Capital Crimes is an eclectic collection of London-based crime stories, blending the familiar with the unexpected in a way that reflects the personality of the city. Alongside classics by Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley and Thomas Burke are excellent and unusual stories by authors who are far less well known. The stories give a flavour of how writers have tackled crime in London over the span of more than half a century. Their contributions range from an early serial-killer thriller set on the London Underground and horrific vignettes to cerebral whodunits. What they have in common is an atmospheric London setting, and enduring value as entertainment.
I was a late convert to the mystery short story. Read some of my earliest posts on this blog and you’ll see that I express a certain wariness about this form of mystery story, believing that the short length wouldn’t allow for the sort of complex case that would interest me.
The British Library mystery anthologies were a large part of the reason that my opinions on the form began to change. I started reading them just to experience a wide range of authors but was pleasantly surprised by how rich and interesting some of the tales were.
One of the things I like most about the range is the idea of grouping stories around a common theme. Other collections have been themed on topics like manor house murders, railway mysteries or science-driven cases. It can be interesting to see the different directions and approaches writers would take on a common theme or element, brilliantly illustrating their style and personality as a writer.
Capital Crimes is a collection that contains some very strong mystery stories, some from familiar names but several from writers who were new to me. I will share some thoughts on each story in a moment but talking about them as a group, I felt that the quality was pretty consistently high. Where I think the collection falls down is in its representation of its theme – while the stories here happen in London, I rarely felt that the stories delivered the sort of strong sense of place that I expected.
My expectations had been for something along the line of Akashic’s city-based Noir series (to be clear, this was an expectation for approach – not for tone). Stories you read and notice aspects of the city in with stories set in very distinctive places or communities. The difference, of course, is that those stories tend to be written specifically for that collection with that sense of place in mind – I imagine that finding suitable stories for this collection must have been much harder.
While the stories rarely give a sense of a specific place, they tend to be better at evoking a sense of a metropolis. Stories draw upon the anonymity of the city and the mass of people that live and work there. They frequently reflect the fears people must have felt about living in these relatively new urban spaces, particularly of being alone even when you are surrounded by millions of people.
The most effective stories in this collection for me were the ones that explored those ideas. Hugh Walpole’s The Silver Mask is fantastically sinister and unsettling and is brilliantly complemented by E. M. Delafield’s They Don’t Wear Labels. John Oxenham’s A Mystery of the Underground explores the widespread panic caused by a series of motiveless murders on mass transit while H. C. Bailey’s The Little House may not be a puzzle mystery, but it a very effective and unsettling piece of writing.
There are relatively few misses in the collection. J. S. Fletcher’s The Magician of Cannon Street felt too fantastical, as did Richard Marsh’s The Finchley Puzzle, while Conan Doyle’s The Case of Lady Sannox, though effective, reads like a horror story. Even these stories though are perfectly readable though it is a little unfortunate that they all fall near the start of the collection.
The stories offer a good mix of approaches and styles and while I think other volumes offered a clearer representation of their theme, I think most who pick up Capital Crimes will find plenty here to enjoy. Thoughts on the individual stories follow after the page break!
I love listening to audiobooks. While most of what I read and review here are print copies, I love to listen to audiobooks while I am out and about – particularly when taking a walk or on a lengthy drive.
Of course, not every book that ends up on audio however is suited to the format. In some cases that’s because a particular clue requires you to see a clue written down to understand it properly. One example of this would be in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles where there is a reproduction of a physical clue that you don’t experience if you are listening. That’s not to forget that sometimes there are maps and floor plans that you may miss out on. In other cases a good story can be spoiled by a flat or unsympathetic reading where the narrator and the source material just don’t work well together.
When done right however an audiobook presentation can be a powerful experience. There have been some books I have struggled with in print but which I suddenly found myself connecting to when read by the right sort of narrator. Christian Rodska’s reading of Lindsey Davis’ The Silver Pigs is a great case in point – I had tried repeatedly over the years to start that book in print only to breeze through it when heard with his performance really bringing out the humor in the material wonderfully (sadly I quickly realized that he only narrates a handful of the subsequent titles).
Perhaps the most striking mystery audiobook I have listened to was the reading of Kanae Minato’s Confessions. The book, which is composed of a number of different characters’ accounts of the circumstances concerning the horrific murder of a toddler, works so well on audio because of the choice to have different actors read the chapters and because of the unusual second-person narration style. It’s a very dark but highly engaging listening experience.
