Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle – 3

Part three of the reading marathon of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in an edition published by The Folio Society. The set consists of five volumes of short stories issued in 1993 and four volumes of novels which came out the following year. The series has a very attractive binding of an offset wrap around design on each book which makes the spines also display the image and appropriately the books are printed using the Baskerville font.

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So far I have read the first two novels and the first two sets of short stories, this takes us up to the disappearance of Holmes in “The Final Problem” where Sherlock apparently fell to his death from the Reichenbach Falls whilst combating Professor Moriarty.  This had been printed in December 1893 and there the stories appeared to end. In August 1901 however a new Sherlock Holmes story appeared, although set before the events in “The Final Problem”; “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was serialised over the following eight months in the Strand magazine and by the end the clamour for more Holmes stories was irresistible regardless of how much Doyle claimed he didn’t want to write any more he had opened the floodgates and was swept along. Again there are minor spoilers below as it is difficult to review the stories without having them but no plot resolutions are included.

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The Return of Sherlock Holmes

This consists of thirteen short stories originally printed in The Strand magazine between 1903 and 1904, the collection was first published in book form 1905 and the stories are as follows:

  • The Adventure of the Empty House
  • The Adventure of the Norwood Builder
  • The Adventure of the Dancing Men
  • The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist
  • The Adventure of the Priory School
  • The Adventure of Black Peter
  • The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton
  • The Adventure of the Six Napoleons
  • The Adventure of the Three Students
  • The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez
  • The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter
  • The Adventure of the Abbey Grange
  • The Adventure of the Second Stain

Although Holmes had been away from print for eight years Dr. Watson makes it quite clear in “The Adventure of the Empty House” that he had actually vanished for just three years as this story is set in 1894. In this tale he explains his absence as he needed to be in hiding from members of Moriarty’s gang who wanted to avenge their leaders death, for indeed he had died in the incident at the falls at the end of the last book. To this end Holmes had been travelling the world, including a significant amount of time in Tibet in the guise of a Norwegian called Sigurdson. By the time he introduces himself to Watson again only one danger remains at large and he seeks assistance in dealing Colonel Moran who will probably try to assassinate him that very evening. The capture of Moran, in a more dramatic manner than Holmes intended, does indeed occur that night and the two men return to Baker Street to renew their friendship.

Also in the first tale we learn that Mary has died and Watson is again alone. At the start of “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” Watson has been persuaded by Holmes to sell his medical practice and move back in to 221b Baker Street. So Doyle has got rid of the awkward plot narratives of the second set of short stories where one of them needed to go to fetch, or visit, the other before things could happen. All the stories where a date is identifiable are set after Holmes return and Watson comments that they represent a tiny fraction of the cases handled in the ten years since 1894. But again Doyle is clearly planning to stop writing about our favourite detectives as he has Watson explain at the start of “The Adventure of the Second Stain”.

I had intended “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” to be the last of those exploits of my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, which I should ever communicate to the public. This resolution of mine was not due to any lack of material, since I have notes of many hundreds of cases to which I have never alluded, nor was it caused by any waning interest on the part of my readers in the singular personality and unique methods of this remarkable man. The real reason lay in the reluctance which Mr. Holmes has shown to the continued publication of his experiences. So long as he was in actual professional practice the records of his successes were of some practical value to him; but since he has definitely retired from London and betaken himself to study and bee-farming on the Sussex Downs, notoriety has become hateful to him, and he has peremptorily requested that his wishes in this matter should be strictly observed.

It was only because the last tale had apparently been promised earlier that Holmes allows it to be told. The stories in this collection are nearly all good reads, only one as far as I am concerned, “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter”, fails in this regard and as it is one of the shortest examples it doesn’t really let down the book as a whole. Speaking of length I should really have checked how many pages I have to read this week to maintain the schedule, this book is 311 pages, next comes 195 pages and then 241 making a total of 747 and I also have to write around 3000 words, this is tight.

Two of the stories, “The Norwood Builder” and “The Golden Pince-Nez” rely on very similar solutions to the big reveal although they are handled differently and both are excellent tales.  “The Norwood Builder” also has a reference to the uniqueness of fingerprints which Holmes states that he has heard of. This story is set in 1894 so this was very new at the time as it was only in 1892 that the first book on the possible use of fingerprints for criminal detection was published. “The Dancing Men” is another example of Holmes defeating an American gangland member in this case by breaking what is actually quite a simple cypher. We also have several tales that revolve around the English nobility, two of which “Charles Augustus Milverton” and “The Second Stain” are blackmail cases where a lady’s indiscreet letters from before her marriage are to be sent to her husband or else. These very much rely on the strict Victorian morals to make much sense nowadays as a basis for murder. “Black Peter” has an interesting misdirection in the clues presented to us whilst “The Three Students” has, as the title suggests, just three possible malefactors, in this case which of the three students took an opportunity to cheat by copying the paper for an exam they were about to sit.

