Hangman’s Holiday – Dorothy L Sayers

By way of a complete contrast to last weeks religious poetry I’ve gone for this lovely Folio Society edition of Hangman’s Holiday by Dorothy L Sayers which I bought in the recent Folio Society autumn sale. I thought I’d read all the Lord Peter Wimsey tales but this includes four Wimsey short stories which I didn’t know, along with six Montague Egg shorts and a couple of other mysteries not featuring either of her long running characters. It has forty four illustrations along with the cover by Paul Cox who has worked on all the Dorothy L Sayers and P G Wodehouse editions for the Folio Society for more than three decades along with many other titles providing a lovely consistent feel to these series. I bought the book mainly for the Montague Egg tales as I’d not read any of those before and he is a definite contrast to Lord Peter, but let’s start with the Wimsey stories. All four of these are Wimsey alone without his trusty batman and collector of evidence Bunter and frankly I missed the interaction between the two of them. Two of the stories are quite disappointing, especially ‘The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey’ where Wimsey takes on the character of a magician in rural Spain and you are left wondering why Sayers decided to have Wimsey do this as he is completely out of character throughout most of the tale. The other one I didn’t enjoy much was ‘The Queen’s Square’ which was just too convoluted to be much fun to read. The remaining two Wimsey tales are ‘The Image in the Mirror’ and ‘The Necklace of Pearls’ both of which are fine as far as they go, but are definitely not in the first rank of Wimsey stories.

Moving on to Montague Egg, he is less of a detective like Wimsey than ‘a noticer of details’ which can be used by the police to solve a crime. His six stories are all quite short varying between nine and twelve pages when the space for illustrations is discounted but they each have quite a lot going for them despite their relative brevity.’The Poisoned Dow 08′ is an excellent introduction to Monty Egg as he is a commercial traveller selling wines and spirits and this is entirely within his area of expertise. Whilst on a return visit to a customer he arrives to find the police in attendance and his client dead, presumably by a poisoned bottle of port. Egg proves that there was nothing wrong with the port, that his firm had supplied, and that there was evidence of murder. Both ‘Murder in the Morning’ and ‘One Too Many’ have Monty Egg in the position of witness to a crime or rather the aftermath of a crime and the little details that he spotted at the time are critical to finding the solution whilst the remaining three stories have him operating much more as the archetypal amateur detective much loved by Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and the other Queens of Crime from the 1920’s and 30’s.

I quite warmed to Montague Egg, the shortness of the stories meant that I could read one whilst waiting for my evening meal to cook and there was sufficient complexity to make the mystery worthwhile.

The two final stories are quite good fun and I’m sure I’ve read both of these before. ‘The Man Who Knew How’ has a character on a train talking to a fellow passenger and claiming that he knew a foolproof way to kill people and get away with it as it would be assumed that they died due to the temperature shock of getting in a bath that was too hot. His fellow passenger then starts noticing a pattern in news reports of people dying in hot baths and is convinced he was talking to a serial killer. ‘The Fountain Plays’ is a story of blackmail and murder with an excellent twist at the end and rounded off the book perfectly.

I’m not sure that is I had known how weak the Lord Peter Wimsey stories were I would have paid the full £39.95 for this book but at half price in the sale I’m glad to have added it to my Dorothy L Sayers collection. Now to find and read the other five Montague Egg stories.

Death and the Dancing Footman – Ngaio Marsh

Part of the Ngaio Marsh million, one hundred thousand copies of each of ten books by Marsh published by Penguin Books in July 1949, this is one of the three books included that had not been published by Penguin prior to this collection. I have reviewed one of the other titles included, ‘Enter a Murderer’, back in August 2018 as part of the ‘first Penguin crime set‘ which were all first published by Penguin in August 1938. As I explained at the time:

New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh was considered in her time to be one of the ‘Queens of Crime’ along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham and is best known for her detective stories featuring Roderick Alleyn of the London Metropolitan Police. 

This is another of those Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn crime mysteries. As a general rule most crime novels of the 1930’s and 1940’s clock in at about 200 to 225 pages but this one is surprisingly long for the period at 315 pages in the Penguin edition and I have to say that it is a very slow starter with scene setting and character introductions meaning that it doesn’t really get going until around page 70. If I hadn’t been convinced of Marsh’s ability to spin a tale I might have given up before then but it is well worth hanging on in there. The story is a twist on the ‘locked room’ type of crime novel in that the victim and the murderer are from the fixed group of people we have been introduced to, in this case because the grand country house that they are all in is surrounded by impassable snowdrifts and even the phone lines are down so they can have no contact with the outside world. That it is established early on in the novel that Alleyn is taking a break in the nearest village to where the murder takes place allows Marsh to bring him in even though he is clearly out of his jurisdiction but he is the only policeman anyone can get hold of.

