 1902
Sherlock Holmes #5
Preceded by The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
Followed by The Return of Sherlock Holmes

The Blurb

The country doctor had come to 221B Baker Street, the famous lodgings of Sherlock Holmes, with an eerie tale—the legend of the Hound of the Baskervilles, the devil-beast that haunted the lonely moors around the Baskervilles’ ancestral home. The tale warned the descendants of that ancient family never to venture out on the moor. But Sir Charles Baskerville was now dead—and the footprints of a giant hound have been found near his body. Would the new heir of the Baskervilles meet the same dreadful fate?

Sherlock Holmes and his faithful friend, Dr. Watson, are faced with their most terrifying case in this wonderful classic of masterful detection and bone-chilling suspense.

The Verdict

While I have issues with some loose plotting, this atmospheric story has some wonderful imagery.


My Thoughts

The Hound of the Baskervilles begins with Holmes receiving a visit from Dr. James Mortimer. He has come to consult him on the strange circumstances surrounding the death of his friend Sir Charles Baskerville who had been found dead on the grounds surrounding his home on Dartmoor.

The direct cause of death was a heart attack but Mortimer notes that his friend’s face seemed to be frozen in an expression of terror. Near the body the enormous footprint of a hound was found, leading some to speculate that he may have been killed by the demonic beast said to have been responsible for the premature death of many of Sir Charles’ ancestors.

Sir Charles’ heir has recently arrived in London and intends to take up the property but has received a warning urging him not to visit the moors. Holmes agrees to meet with him and, upon learning of some strange occurrences surrounding him, he decides he will send Watson with Sir Henry to Dartmoor to protect him and to try and uncover the truth of what is going on.

If Sherlock Holmes is, for many people, The Detective then The Hound of the Baskervilles must surely be The Detective Novel. It is a work that has enjoyed a tremendous reach thanks to countless adaptations and the clear influence it has had over many subsequent works in the genre. The only comparable titles I can think of in the genre would be Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None.

I have previously shared my opinion that Holmes is a character that really doesn’t suit long form fiction as well as the short story. Both A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four have points of interest but I feel each has a structural problem. For those unfamiliar with those books, at the midpoint of each Holmes identifies a crucial figure and the remainder of the books becomes a historical tale explaining the background to the events we have witnessed.

What this means in practice is that only the first half of each book is a mystery – the remainder is explanation. The case, it seems, concludes long before the novel does. Given how energetic and driven the Holmes chapters are, the sudden switch to a slower historical storytelling feels very jarring and only emphasizes how little tension or sense of discovery there is in the second half of each book.

The Hound of the Baskervilles has quite a different structure and it is all the better for it. Rather than try to sustain Holmes’ bursts of energy throughout an entire novel, Doyle opts to keep him in the background for much of the more routine parts of the investigation and has Watson take the lead.

The decision to split up Holmes and Watson is to the benefit of both characters. Watson, able to act with more freedom and less scrutiny than usual in these stories, is given a chance to interview each of the characters involved at a more leisurely pace, share his own ideas about the case, and even have a memorable late night adventure of his own on the moors.

Holmes is then able to swoop back into the story at a critical point close to the end of the book and take over the investigation. At that point we have been so eagerly anticipating his direct involvement in the case that it makes that moment feel even more important and exciting. As he reenters the story very late in the proceedings, Doyle is able to naturally sustain Holmes’ incredible energy to build a pacy, action-driven and pretty satisfying conclusion.

The Hound of the Baskervilles not only fixes the principal problems with its two predecessors, it also retains one of the elements that was most successful in them. Each of the preceding novels contained horrific elements whether that was the gory message written on a wall in blood in A Study in Scarlet or Sholto’s terrible sense of fear in The Sign of Four. This novel also evokes a sense of fear but incorporates a stronger sense of the supernatural, particularly in those passages that describe the hound itself. Where previous stories have seen Holmes explain the inexplicable, here he has to rationalize what appears diabolical.

The most obvious horror element is the hound itself. Doyle does a lot well, including giving an intriguing origin for the beast and tying it to the victim’s own family history. Throw in the desolate landscape of the moors and you have something that I think really strikes the imagination. While part of the reason that this story gets adapted so often is the plotting, this story also features some really strong visual storytelling and plenty of elements that evoke a sense of atmosphere.