All in all this was an excellent collection of stories but there will now be another, although shorter, break in Doyle writing any more Holmes and Watson tales as yet again he tries to bring the series to an end.

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His Last Bow

Six of the stories included in this volume were originally printed in The Strand magazine between 1908 and 1913, one other from 1892 (the Cardboard Box) had appeared in the first edition of “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes” but was dropped from some further editions and the title story was first published by Collier’s in 1917; the complete collection was published in 1917 and with just eight tales it is the shortest of the anthologies:

  • The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge
  • The Adventure of the Cardboard Box
  • The Adventure of the Red Circle
  • The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans
  • The Adventure of the Dying Detective
  • The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax
  • The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot
  • His Last Bow: The War Service of Sherlock Holmes

The book starts with a preface by Dr. Watson which reinforces his comments at the start of the previous volume.

The friends of Mr. Sherlock Holmes will be glad to learn that he is still alive and well, though somewhat crippled by occasional attacks of rheumatism. He has, for many years, lived in a small farm upon the Downs five miles from Eastbourne, where his time is divided between philosophy and agriculture. During this period of rest he has refused the most princely offers to take up various cases, having determined that his retirement was a permanent one. The approach of the German war caused him, however, to lay his remarkable combination of intellectual and practical activity at the disposal of the Government, with historical results which are recounted in His Last Bow. Several previous experiences which have lain long in my portfolio have been added to His Last Bow so as to complete the volume.

John H. Watson, M.D

These asides to the reader are great fun and add to the realism of the two characters. The self awareness of the two men, with Holmes regularly complaining in the stories about the ‘sensationalism’ in Watson’s writing up of his cases, is one of the things that make the Sherlock Holmes stories so different from anything else and make them far more engaging personalities. I’ve been looking forward to getting to this collection as ‘the Bruce-Partington Plans’ is one of my favourites of the tales.

The oddest part of this sequential reading is something I hadn’t noticed before and that is just how much the first few pages of ‘The Adventure of the Cardboard Box’ are almost identical to that of ‘The Resident Patient’ in the edition that I have. It appears that Doyle was rather fond of ‘the mind reading experiment’ that Holmes performs on Watson in that section and when the Cardboard Box was not included in subsequent editions of ‘The Memoirs’ collection he simply rewrote the start and tacked it onto the other story.  Whilst reading this volume just a few days later however it was immediately clear that I had read those four pages before, if with slight changes. Editions exist with both stories in the same book and when that is the case ‘the mind reading’ only happens in The Cardboard Box, this was confirmed by my Catalan friend Mixa as her copy does indeed have both tales. However on with the review of the stories as told in this volume.

The first story along with ‘The Red Circle’ feature Inspector Gregson of Scotland Yard whom we have only previously heard of at that rank in ‘The Greek Interpreter’ from ‘The Memoirs’, although he also is a main character in the first Holmes novel ‘A Study in Scarlet’. In that work he was really just a foil to Holmes’ brilliance as he is regularly being shown to be wrong in his deductions. In ‘The Greek Interpreter’ he was very much a bit part but now he has come on in leaps and bounds. In ‘Wisteria Lodge’ he follows his own enquiries, which in previous Holmes novels would result in whichever official detective is involved being shown the error of their ways before long, but in this case he works out the solution just as Holmes does. In ‘The Red Circle’ he is actually working on the same case but from a completely different angle and the two men only become aware of the others involvement at the denouement. Having a Scotland Yard detective proving to be just as good as Holmes at following the clues is a pleasant change so both stories have a lot to recommend them even before they prove to be excellent mysteries. The Cardboard Box is the weakest story in the collection which is probably why Doyle felt safe in extracting its start as he probably assumed it wouldn’t end up being reprinted. he had no expectation of writing more stories about Holmes when the book was published and it would be a shame to waste the best bit of the tale.