The premise of the story is that Jonathan Royal, the owner of Highfold, decides to give a house party and for his own amusement chooses a group of people who all, for one reason or another, have an antagonistic feeling regarding at least one of the other guests. It is implied that he is hoping for some sort of reconciliation in one or more of the disagreements but will be quite happy if this doesn’t happen and is confident in his ability as a host to at least hold the group together. It will be a sort of unscripted play and with this in mind he has also invited a neutral player. Aubrey Mandrake is an avant garde, if not surrealist playwright who knows none of the other guests, Royal has backed some of his plays and has now invited him to be the audience in his own experimental theatre. Due to the animosity between the guests each has has a reason for, if not murder, then at least wishing harm to another and all these various hostilities are explained right at the start of the book as Jonathan Royal brings Mandrake into his confidence as to what he has planned. The complicated relationships between the other seven guests and the need to go into detail about them is one of the reasons for the slow start and it is only later as the interactions unfold that you realise that you actually need all that information in order to keep track of the various goings on.

Much to my surprise I got the murderer right, well before the denouement, although not all the finer detail as to how it was done, or rather how the alibi was done. Alleyn of course regarded the solution as trivial and he had largely wrapped up the case in his mind within a couple of hours of arriving at Highfold, his problem was proving it especially without access to his usual fellow policemen. All in all an excellent read for a dull and rainy July weekend and I do like a good detective story as a means of giving your brain a workout.

As an aside, I did like that characters in this book are clearly readers of detective fiction, in particular Dorothy L Sayers’ very popular Lord Peter Wimsey tales. On page 206 of this edition they reference Busman’s Honeymoon which I reviewed in September 2020.

“Could Hart have set a second booby trap.” “Do you mean could he have done something with that frightful weapon that would make it fall on …? Is that what you mean?”
“Yes. I can’t get any further, though. I can’t think of anything”
“A ‘Busman’s Honeymoonish’ sort of contraption? But there are no hanging flower-pots at Highfold”

Death and the Dancing Footman was first published in 1942 although mine is the first Penguin edition from 1949. Busman’s Honeymoon had come out just five years earlier in 1937 but had clearly been a major seller if Marsh could so easily drop in a reference to it. There is a slight nod to the plot of Busman’s Honeymoon in the solution to this case although the hint taken from the murder method in that book in the quote above is also a diversion from the actual method in this one so it was clearly a much loved book by Marsh.

The Mad Hatter Mystery – John Dickson Carr

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John Dickson Carr was one of the best known mystery writers of the golden age of detective fiction in the 1930’s but who has now largely slipped from public consciousness. Although born in the United States he spent a lot of his active writing life in England and was highly prolific with roughly 100 books published; mainly under his own name but also using pseudonyms. Oddly for a prolific novelist he was strangely unimaginative in his pen names using Carter Dickson, Carr Dickson and once somewhat randomly Roger Fairbairn. His main output was stories about two English amateur detectives, Dr. Gideon Fell written under his own name and Sir Henry Merrivale as Carter Dickson, this book is the second of the Gideon Fell books following on from Hag’s Nook which I also have as a Penguin first edition but which is too fragile to read without worrying about damaging such a rare wartime paperback. Although first published by Hamish Hamilton in 1933, Penguin didn’t print their first edition of The Mad Hatter Mystery until October 1947 so this copy is somewhat more robust.

In this book Dr. Fell is first encountered in a bar, over the twenty three novels and several short stories in which the character appears this would prove to be the best place to find him. He is described as a very large man, not just tall but fat with numerous chins and needing a cane to get around, he is believed to be modelled on G.K Chesterton who certainly fitted this description and Carr admired the man and his works especially the Father Brown stories. About Fell himself we learn very little in this book, Carr is much more interested in the plot of the mystery than in biographical details of his character. He does however fit in to a familiar trope of being an amateur detective who is frequently called upon by the professionals due to his unusual way of linking details and coming up with the solution to an apparently baffling case, something that goes back to Sherlock Holmes but Dr. Fell only works with the police rather than taking on clients.