While I think this is a significant improvement on the two novels that went before it, I do have to point to some elements that I do not find entirely successful. The first of these is a crucial issue with the villain’s plans. Doyle himself clearly recognizes this – he actually has Holmes point it out and describe the problem – but then he flubs the opportunity to actually answer this, simply dismissing it as something they would have addressed later.

Is it unrealistic that someone may enact a plan without having every element thought through? Perhaps not. But I find it difficult to accept that someone would accept the degree of risk their plan entails with no certainty of the benefit. While I am no fan of the detective not having all the answers, surely someone could have provided one after the fact. It just feels very untidy.

Similarly there is an issue that Watson identifies at the end that Holmes tries to answer through conjecture. While the explanation Holmes posits would fit the facts, I feel it is a bit of a stretch to fit in with the other things we know about the villain’s personality.

My final issue with the book is that there is a moment where everyone seems to show a pretty breathtaking lack of humanity (ROT13: Gur qvfpbirel gung n qrnq obql vf abg Onfxreivyyr ohg gur pbaivpg). While this would certainly fit with the character of Holmes himself, I was surprised that others did not seem to be affected in any way by what has happened – particularly Watson.

Now others may suggest that this, like many of the Holmes stories, is more adventure than detective story. There is at least a grain of truth to this, particularly in the middle section of the book. In these chapters we do learn a few important points that seem to point to the guilty party but there are quite a few red herrings too.

I feel however that this is one of those cases where many of Holmes’ observations are grounded in solid, logical thought. Sure, the villain’s identity feels obvious from the start but Holmes’ reasons for dismissing the supernatural explanation and for forming his ideas about what was happening could be easily replicated by the reader being based on the application of some simple ideas and logic.

Though not perfect, The Hound of the Baskervilles feels like a much more cohesive story than either of the two previous novels. When I reviewed each of them I counselled that those new to Holmes would be best served to skip over those novels and return to them after reading the short stories. Clearly I am not advising the same here.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is not only one of the most famous Holmes stories, it is one of his more entertaining ones too.

Sherlock Holmes Magazine

The cover for the first issue.

This week has been a frustrating one as I have been stuck at home waiting for the results of a COVID test (I feel fine – it’s a contact tracing thing). Thankfully the much-awaited first issue of Sherlock Holmes Magazine showed up when I needed it most, serving as an excellent form of diversion.

I first saw news of the publication on Twitter and had been intrigued enough to add myself to the preorders list. While I admit to not being as devoted a Sherlockian as my father (who had files full of various fanzines and publications in his office when I was growing up), I have enough interest in the Great Detective that I thought it could be interesting. That interest only grew when I saw that the magazine would not only cover the canon but the many derivative works and adaptations that have been done over the years.

For those who are curious, the magazine is glossy and heavily illustrated. It is larger than the typical US magazine, clocking in at about 12 inches by 8.25. It feels like it could sit very comfortably on any newsagents’ shelf, although being self-published and having a very limited print run, it unfortunately lacks that store shelf visibility.

The magazine contains some short snippets of news at the front but the bulk of the pages are devoted to feature articles. Some focus on the various adaptations such as the feature on the tenth anniversary of Sherlock or the fun article defending Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of Watson. I found most of these to be interesting, particularly the piece discussing the history of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. I hope that future issues may see similar features for some more obscure adapted or inspired works.

There are also several articles that focus on Doyle’s texts themselves such as an article about Moriarty or the fascinating one discussing how the stories came to be banned in Switzerland. I found these to be just as engaging and felt I learned something from each of them, particularly the latter. I suspect that the biggest challenge for the magazine will be creating new book-focused material that hits that sweet spot between being accessible to a wider audience and providing something of interest to devoted Sherlockians but based on this first issue I have confidence that they are up to the task.