I would also champion the Stephen Fry recordings of the complete Sherlock Holmes canon for Audible. There are many recordings of these stories but what sets these apart for me are the thoughtful introductions to each book from Fry in which he reflects on his own experiences. His enthusiasm as a lifelong Sherlockian really comes through in these and his voice is a wonderful match for the source material.
For today’s post though I have decided to focus on audiobook adaptations of vintage stories of mystery and suspense from around the time of the golden age of detection. In each case I think not only is it a good audiobook production but that the material being adapted is worth your time as well.
As always, I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments below if there are any titles or narrators you particularly enjoy…
Mystery at Olympia by John Rhode
Narrated by Gordon Griffin
Griffin is a superb audiobook narrator who you will often hear on recordings of British Library Crime Classics but I rate his four Dr. Priestley novels as his most essential work. The reason is that his precise delivery not only suits the style and tone of Rhode’s writing but it works brilliantly for the armchair detective.
All four of the Rhode audiobooks are done well but Mystery at Olympia is my favorite of these novels. It concerns the murder of a man at a booth where the Comet Motor Company are demonstrating their ‘exciting’ new transmission system (the excitement, I am sorry to say, is purely Rhode’s but Griffin delivers those passages with enough gusto to help them pass quickly).
The death appears natural but when the man’s housekeeper is poisoned and a further attempt on his life is identified, Inspector Hanslet becomes convinced that there has been foul play.
Griffin reads it wonderfully, not only doing a fine job with Priestley but also with Inspector Hanslet who is a very different sort of detective. It’s a great introduction to Priestley for those encountering him for the first time and I can only hope that if the new reprints are ever turned into audiobooks that whoever does so engages Griffin to do those too.
I was not a fan of the first Inspector Alleyn mystery, A Man Lay Dead, finding it a tough read to like. One of the reasons for that was I struggled to get much of a sense of her detective. That changed when I made the choice to switch to the audiobook recording for this second novel.
The story itself, which takes place in a theatrical setting, is particularly suited to audio because so many of its characters have larger than life personalities. From the booming voice of theatrical impresario Jacob Saint to the breathy, confident Stephanie Vaughan, the narrator James Saxon has a lot to work with and he makes the most of the rather stylized dialogue.
His best work though is with Alleyn himself who he voices in a somewhat sarcastic tone. Suddenly I found myself connecting with the character and noticing that much of his sarcasm is directed at himself. It’s a highly entertaining listen that I think brings the work to life wonderfully. My only regret is that he is not used for all of the series, though he does narrate a substantial portion of them.
The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner
Read by Alexander Cendese
As much as I enjoy reading Perry Mason on the page, I absolutely love listening to Alexander Cendese performing these stories. His Perry is powerful and commanding and he absolutely brings that character to life as a sort of legal brawler, perfectly matching the tone of the earliest Perry Mason stories.
It is hard to pick a favorite from these stories given that most offer some points of interest (the weakest of the stories I have read so far is The Case of the Lucky Legs). In the end I opted for this one because it has been a while since I reviewed it and it is more of a detective story than the others.
The story involves Perry being hired by a woman who is seeking legal advice on behalf of a friend. She asks about the time needed for a person to be considered dead, the laws on bigamy and whether a body would need to be found. She soon flees his office under questioning but before long Perry finds himself involved in a murder case.
While it gets off to a bit of a slow start, this book soon begins to take some unpredictable twists and turns. The whodunnit aspect is not too difficult to resolve – the bigger challenge will be working out just how Perry will get his client out of jeopardy. If you’re looking for a Mason story to start with, this is a pretty good one to try.
So I stated above that the works I would select would be from the Golden Age of Detection. Well, obviously I lied though I think that spiritually this novel feels like it belongs to that period of detective fiction.
The novel begins with a postman discovering the body of Mrs. Jenkins in the road in the early hours of the morning. It appears to have been a tragic hit and run but the post-mortem reveals two strange details that raise further questions. The first is why she was hit by cars traveling in two different directions. The other is that the woman has never given birth, a matter that proves deeply confusing to her adult daughter Henrietta who has come to identify the body.
The puzzle element of this novel is fascinating but what makes it truly compelling is the emotional component as Inspector Sloan tries to find the truth of Henrietta’s identity. Robin Bailey navigates all this well, giving those moments an appropriate emotional tone and emphasizing the detective’s sense of humanity making this a compelling listen.
One of the peculiarities of the British Library Crime Classic range is that because the books have a separate US publisher there will often be a bit of a delay between the UK and US releases. This was not an inconsiderable period in the case of Death of Anton which was all the more frustrating because all the bloggers in the UK were raving about how much fun it was. When I realized that the Soundings Audio release was available months before the paperback I quickly resolved to pick that up instead. Happily it is a release that works really well in that format.