Next comes ‘the Bruce-Partington Plans’, I like this because there are two mysteries in one which have to be solved, who stole the plans and what did they do with them? along with how did the body of the main suspect, Arthur Cadogan West, come to be where it was found? The answer to the first proves to be rather simpler than the second but is also the last to be revealed. The structure of the short story draws the reader along in a very satisfying way. In ‘the Dying Detective’ Holmes already knows the solution to the case from the start and we instead follow his trap for the murderer and his explanation at the end is the first we get to know about what he has been working on. A very nice twist to the narrative structure which shows Doyle’s mastery of his craft at this stage of his career.

Another variant is seen in ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax’ this time instead of Holmes being the detective he sends Watson off on a chase around Europe looking for the missing lady only to eventually become exasperated by his failure to catch up with her and have to get involved after all. They jointly rescue her, but with only minutes to go. ‘The Devil’s Foot’ is one of those tales which I thought we had seen the last of as it is based around a narcotic with unusual properties that Doyle has invented. This means that the reader can have no real feel for the story as the solution is hidden in a fantasy product.

Finally we come to the title story, written much later than the other works, it has Holmes pulled out of retirement a couple of years before the First World War by the urging of the Prime Minister to crack a German spy network before they can obtain military secrets which would assist them greatly in the expected conflict. This he duly does although only just in time as it takes him a lot of that time to infiltrate the organisation. It has a very different feel to any previous Holmes and Watson story and definitely gave the impression that Holmes will at last be allowed to disappear into retirement this time for good, although of course the existence of another volume on my shelf means that this wasn’t to happen.

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The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

This consists of twelve short stories originally printed in various magazines between 1921 and 1927, the collection was first published in book form 1927 and the stories are as follows:

  • The Adventure of the Illustrious Client
  • The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier
  • The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone
  • The Adventure of the Three Gables
  • The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire
  • The Adventure of the Three Garridebs
  • The Problem of Thor Bridge
  • The Adventure of the Creeping Man
  • The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane
  • The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger
  • The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place
  • The Adventure of the Retired Colourman

Doyle by this time has stopped having Watson saying this will be the last collection and instead wrote an introduction under his own name where he acknowledges the significance of the story arc and finally recognises that it hasn’t really detracted from what he sees as his more ‘serious’ work but there will be no more and this time he means it. Let us however start with what must be the worst of the Holmes stories in any collection ‘The Adventure of the Creeping Man’ just to get it out of the way. I have no compunction in revealing that this case is based on the nonsensical concept that the taking of extracts of monkey glands to ‘enhance an older man’s prowess with a much younger lady’ would either work or even more ridiculously lead to him acting like an ape and able to scale sheer walls with the aid of guttering and window ledges just like one and then running round on all fours dragging his knuckles on the ground. Doyle was clearly following one of his madder moments when he wrote this, much like his belief in spiritualism or fairies at the bottom of the garden.

That said the remaining eleven tales are very good. ‘The Adventure of the Three Garridebs’ takes back to familiar territory first trodden with the ‘Red Headed League’ where it is necessary to lure somebody out of their home in order to achieve a nefarious act but with again a twist to make the story interesting although as 33 years separate the writing of the stories it is only when reading them one after another that this becomes so obvious. Two of the tales are written by Holmes rather than Watson, the first ‘The Blanched Soldier’ is apparently because after criticising the good doctor’s style for many years and being told to “Try it yourself, Holmes!” he feels he really ought to have a go. The second, ‘The Lion’s Mane’ is because it occurs well after Holmes’ retirement to the South Coast and Watson is simply not around. Both cases are interesting, although ‘The Lion’s Mane’ has quite an obvious solution right at the beginning and the switching of the narrative style works surprisingly well although Holmes does complain that it makes the writing more difficult.

And here it is that I miss my Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he would elevate my simple art, which is but systematised common sense, into a prodigy. When I tell my own story I have no such aid.

The other eight cases presented in this final volume are all equally strong and mark a fitting end to the Holmes saga. I particularly enjoyed ‘Thor’s Bridge’ for its ingenious solution and ‘The Sussex Vampire’ also has much to recommend it. The final story was actually ‘Shoscombe Old Place’, printed in April 1927, forty years after the publication of ‘A Study in Scarlet’ and three years before the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He would write another novel and several stories and articles for The Strand magazine in the intervening years including an obituary of the cricketer W.G. Grace, but nothing more about his great detective.

Next week I will read the final two novels written well before this final set of stories but it seemed logical that once I had started on the short stories I would carry through to the end and Holmes is nothing but logical.

 

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