Finally there are a couple of pieces that are quirkier and harder to categorize. The one that stands out most is the article about the Holmes tartan. This is beautifully illustrated but was probably the least interesting of the articles to me. Others may feel differently though and while the content was not particularly tailored to my own interests, I did appreciate it as a change of pace. I prefered the Holmes in Lockdown piece, discussing the Don’t Go Into The Cellar plays performed on the web during lockdown. These were completely new to me and felt surprisingly timely (I had assumed that much of the content would have been written prior to the COVID breakout).

Overall, given that this was a first issue I was very impressed. A few sections – particularly the Letters to the Editor pages – feel like works in progress (they probably would benefit from comments in response) but my overall impression has been very positive. This is a far more polished product than I had expected I would receive and as a result I feel very happy and keen to get subsequent issues. This publication seems have a lot of promise.

I think there are only two issues I have with the publication. The first is that I would love to see a reviews section focusing on new Sherlockian material or, failing that, at least an article specifically laying out what new things are on the horizon. Perhaps that will come with future issues.

The other is that there is a whole page advert at the end of this issue advertising how to subscribe but following the link takes you to a page that says subscriptions are still not available. I hope that gets updated soon: I would love to be able to sign up and support the venture going forwards.

While the first issue’s limited print run sold out very quickly, the producers have recently announced they have done a second printing and stock is available once again. If you are interested in finding out more and maybe reading a copy for yourself, check out their website for further details.

The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe

Story Details

Originally published 1844
This story is one of those contained within the collection Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

Auguste Dupin #3
Preceded by The Mystery of Marie Rogêt

The Verdict

A really clever mystery with an unconventional plot and my favorite of the three Dupin stories.


My Thoughts

The past few weeks have been enormously busy and so I have found it quite tricky to find the time to read anything. When I do, I find I cannot hold my concentration for more than a few dozen pages. Fortunately I remembered that I had something in my TBR pile that was that sort of length – the last of Edgar Allan Poe’s three Auguste Dupin short stories.

The Purloined Letter sees G-, the prefect of the Paris police, approach Dupin for advice on the matter of a stolen letter written by the queen’s lover. That letter is being used by the thief to blackmail her and gain influence.

The prefect is certain of the culprit’s identity and has executed a thorough search of his property but cannot find any sign of that letter. This puzzles him as he is sure that the thief must have the letter somewhere close at hand to keep it safe and enable him to produce it if necessary. The prefect asks for Dupin’s help and gives him a description of the letter.

We then jump forward a month as G- returns to speak with Dupin. The search has been fruitless and he tells Dupin he will pay 50,000 francs to anyone who can find the letter. Dupin tells him that he should write him a check as he knows where the letter is and proceeds to explain how he found it.

If that brief synopsis of the plot sounds familiar, it is because this story shares a lot of common elements with Doyle’s later Sherlock Holmes adventure, A Scandal in Bohemia. In both cases we know the thief’s identity from close to the start of the story and each features a document related to an affair with a royal that could destroy a monarchy. On top of that, there are also a few story beats that the two short stories seem to have in common.

Obviously we cannot suggest that Poe’s work, as the older, is in any way to blame for those similarities. The problem is that it is impossible not to be aware of them as the later story, as one of Doyle’s most celebrated, will likely be one that readers have already encountered. That is unfortunate as I think that may serve to blunt the impact of one of the story’s most satisfying ideas.

I should probably also take a moment to say that while I think there is a lot of shared intellectual ground between the two stories, they differ in enough elements and themes to feel quite distinctive from each other. Several of the tweaks Doyle makes serve to make those themes feel all the stronger.

Getting back to the basic scenario, I think this story does a fine job of establishing the facts of the case in a consice manner. We understand the stakes and the circumstances surrounding the crime, the question is how they managed to execute that plan.

Structurally I feel that this story also represents a pretty significant improvement over its two predecessors. Where the relating of the facts in those stories seemed a little awkward, the more conversational approach used here not only helps break up the material into smaller, more manageable chunks, it also helped me engage more with the information being provided.

I also appreciated that Dupin feels more engaged in the action here than in his other two adventures. He even plays an active role in the case, travelling to a crime scene rather than remaining as a purely armchair detective. This more active approach works pretty well and makes this my favorite story in the trio.