The story, which is as much a work of comedy as it is detection, concerns the death of a tiger tamer at the circus. Inspector Minto who happens to be enjoying the circus as a guest soon becomes convinced that this is not the innocent accident it appears but something more sinister and begins an investigation. Adding to the fun is the fact that his brother, a priest, has learned the identity of the killer in confession but cannot reveal that information to him, much to Minto’s frustration.
The story is colorful and amusing throughout. While some comedic mysteries can struggle to sustain the sense of fun (I think, for instance, of the same author’s Quick Curtain), this continues to blend the comedy and detection right up to the conclusion. Neither the solution to the mystery nor Minto’s detection skills are likely to wow readers but it does make for a charming and consistently amusing read with Thorpe handling those comedic elements and the sometimes larger-than-life characters and situations quite wonderfully.
Originally published in 2021 This work is exclusively available through Audible to its members
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.
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.
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 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 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 inScarlet 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.
The Verdict: While I have issues with some loose plotting, this atmospheric story has some wonderful imagery.
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.
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 HolmesBook 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 Verdict: An attractive coffee table volume best dipped into after reading a particular story.
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 . . .
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.
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 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.
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.
Puzzle Doctor shares his views on this novel and, like me, was not enamored with the ‘really dull’ flashbacks.
The first of the Sherlock Holmes stories, this was also the first of Conan Doyle’s books to be published. In this fascinating and exciting tale, the two towering creations of detective fiction—Holmes, the master of the science of detection, and Watson, his faithful companion—make their auspicious debut. The two detectives are immediately in fine form as Holmes plucks the solution to the mystery from the heart of Victorian London.
Yesterday I teased on my Twitter account that this week I would be discussing the first appearance of one of the most iconic detectives in literature. That detective is, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
Though A Study in Scarlet introduced readers to Sherlock Holmes it was not my first encounter with the character. That was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which I followed with the other short story collections and The Hound of the Baskervilles.
By the time I reached A Study in Scarlet I must have been about twelve years old. I recall being tremendously excited that my secondary school library had a copy and checking it out, looking forward to experiencing this piece of literary history for myself. Unfortunately twelve-year-old me ended up being somewhat disappointed with the tale but I have revisited it several times since then and found I appreciated aspects of it more than I did back then.
The story begins by introducing us to Dr. John Watson, an army medical officer who has returned to England to convalesce after being wounded in service in Afghanistan. A friend introduces him to Sherlock Holmes who, he notes, is rather odd but in need of someone to share lodgings with in the city. He soon becomes curious about Holmes’ work and is invited along when the consulting detective is summoned by Inspector Gregson to take a look at a strange crime scene.
They find a man dead with a grotesque expression on his face. There are no signs indicating a physical altercation about the corpse or in the room but a word ‘Rache‘ has been written on the wall in blood…
When reading this I am always struck by just how effective these opening chapters are and how well Conan Doyle establishes the characters of Watson and Holmes. Later stories add more details to both men’s lives but I think the core elements of each character’s personality are present already and I really enjoy their interactions.
Probably my favorite of these moments occurs early in the second chapter. It is a passage in which Watson attempts to catalog Holmes’ limitations only to give up in frustration. Holmes intrigues and yet baffles Watson as he cannot understand the detective’s absolute focus on developing some skills and knowledge at the expense of other, more everyday pieces of information.
What I like about this section and, indeed, the character of Holmes in general is that he is established to be flawed rather than superhuman. Watson likes him and so we are inclined to do so as well and yet it is clear that he could be frustrating company. Perhaps more importantly though the flaws help justify the brilliance and there is something quite entrancing about following his deductions and investigative process even if it is rarely fair play.
Similarly I think the two sequences in which Holmes and Watson investigate crime scenes are quite effectively written, particularly the first one. The message written in blood on the wall is perhaps an excessively dramatic touch (though it was one of the parts of the novel that really worked for me as a pre-teen) but I think the puzzle is surprisingly subtle. Holmes’ observations and explanations are clever and when the circumstances of the murders are explained in the final chapters of the novel I think the crime scenes make sense.
The problems with the book are found in its second half which suddenly diverges from the style and tone of the story up until that point, telling a historical narrative. This was an enormous shock to me when I first read it as it doesn’t feel integrated into Watson’s narrative. It wasn’t what I had been expecting and didn’t match what I wanted from the book at all, striking me as dull.
