Welcome back, for the fourth of my five posts reviewing the entire Sherlock Holmes canon by Arthur Conan Doyle. We’ve covered the bad, the average, and the satisfying. Today, we’ll take a look at a very good entry in the set: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
It can be hard to do rankings in reverse order, as my capsule review of this book is simply “not quite as good as The Adventures, but certainly better than most everything else”. Seeing as how that’s probably not all-encompassing, I’ll try harder…
The Memoirs collects the remaining short stories published in the 19th century, before Conan Doyle had to be lured back to his typewriter for further installments. As such, there’s none of the clinical and mechanical problem-solving that sometimes tarnishes the later short stories, and there’s none of the messiness which ruined the first novels. Conan Doyle’s literary style, and his ability to depict the lives and relationship of our two central characters, rises to the fore. (Watson’s discussion of Holmes’ simultaneous neatness and untidyness in The Musgrave Ritual is marvellous!)
I enjoyed eleven of the twelve stories in this book (and the twelfth, which I found lacking, still evoked a rich milieu), so please forgive my limited discussions below.
As a boy, I had The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll, and what fascinated me more than the nonsense poems or the obscure novels were odd little logic puzzles Carroll had written for various magazines. It was an interesting curio to have included in the works, and sometimes these stories strike me as similar: intriguing little puzzles which would have fascinated the family around the breakfast table in 1893, when detective fiction was still an embryonic art. Nowadays, a story like The Reigate Squire, despite being entertaining and self-contained, probably wouldn’t hold that much interest. So many of these stories provide windows into a different world, which fascinate me as much as the mysteries themselves. The latter half of the book was my favourite: The Adventure of the Crooked Man, The Adventure of the Resident Patient, The Adventure of the Naval Treaty and The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter, which is a smashing success, introducing us to Holmes’ brother Mycroft. Aside from its very enjoyable spy aspects, the story threads together all the right elements: a bracing adventure, the central pairing of Holmes and Watson (enlivened by new insights into the former) and a mystery which asks both “how?” and “why?” If only this could have been the template for the later short stories.
Every story in the collection is well-written. Conan Doyle had ironed out the kinks in his writing style. Occasionally, dialogue (from the guest characters) becomes wooden, but the sense of unbridled adventure overrides this. What does stand out is a tendency to slip back into the romance and melodrama which coloured The Sign of the Four and the latter half of A Study in Scarlet. This is particularly noticeable in The Adventure of the Yellow Face (which treats race relations with an admirable, if clunky, manner) and the iconic The Adventure of the Cardboard Box which gets mired a little under its own complexity but opens with some startling imagery. The Adventure of the Stock-broker’s Clerk, meanwhile, is an enjoyable story which – like The Three Garridebs after it – suffers from bearing a strong resemblance to a story from The Adventures, which we’ll look at in detail next time.
My least favourite story is Silver Blaze which, I understand, is quite popular. In retrospect, I couldn’t tell you what the story lacked: it’s well-plotted, features a guest turn from a competent police officer, and has become iconic of late. Perhaps it was a personal lack of interest in the horse-racing industry, or perhaps it simply didn’t strike me with the boldness that inhabited The Greek Interpreter for instance.
Conan Doyle, meanwhile, gives us two stories narrated – for the most part – by Sherlock Holmes himself. The Adventure of the Gloria Scott is the stronger of the two, taking a case which involves past transgressions and larger-than-life characters battling stakes of life-and-death, as well as featuring our detective in his younger days. The Musgrave Ritual was a story that I enjoyed at the time, featuring Holmes’ narrative voice and a richly evocative setting. However, the central mystery is never satisfactorily answered, and – for all the cloak-and-dagger mystery – the answer seemed deflating. As with Silver Blaze, though, perhaps the failing is on my part.
Finally, then, the collection reaches one of Holmes’ most notable adventures. The Final Problem takes Watson out of England, through some well-described European countrysides, and introduces us to Professor Moriarty, a powerful villain who – in spite of his plans of seeming world domination – comes across as malevolent and not ridiculous. (It helps, I suppose, that we spend next-to-no time in his presence.) It’s certainly a pity that – before or after this – Conan Doyle never really tried to give us more stories about Moriarty and his gang (The Adventure of the Empty House, this story’s sequel, is the sole exception; The Valley of Fear promises but doesn’t really deliver). However, what we get here is solid and powerful: Watson’s concern at seeing Holmes fear for his life is echoed by us, who have become accustomed to Holmes’ superiority and lax safety precautions. There’s no wonder that Moriarty, and the story’s gripping final sequence, has been conjured up in countless adaptations (he’s already making his presence known in the new Sherlock TV series, which strikes me as playing your hand a little early…), because there is simply nothing out of place here. Wonderful stuff.
In closing, then, The Memoirs is a richly written collection of stories which – at their best – draw on Conan Doyle’s clever plotting whilst also retaining a human element, enriched by having both suspects and surprises (both things the later short stories often lack). While it may descend into melodrama on occasion, The Memoirs is vintage Holmes, and a very good read.
Next time: we’ll take a look at my favourite two Holmes books, including – unsurprisingly – his most famous adventure.