The Mystery of Marie Rogêt by Edgar Allan Poe

Book Details

Originally Published in 1842
This story is one of those contained within the collection Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

Auguste Dupin #2
Preceded by The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Followed by The Purloined Letter

The Blurb

This is the first murder mystery based on the details of a real crime. It first appeared in Snowden’s Ladies’ Companion in three installments, November and December 1842 and February 1843.

The Verdict

As important to the development of the detective story as the previous Dupin mystery but nowhere near as engaging.


The Verdict

A little over a year ago I wrote about the first of Edgar Allan Poe’s three Dupin mysteries, The Murders in the Rue Morgue. At that time I had every expectation I would blog about all three stories and actually read this one in preparation for that. Unfortunately that was right about the time real life got in the way of my blogging and by the time I was ready to write about it, the memories had faded too much to put anything accurate or coherent together.

Well, this week I decided to go ahead and read it again so the story is now fresh in my mind. I don’t know if I can promise that my thoughts are all that more coherent than they would have been a year ago though…

Like its predecessor, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt is more of a long short story than a novella. It is also narrated by the same nameless friend of Dupin who is still in awe of his friend’s ability to use ratiocination to logically work through and posit explanations for crimes.

One significant difference between this and the other two Dupin stories is that both the narrator and sleuth do not at any point leave their sitting room to investigate the crime. Instead they will be armchair detectives, gleaning and then reinterpreting the facts given in the reports appearing in the city’s newspapers.

The crime in this story is quite famously drawn on a real unsolved case that had occurred several years before Poe wrote this. That victim was Mary Cecilia Rogers, a cigar girl who disappeared once, then reappeared when she returned from an apparent elopement, before disappearing for good three years later. Several days after that second disappearance her body was found floating in the Hudson River having appeared to have been murdered.

As you may have noticed from the title Poe gave his story, he makes little attempt to disguise the source of his inspiration. You don’t need to be a genius detective to see the links between the names Marie Rogêt and Mary Rogers. And even if you missed it, Poe’s narrator directly makes the connection for the reader just a couple of paragraphs in.

Most of the essential points of the case are presented here as they were – the changes he introduces are mostly incidental. Names are altered. The location is changed but the most essential points are the same.

For this reason many have pointed to the story as being one of the first instances of a crime writer finding inspiration in a famous, real-life crime. In a technical sense I think that it true but I would suggest that there is a gulf between what Poe is doing here and what, for example, Agatha Christie does in The Murder on the Links or Dorothy L. Sayers in Strong Poison. Where those writers took inspiration as a starting point for a narrative, Poe is fictionalizing here to enable him to posit his own ‘very rigorous analysis’ of a real crime.

I think it is clear that this is his intent from some of the storytelling decisions Poe makes. Most tellingly, once Dupin gleans everything he can from the newspaper reports the story simply stops. He identifies what he thinks is the logical explanation of the crime but does not create any additional evidence or provide us with any sort of an ending in which his deductions can be proved.

Similarly the device of telling us what happened through an extended newspaper report that has been constructed from the information gleaned from other previous newspaper reporting feels rather clunky and formal. We are simply presented with long blocks of uninterrupted reporting with little opportunity for characterization or comment. I believe that had storytelling been Poe’s primary concern or interest there would have been some form of interviews or at least a visit to the scene of the crime.

Poe however is primarily interested in the idea that processes of logical reasoning are more important than interaction with the evidence. That belief in the process is not unique to Poe – it is not difficult to see it reflected in the approaches taken at times by Holmes or Poirot – but Poe’s dedication to it can come at the expense of engaging storytelling and certainly I believe that is the case here.

I don’t think it helps much that the case itself is nowhere near as mysterious as that in the previous story in spite of Dupin’s claims that this is ‘a far more intricate case’. There is nothing approaching an impossibility in the crime and while the police may not have been able to produce a clear resolution to the case, some overlooked clues do rather stand out in the reporting to the point where the police appear astonishingly incompetent for not considering them.

For instance, there is a point at which Dupin presents several additional paragraphs from previous newspaper reports that were omitted in the main account of the crime. There are several points in those accounts that are so clearly presenting a possible alternative explanation of the crime that it is incredible when our narrator claims:

Upon reading these various extracts, they not only seemed to me to be irrelevant, but I could perceive no mode in which any one of them could be brought to bear in the matter in hand.