On revisiting the novel I find more to appreciate in these chapters. While the change of style and setting is quite abrupt, I think Conan Doyle’s depiction of the landscape and the realities of a harsh journey in the first chapter are quite striking and evocative. There is a sense of isolation and a need to survive in difficult circumstances that I think he really conveys well.
What doesn’t work for me is the tone of the second half of the novel in which every emotion is heightened to an absurd degree. Whether it is a moment of sickly sweetness in the midst of despair or the “so it has been decreed” speeches, this second half of the book lacks subtlety of character or in terms of the situations Conan Doyle creates. I would even say that it is so over the top that rather than encouraging empathy it makes the plight of the characters seem unreal.
The return to London and the narrative voice of Dr. Watson is welcome and the final few chapters of the book do a good job of pulling together the information and explaining how Holmes was able to identify the killer. Some aspects of their motivation and plan are explained and while Conan Doyle still employs that heightened, dramatic tone at times, I think he finds a better balance with the colder analytical voice of Sherlock Holmes to end on a stronger note.
Were it not for its status as the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes I suspect we would not remember A Study in Scarlet as a standout story. It has some wonderful moments that establish the characters of Holmes and Watson as well as two interesting murders but the second half of the book feels drawn out and very heavy. Still, it is a landmark adventure for the character and for that reason alone I think it is worth experiencing.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by Poison (How)
The English country house is an iconic setting for some of the greatest British crime fiction. This new collection gathers together stories written over a span of about 65 years, during which British society, and life in country houses, was transformed out of all recognition. It includes fascinating and unfamiliar twists on the classic ‘closed circle’ plot, in which the assorted guests at a country house party become suspects when a crime is committed. In the more sinister tales featured here, a gloomy mansion set in lonely grounds offers an eerie backdrop for dark deeds.
Though I have been something of a skeptic when it comes to short crime fiction in the past these British Library anthologies curated by Martin Edwards have helped turn me around on the possibilities of the form. Over the past year I bought most of these collections and have been slowly working through them.
Murder at the Manor takes the iconic country house setting as its focus, presenting us with sixteen tales from authors from a variety of backgrounds and styles. In some cases however the setting plays little role in the story itself and few convey any real sense of those impressive historic homes.
The result is a collection that can feel a little uneven compared to some of the others in the range. A few stories such as The Problem of Dead Wood Hall and The Long Shot left me quite unimpressed. There are some stories though that I can strongly recommend that make this worth dipping into.
Several of the most memorable tales are inverted crime stories such as W. W. Jacobs’ The Well which features some truly horrific moments and James Hilton’s The Perfect Plan which builds to a thrilling conclusion. Those who prefer lighter mysteries are likely to enjoy E. V. Knox’s very amusing story The Murder at the Towers which is consistently amusing, parodying the country house mystery very effectively.
The highlight of the collection is an incredibly tense thriller by Ethel Lina White, An Unlocked Window. In that tale a group of nurses have locked themselves in a house while the Doctor is away fetching supplies because there is a serial killer who has been targeting nurses as his victims. The moment in which the protagonist realizes that they have left a window unlocked is really chilling but it is topped by a superb reveal that pushes the story into a thrilling conclusion. While this is not normally my type of read, I think it is done really well and it is likely to stay with me for a while.
Though I do feel that the stories in this collection are less consistent than some of the other volumes the British Library have published, stories like these certainly make this worth dipping into. I would suggest though starting with Resorting to Murder or The Long Arm of the Law, both of which I rate highly, unless the subject matter of this volume particularly appeals.
The idea of the detective on holiday is a rather wonderful one and, as Martin Edwards points out in his introduction, has been a rich source of inspiration for mystery novels. This collection is concerned however with much shorter works and features a variety of stories in which the detective or victim is travelling away from home.
In some cases the travel is incidental to the story, used to place the mystery against an exotic backdrop whereas in others the idea of being in an unfamiliar environment is critical to the story’s themes and plot. The stories that Edwards selects draw on a variety of styles and approaches and demonstrate how a basic concept can be taken in many different directions and used for inspiration in many different ways.
There are, of course, some stories from writers who are widely known and remembered such as Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton but there are also a number of stories from lesser-known figures. Of those I particularly enjoyed the contributions from E. W. Hornung, Phyllis Bentley and Gerald Findler while there are some excellent stories from the better-known Michael Gilbert and Leo Bruce here too.
As with any anthology, there are a handful of disappointments in the collection but in most cases those stories fit and illustrate the theme well and their inclusion makes sense. I would certainly say that this is one of the strongest British Library Crime Classics anthologies that I have read and would put this up with The Long Arm of the Lawin terms of the general quality of the stories collected.