Welcome back for the final post in my series on the Sherlock Holmes novels by Arthur Conan Doyle. Today, we look at my favourite two books in the series:
Holmes and Watson come alive in short stories. Someone (who, I wish I’d recall) once said that if you only read Agatha Christie’s short stories, and Conan Doyle’s novels, you’d think both were terrible writers. It certainly seems true in Conan Doyle’s case.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes contains the first 12 short stories written, following on from the lacklustre novels A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. From the very first story – A Scandal in Bohemia – you can tell that Conan Doyle is more at home in this format. As narrated by Watson, Holmes is forced into the middle of a blackmail confrontation between the hereditary King of Bohemia, and his former lover Irene Adler. It’s not the most captivating or complex story in the canon, not by a long shot, but it’s simply very well written. The discreet nature of the case is tactfully dealt with, and – since this is still early in Holmes and Watson’s friendship – the good doctor is uncovering layers of the detective’s personality, and far more successfully than in the preceding novels herself. And then there’s Ms. Adler, “the woman”, as Holmes will reportedly call her in future. (He won’t, but let’s just go with it.) It’s fair enough that Irene has become a quintessential element of the canon even though, as with Moriarty, she only appears this one time. It’s a rare dip beneath the skin of Holmes, and it’s always nice to see an opponent who can play the game as well as he.
There are many great stories in this collection. The Red Headed League is a genuinely captivating mystery, which Conan Doyle would repeat – with diminishing returns – on several occasions. (The same is true of the ‘quest for the missing item’ story, The Blue Carbuncle.) A Case of Identity continues the trend, of a client coming to Holmes with an impossible problem. The mysteries are not always murders, or even crimes, but sometimes just confusing situations. Some of them – as in the aforementioned story – can seem a little trivial as a result, since the stories don’t always furnish us with suspects, but rather just puzzle pieces. However, it works: the brevity of the tales and the added layer of enigma added by Watson’s narration (and his confusion over Holmes, which will dissipate soon enough) keep us addled until the final paragraphs.
To be honest, most of the stories don’t require much elaboration. Many stories – such as The Boscombe Valley Mystery, The Man with the Twisted Lip, The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor – serve as enjoyable little mysteries which also provide us with intriguing looks into the society of the 1880s and 1890s. Conan Doyle easily shifts from political intrigue to cruel conspiracy (the atmospheric The Adventure of the Copper Beeches), from locked-room mystery (The Beryl Coronet) to the more straightforward murder mystery (The Adventure of the Speckled Band). The latter was the first Holmes story I ever read, and it remains possibly the quintessential Holmes short story. It’s the tale of a true locked room murder mystery, in which none of the clues make any sense, and your ‘Golden Age’ elements – layout of the house, hidden relationships, esoteric scientific knowledge – come into play for the solution. Whereas Holmes’ encyclopedic knowledge could be frustrating in the novels, where clues you’d spent half a book considering turned out to be impossible to guess, here they just make him seem particularly clever. Given the chance, Conan Doyle could construct a great novel – as we’ll see – but these short stories play much more to his strength.
The other story worth singling out is The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb. It’s most bizarre, to be honest: an engineer’s thumb is cut off (well, that part’s in the title), and he relates his horrific night to Holmes and Watson, who subsequently figure out the master plan of the villains, but fail to catch them. It’s more of an adventure piece than a mystery, which would be the direction Conan Doyle would take the series post-Hound of the Baskervilles, but it works because of the chilling atmosphere that Hatherly finds when he is lured out of the city on a high-paying job.
The only story that doesn’t work for me is The Five Orange Pips but that’s not Conan Doyle’s fault. When this story was written in the 1890s, the identity of the killers was utterly perplexing. Nowadays… well, let’s just say that the acronym given as an early clue should really give the answer to any Western reader.
But that’s a minor flaw. I run hot and cold on the later short story books but The Adventures is Conan Doyle in peak form. Holmes and Watson make a remarkable team, and the mysteries – even when they’re of the “how” nature, rather than the “who”, “what” and “why” – speed along with humour and insight, always challenging to the reader. A book that has earned its place in the Western canon.
I’m one of those people who – as much as I hate being pretentious – really dislikes going along with the mainstream. Ask me to rank the top episodes of a TV series, top books of a series, top anything, and I’m most likely to find something at odds with the everyman. (The Castafiore Emerald is my favourite Tintin, ‘nuff said.) So it’s always frustrating when I find that my #1 is such a highly recognized icon, but – it must be said – The Hound of the Baskervilles is the pinnacle of the Holmes canon, and one of the apexes of detective fiction: a feat all the more impressive given how early in the history of the genre it appears. (I hope that the then 12-year-old Agatha Christie got her hands on this!)
The terrifying, mysterious death of a baronet leads Holmes and Watson to Dartmoor, where they uncover an alleged curse upon the Baskerville family, of a demonic hound who will annihilate the family one by one. Our rational heroes are, naturally, skeptical of the claims, but investigate nonetheless.
Every element of this story fits perfectly into place. Like the detectives, we at first refuse to accept the idea of such a curse but, as Watson investigates (Holmes finds himself recalled to London because of other cases), the disconcerting atmosphere surrounding Baskerville Hall, and the true terror it inspires in the residents, makes you wonder. The isolated location is perfectly described, coupled with many fascinating features: the fatal bogs, the long rows of yews, the Neolithic huts that exist, nearly forgotten, out on the moors. Each of the characters is well-drawn, possessing their own mysteries which interlock perfectly with the overarching puzzle. The Hound of the Baskervilles is the opposite of a locked-room/dining table mystery. Because we know the genre, we’re instantly suspicious of every character we meet (as is Watson), but none of them are obviously suspects, leading us to question how they could be connected, as well as why.
Holmes, of course, is far more involved than he wants the suspects to seem, and Conan Doyle has great fun with the central pairing. By now, Holmes has few surprises for Watson: he’s no longer the odd, nearly-alien figure of the early stories (showing why Steven Moffat runs both Doctor Who and the new Sherlock), and there’s a danger that Holmes could simply become a brilliant eccentric who borders on tiring (as, I might argue, he does in the last stories). But by now, the relationship between the two is one of lifelong friends; it’s one of the greatest ‘bromances’ in literary history. Watson’s bemusement at Holmes’ quirks and his resignation at every twist and turn are beautifully rendered. Similarly, Holmes himself – for all his berating of his companion – acknowledges Watson’s usefulness, and the two develop a playful rapport. By utilizing different aspects of Watson’s narrative voice – his diary, letters, reminiscences – Conan Doyle shakes up his formula, presenting us with a mystery in which both Holmes and Watson are used to their respective strengths.
Beyond this, the mystery is multi-faceted. It’s not just a “whodunit”, but it’s also not just a “howdunit”, as the later stories often are. Every element fits into its proper place and so, while the revelations may be no less typical or melodramatic than the rest of the author’s fare, they are part of an ambient, thickly-characterised canvas. Sometimes, Conan Doyle seems a bit too eager to show off his ability to make minutiae the fulcrum on which Holmes’ investigate skills pivot (half a chapter, for instance, is spent on exactly which type of newspaper a ransom note was cut from), but here it’s quintessential Holmes. He may be a show-off, but we love him for it!
Seasoned crime readers will probably pick up on a big clue planted very early in the book. But even then, while it may point you in the right direction, it still won’t allow you to solve the crime. Quite frankly, this is a powerful work told with vigour and atmosphere. No wonder it’s been dramatized so many times, but what a shame that Holmes couldn’t have had so many great novels like this, as Monsieur Poirot did!