The only possible explanation for his thinking the clues irrelevant is that our narrator is an idiot.

While I get the need for the sidekick to be continually amazed by the mental prowess of the detective, it hardly feels earned at that moment. He has certainly shown diligence and solid reasoning but every deduction is reasonable and replicable by the reader.

On a similar note, some of Dupin’s blanket assertions can seem rather silly. For instance I can only echo JJ’s bafflement at the idea that ruffians are more likely to possess handkerchiefs than shirts (and I’ll refer you to the wonderful, spoilery conversation he had with Christian about this story).

There are a few deductive moments however that feel more impressive. I was particularly taken with the inferences Dupin draws from a description of some of the victim’s effects. Delivered without hyperbole, it comes off as a thoughtful and credible block contributing to our understanding of what has happened.

Unfortunately there were just not enough of those moments for me to feel fully engaged in this story. While the real case may have gripped America for months, this fictionalized version felt rather too dry and academic and I never really felt connected to the events of the crime.

The Mystery of Marie Rogêt is certainly another significant work in the development of the detective story. While the illustrations of ratiocination may not be as spellbinding as those in Poe’s previous Dupin story, the process is illustrated well and help to further establish the armchair detective model we would see emulated half a century later by Conan Doyle. I just wish that Poe had been a little less focused on proving a point and taken greater care to give us a compelling story with a satisfying resolution.

The Leavenworth Case by Anna K. Green

Book Details

Originally published in 1878
Ebenezer Gryce #1
Followed by A Strange Disappearance

The Blurb

When the retired merchant Horatio Leavenworth is found shot dead in his mansion library, suspicion falls on his nieces, Mary and Eleanore, who stand to inherit his vast fortune. Their lawyer, Everett Raymond, infatuated with one of the sisters, is determined that the official investigator, detective Ebenezer Gryce, widens the inquiry to less obvious suspects.

The Verdict

A reminder that being important doesn’t always equate to being entertaining.


My Thoughts

I have been told that one of the frustrating things about following my blog is that I often post about books that can be a little hard, if not impossible, to find. While I have no intention of stopping reading and writing about those types of books, I am aware that for many people the institutions and businesses they typically rely on to find new books are inaccessible to them.

For at least the next few months I have decided to feature several books a month that are within the Public Domain and that you can read online for free. Some of those books will be well known but I intend to stick with my habit of picking out an occasional obscure or little-reviewed title to discuss.

Today’s book is perhaps not widely known though given it is a landmark title as the first successful work of detective fiction by a female novelist. The book, the first by Anna Katharine Green, was a bestseller becoming popular on both sides of the Atlantic and influencing other mystery writers including that little-known writer, Agatha Christie.

The story concerns the death of Horatio Leavenworth, a wealthy retired merchant who was found dead of a gunshot wound to his head in his library. As no one could have left the mansion before the discovery of the body, suspicion falls on the other members of the household.

Everett Raymond, a young lawyer who had been sent on behalf of his firm to handle the case, forms a strong attraction to one of the suspects and works with the official investigator in the hope of proving her innocence.

While I do not generally read others’ reviews until after I have written my own, I did take a look at several articles discussing why the book had fallen from popularity including the excellent one by Curtis Evans which I link to below. A common theme seems to be that Green’s writing style is very much in the Victorian style making it hard going.

Certainly I think it is fair to say that her storytelling style is not as direct as it could be. A good example of this comes when Everett offers his initial descriptions of the deceased man’s two young cousins, rhapsodizing for several paragraphs about their beauty. This sort of stuff can certainly be dull and feels unnecessary but I never felt Green’s language is too complex or obscure to be understood, even if she does employ some melodramatic turns of phrase. Nor do I think it out of keeping with Conan Doyle’s efforts in A Study in Scarlet or The Sign of Four several years later, both of which feature lengthy and rather dull accounts. It does sometimes make for frustrating reading however as overwrought and melodramatic passages serve to slow the narrative down.

One of the reasons I think it is particularly problematic is that Green chooses to begin her book with the murder having already taken place and our protagonist already knowing some basic details of the case. The practical effect of this choice is that the scenes in which we get to know Everett and later Gryce have to happen during the inquest – a section of the book which already feels quite dense – and this material serves to slow those chapters down considerably.

To return to that earlier example of the florid paragraphs in which Everett rhapsodies about a woman’s beauty, this is not only establishing her qualities. It is also used to tell us something of nature that we will need to understand to justify some of his later efforts in investigating the case.

Though Everett can be a somewhat melodramatic and long-winded narrator, I did find him to be quite a charming protagonist. I liked his attempts to be gallant (such as his revulsion at the idea of being ‘a spy in a fair woman’s house’) and appreciated that Green points out some of the moments where he struggles to reconcile his duties to the law with his personal feelings about the case in some brilliant conversations with the much less partial Gryce.

I also appreciated that Everett’s relationship with Gryce, the man formally investigating the crime, is more professional and cordial than warm. There clearly there are moments in the adventure where each man frustrates the other and even work against each other – a reflection of their different priorities in their handling of this case.

The first section of the novel follows the revelations made at an inquest into the murder, providing us with introductions to the characters and the basic details of the crime. Green gives us an effective outline of the key points of the case and while I wished she didn’t always feel the need to provide every beat of the proceedings, the information is clearly conveyed and establishes an interesting crime scene where the evidence seems to point at one person.

Having established the case that has been made against the subject of Everett’s affections, the subsequent sections focus on the investigation itself.

Unfortunately these sections surprisingly feel less energetic and exciting than the earlier inquest chapters, in part because there are so few significant revelations. While Everett and Gryce identify what they need to find and have a plan to get it, the journey to acquire that information feels a little slow and there are few surprises.

When we do get some information however things pick up again and the final quarter of the book, though packed with melodramatic developments and declarations, feels pacier and much more entertaining. Some of the elements used by Green feel primitive compared with works even a decade later (my favorite such moment involves a very breakable code used in chapter twenty-eight) but I was impressed by just how many ideas appear here that would be standard elements in future works.

I suspect that most readers will find aspects of the killer’s confession a little ridiculous – particularly the chapter in which we read their account of the crime which goes on too long.

The problem that I think The Leavenworth Case has is that because of many of its modern detective story elements such as its forensic discussions it feels like it should belong to a later era than the one it was actually written in. I do think though it is important to remember that this is essentially a transitional text, moving us from a style of sensation fiction to something approaching the modern detective story. I certainly did not judge it to be any less satisfying than A Study in Scarlet or The Sign of Four, both of which also have their moments.

This issue really sums up my feelings about the book as a whole. It is undoubtedly an important title in the development of the genre but its slow midsection and dense, melodramatic prose means that it wasn’t always all that entertaining to read.

Further Reading

Curtis Evans wrote a superb piece for Crime Reads that looks at how the critical reception for this novel has changed in the years since it was first published.

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime writes a brilliantly detailed review that is broken down into themes and goes pretty deep. There are some spoilers there but all are marked so can be avoided. It can best be summed up as melodramatic but well-constructed.

Criminal Element published a post in which they discussed the book, dubbing it ‘the most popular mystery novel you’ve never read’.

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

Book Details

This collection was originally published in 1893. It contains stories published in The Strand between 1892 and 1893.

Sherlock Holmes #4
Preceded by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Followed by The Hound of the Baskervilles

Note: some editions, including the first, exclude The Adventure of the Cardboard Box. If purchasing separately make sure that the story is either in your copy of Memoirs or His Last Bow if you wish to collect the whole Holmes canon.

The Blurb

In The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective’s notoriety as the arch-despoiler of the schemes concocted by the criminal underworld at last gets the better of him.

Though Holmes and his faithful sidekick Dr Watson solve what will become some of their most bizarre and extraordinary cases – the disappearance of the race horse Silver Blaze, the horrific circumstances of the Greek Interpreter and the curious mystery of the Musgrave Ritual among them – a criminal mastermind is plotting the downfall of the great detective.

Half-devil, half-genius, Professor Moriarty leads Holmes and Watson on a grisly cat-and-mouse chase through London and across Europe, culminating in a frightful struggle which will turn the legendary Reichenbach Falls into a water double-grave . . .

The Verdict

Though the stories may not be as famous as those in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, there are several that struck me as among Conan Doyle’s best.


My Thoughts

Today I continue my series of posts in which I revisit stories from the classic Holmes canon. This time it is the turn of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes – a volume that contains several of Holmes’ most famous cases.

The Adventure of Silver Blaze remains one of the most iconic Holmes short stories which I think reflects its relative simplicity. It is a good story with a simple but cunning solution.

The Final Problem is similarly quite superbly atmospheric and contains some thrilling action moments. Not to mention it introduces us to Moriarty – one of the most significant characters in the Holmes canon.

Not every story thread proves successful. Stories like The Adventure of the Cardboard Box feel rather silly and some repeat themes and ideas. Still, even when Conan Doyle’s plotting fails to thrill, he is always highly readable and gives us some truly great moments here.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Book Details

Originally published in 1886.
Also known as: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The Blurb

‘In addition to being one of the most amazing crime stories ever written, “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is probably the most remarkable of all the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson. It would be unfair to the reader to give away the secret of this thriller. Suffice it to say that every page grips and the unforgettable portrait of a mast criminal takes shape until the sensational climax is reached, a climax of dramatic intensity, without equal in the realm of detective fiction. If one wished to append a moral to this crime fantasy it might well be this: “The self you choose to-day, and not the self you chose yesterday, is the fate of to-morrow.”’

The Verdict

An unsettling and horrific story which poses interesting ideas about human nature.


Today’s review is likely to be a shorter one which is perhaps appropriate for a story that some may question being included on this blog at all. Certainly were it not for the Detective Club reissue I would probably never have thought to look at this through the lens of detective fiction. Even now I still would primarily describe it as a work of horror or sensation fiction, though I can see how it can be read as a work of detective fiction.

Part of the reason that I think I view the book that way is that its secret is so widely known and a big part of pop culture. Many subsequent books and movies have evoked its key idea, some times as pastiche, others in outright parody, so that it has become as widely known as the iconic secret spilled in The Empire Strikes Back or perhaps the resolution of Murder on the Orient Express. In other words, even if it could once have been read as a mystery I think most people who come to it will already know the answers.

For those who know absolutely nothing about the book, and knowing that many blurbs purposefully avoid describing the plot, let me give you the very basics of the starting premise. A lawyer learns of the crimes of the brutish Edward Hyde and is puzzled by the hold he seems to have on his old friend, Dr. Henry Jekyll. This prompts him to investigate the matter more directly.

I am not sure when I first learned the secret of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but it was certainly long before I had ever actually encountered a copy of the book. As such I cannot really speak to how effective its core mystery is – I came to it already familiar with its secrets. This, it turns out, is not an entirely bad thing as there is still plenty to admire here from the philosophical questions the narrative poses to Stevenson’s quite wonderfully weighty prose and the clever structure of the piece.

The book’s comparative brevity means that it can be read in a single sitting and unlike some other works of the period, it moves at a decent pace and the meaning of the language used is generally clear even when a particular word or phrase is unfamiliar or archaic. Accordingly the book can feel quite modern in some aspects, especially when you consider the psychological themes it explores. While its language may be Victoran, the attitudes and ideas feel more in keeping with the psychological crime fiction of the early-to-mid twentieth century.

As much as I enjoyed the novella, I do have to acknowledge that if viewed purely as a mystery there are some elements here that will frustrate. While I think the explanation given for the strange events is wonderful and bizarre, it does not fit into the usual rules detective fiction plays by.

Viewed alongside the equally macabre and horrific events of a (relatively) contemporary work, The Murders at the Rue Morgue, the events depicted here do not feel much more far-fetched. In fact, I would argue that the reader of this story may well get closer to the solution by themselves by a process of logical deduction, even if they cannot deduce the whole of it. Still, where that story seeks to root itself in something purporting to be reality, this story chooses to embrace the fantastical.

For those looking for a pure genre read I would suggest that you are best avoiding this but for everyone else I would suggest that this is at least worthy of a look, particularly if you are one of the few who does not already know its secrets (and if you don’t, make sure you avoid reading most blurbs or the Goodreads page). Its brevity means it really is not much of a time commitment and I do think it does play with some interesting ideas.

The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sign of Four
Arthur Conan Doyle
Originally Published 1890
Sherlock Holmes #2
Preceded by A Study in Scarlet
Followed by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Also titled The Sign of the Four

I have a couple of ongoing reading projects on this blog but probably the one I am enjoying most is working back through the Sherlock Holmes stories. I have written before about their importance to my development as a reader of crime and mystery fiction and while I have found some stories simply didn’t match up to my memory of them, it is fun to return to these stories and look at them with fresh eyes.

The Sign of Four is one of the stories that I recall thinking quite highly of when I read it for the first time but I will admit to not having revisited it once since I first read it. I am not even sure that I saw the Jeremy Brett adaptation in spite of owning a copy on DVD.

The novel begins with a restless Holmes complaining about the lack of mental stimulation from his work. That situation changes however when he is consulted by Mary Morstan, a woman whose father disappeared a decade earlier after returning from India. Six years ago she began to receive a pearl in the mail at yearly intervals from an anonymous benefactor after she responded to a newspaper advertisement inquiring after her. That anonymous benefactor included with the most recent pearl a request for a meeting, telling her in the note that she was a wronged woman.

Holmes takes on the case and sets about trying to uncover the identity of the sender of the pearls. The trail will lead him to discover a body, poisoned with a dart, and start him on a search to find the man’s killer.

The opening to this book is absolutely wonderful and I think it goes a long way toward solidifying Holmes’ character. Watson’s criticism of his friend’s reliance on drugs (that famous “seven per cent solution of my own devising” for stimulation gives us a window into Holmes’ personality, making his desire to solve crimes a compulsion.

I also really quite enjoy the passage in which Holmes draws a series of inferences from his observations about a watch in his friend’s possession. Sometimes I feel these sequences in which Holmes shows off his craft can feel a little hollow or like they contain short skips in logic but I feel that the deductive chain here is far more solid and convincing.

As a child I was quite taken with the scope of the tale on offer here, particularly given how this is a story that is rooted in historical events and describes actions that took place a continent away. Having since become better read in the mystery genre, I can see that this story shares a fair amount in common with The Moonstone, itself a totemic work in the genre. While I think this story is a separate and distinct work, I was a little less taken with its inventiveness on this second reading.

I think the bigger issue though is a structural one.

The first part of the story is quite engaging as we rattle around London and meet figures from the Morstan family’s past. Not only is Holmes in strong form, the question of the pearls feels significantly odd that, even knowing the solution in advance, I felt drawn into the story once again. I also found the characters we are introduced to in this first part of the novel, particularly Thaddeus Sholto, colorful and entertaining and enjoyed learning more about his own family history.

I also quite liked Mary Morstan, even if Watson’s romantic pangs (if not yearns!) can read a little laughably. It all goes to show that Watson is at heart an old romantic, even if he can’t count his wives correctly.

The problems come in the lengthy account that closes out the story. Having pushed all of the action and incident to the front of the novel, this final section feels very static by comparison. While this problem is hardly unique to this novel – A Study in Scarlet had many of the same issues – The Sign of Four is less entertaining because of the type of information we are being given.

In that earlier book the reminiscences section is full of information we could never have known but for that account. Here however we should have already worked out a general idea of what had happened so rather than providing us with brand new information we are instead really just filling in the gaps. Unsurprisingly this makes for a significantly less compelling reading experience.

In addition to the structural similarities there is also some thematic overlap with the previous title. This is unfortunate, particularly when you read the two novels back-to-back, as it makes them seem a little less creative. This reliance on formula is all the more striking when you consider the diversity of story type and theme on offer in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

So unfortunately I can’t say that The Sign of Four quite lived up to my memories of it. There isn’t much mystery to engage the reader past the murder itself and the last third of the book is a drag. All of which is part of the reason I think first time Holmes readers would be well advised to skip the early novels and go straight to the far more rewarding short story collections.

Further Reading

Puzzle Doctor shares his views on this novel and, like me, was not enamored with the ‘really dull’ flashbacks.