The actual mystery of the Mad Hatter alluded to in the title is really a minor diversion through the book and is quickly solved by Fell; what he is actually brought in to help with is the theft of a manuscript of an unpublished story by Edgar Alan Poe. The police don’t want to be involved as the person reporting the theft has a somewhat dubious claim to be the owner in any case and has only asked Chief Inspector Hadley for assistance as he knows him. There is a murder but it doesn’t occur until after the other two problems are being pursued, although as I said the identity of the person stealing distinctive hats across London is deliberately left pretty obvious by Carr presumably so the reader can feel that they have solved something along with detectives even if it continues to confuse the main murder plot line and solution as the victim is found wearing one of the stolen hats although had definitely not been wearing it when seen shortly before his death.

The inter-relationships between the characters is fairly complex, as is common in Carr’s works. Why are so many of the people living at the home of Sir William Bitton, the putative owner of the manuscript before its theft, to be found at the Tower of London when the body is found on the steps of Traitors Gate, when they had apparently gone there independently? Who had taken the manuscript from Bitton’s study, when and why? These are two puzzles that slowly unravel as Fell determines how the murder victim met his end and who did that, which needless to say is a very different solution to that reached by Chief Inspector Hadley.

I like John Dickson Carr’s crime novels, Dr. Fell rather more than the Sir Henry Merrivale tales whom I find considerably less likeable as a character. The solutions do tend to be a little convoluted, although that really isn’t the case in this book where it is unexpected but at least looking back you feel that it should have been possible for the reader to reach the same solution given the information provided although of course you don’t at the time. He is sadly neglected nowadays, no television or film adaptations of either of his great detectives have brought him back into the limelight although there is more than enough material to make several series around either of them. Several of his books have now appeared in the British Library Crime Classics series a sure sign that he is neglected by the mainstream as this series was founded to bring back into print works that have gradually disappeared from the shelves and revive interest in the authors.

Busman’s Honeymoon – Dorothy L Sayers

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I decided to top and tail the four major science works in August with something lighter, and a couple of detective fiction novels fitted the bill nicely, specifically Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie and this book Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L Sayers. For those people not familiar with the origins of the title a busman’s holiday is where somebody takes a break from work but still ends up being involved in their career in some way for example a bus driver who holidays by taking a coach trip. Whilst Lord Peter Wimsey isn’t a professional detective, being instead an extremely wealthy junior member of the aristocracy with a talent for detection, it was of course inevitable that he would end up solving a crime on his honeymoon.

This book is the eleventh and final novel written by Sayers about Lord Peter and first published in 1937, there would be some later short stories but this is his last outing in a significant work and rounds off nicely the ongoing romance between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane which began in “Strong Poison”. Although Harriet is definitely not interested in getting to know Lord Peter any more than she has to at that time as he manages to prove her innocence on a charge of murder. There follows more novels involving the two characters as he eventually manages to persuade her to accept his proposal of marriage at the end of “Gaudy Night”. As a wedding present he buys her the house Tallboys that she loved as a child and they decide at the last minute to take their honeymoon there. Arrangements are made with the previous owner to collect the keys and retain the furniture for a month until they can replace it with their own but on arrival late in the evening he is nowhere to be found and the house is locked up. The first mystery is therefore where is Noakes?

They eventually get access to the house via some spare keys and spend the night before discovering the body of Noakes in the cellar but not with injuries that he would have received if he had for instance fallen down the stairs, in fact the injury that clearly killed him could not have occurred in the cellar at all so how did he die? Cue a cast of characters several of which could have done the deed or at least have a motive but no obvious murder weapon to be found. There are several twists as Lord Peter and the local police force come up with various options for who? and how?, all of which hit the main problem that the house was locked up from the inside so how would anyone get away after killing him? The book was adapted from a play of the same name first performed in 1936 and it still has set pieces that feel like a stage setting, especially the limited number of locations used and the gathering of the entire cast in the front room for the denouement.

It has to be said that Busman’s Honeymoon is by no means the best of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories, for me that would either be “The Nine Tailors” or “Gaudy Night” but it did fulfil my requirements of a pleasant light read after the heavyweight works over the last few weeks. If you have never encountered Lord Peter Wimsey and Bunter his faithful manservant I heartily recommend them although don’t start here, the first novel is “Whose Body?” written in 1923 which introduces the characters.

Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie

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This is not a traditional review of Christie’s most famous book hence it’s inclusion in the ‘Book Tales’ category on the blog. How could I say anything about the story that has not already been said? Sharp eyed readers will have noticed that despite me being English my copy of the book featured above is an American Pocket Book edition and there is a very good reason  for that which gives a personal link to the story. Thirty three years ago I travelled on the Orient Express with my then girlfriend, who was American, and she brought a copy of this book for me which we both read whilst on the train.  Another thing you may notice is right at the bottom ‘Formally titled MURDER IN THE CALAIS COACH’ this is a reference to the habit Christie’s American publishers Dodd, Mead & Co. had of altering the titles of her books which does make any bibliography quite messy. Other examples (Original English title first) include:-

  • The Sittaford Mystery – The Murder at Hazelmoor
  • Lord Edgeware Dies – Thirteen at Dinner
  • Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? – The Boomerang Clue
  • One, Two, Buckle My Shoe – The Patriotic Murders
  • Dumb Witness – Poirot Loses a Client

and many more.

Rereading the novel again, probably for the first time in three decades, I was struck by how well it was written. Even though I of course knew the solution, as does almost everyone with an interest in detective novels, it didn’t matter, I still enjoyed how Christie developed the story and Poirot’s slow realisation of just what a fantastic solution it is. It is also a ‘locked room mystery’ in that the train is stuck in a snowdrift on its way from Istanbul to Paris so the murderer could not have escaped from the train and it is also impossible for Poirot to verify any clues he may discover or even who anybody is with the outside world as they are completely cut off. The train gets stuck just after Vinkovci (spelt Vincovci in the book) which is now in Croatia so on the southern route on the map below just as the line turns north to head to Budapest.

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This poster is from the winter season of 1888/9, forty years before the book is set but gives a hint of the glamour associated with the journey. It’s a trip Christie made several times whilst visiting her husband on his archaeological digs in Iraq so she knew the operation well and the story of the Armstrong family with the kidnapping of the baby daughter and the subsequent deaths which is the background to this book is a straight borrowing from the Lindbergh case which had happened a couple of years earlier. Everyone reading this book when it first came out would have been familiar with the Lindbergh story which had been a worldwide sensation in 1932, to my mind it was somewhat tactless of Christie to so obviously take this tragic case and turn it into a murder mystery of her own, there are too many similarities to be comfortable if you know about the original.

I also included the poster in this blog as it was this, rather than Christie’s novel, which inspired a trip on what was left of the Orient Express back in the late 1980’s. By then, although it still left Paris at 9am each day it only made it to Bucharest and by the time it got there it was hardly an express and the glamour was long gone on the entire journey. By adding on extra trains from Bucharest to Belgrade and then on via Sofia to Istanbul I did manage to stay at least one night in all the cities listed in the poster heading. It was natural that we would read Murder On The Orient Express whilst travelling on it. Nowadays there is only the luxury private train that carries that name and recreates the glamour that Agatha Christie would have known in the 1920’s and 30’s when she was a passenger and which she used as the setting for, if not her best then certainly her best known work.

A somewhat scary flashback photo below, reading this very book whilst travelling between Paris and Munich on the first stage of our Orient Express journey back in 1987.

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Maigret Travels South – Georges Simenon

20200609 Maigret travels South

This book arrived in the post yesterday having taken almost fifty days to get here from the USA and it occurred to me that I have never actually read anything by Simenon. I wanted it as this is the first edition of the first Maigret book published by Penguin and came from the New York operation set up by Allen Lane and Ian Ballantine during WWII when transatlantic exports were not possible.  It was published in September 1945 whilst the UK parent company didn’t get to Maigret until January 1950 and this title would eventually appear in the UK in January 1952 printed along with nine others as part of the Simenon Million (10 books each in an edition of 100,000 published simultaneously).

Simenon’s novels are quite short so Penguin, along with other publishers, have normally put two together in one volume and this contains ‘Liberty Bar’ along with ‘The Madman of Bergerac’ and even then the book is only 250 pages. Both stories were translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury who translated several of the early Maigret novels printed by Penguin. As they are separate novels only linked by Maigret not being in his regular Paris haunts but much further south I will review them separately.

Liberty Bar

The seventeenth Maigret novel sees the great detective sent off on a murder investigation which apparently requires great tact, something he keeps repeating to himself whenever he gets frustrated by the progress of the case. It’s set in Cannes and Antibes and you can tell straight away that Maigret is not comfortable here. He makes no concession to the location wearing his black coat and bowler hat regardless of the heat and so dramatically stands out where presumably in Paris he would be much like anyone else in the capital. William Brown has been murdered is another mantra he keeps repeating, but his first problem is who was William Brown? Because without understanding that there is no way to work out what had actually happened and why.

My first surprise was nothing to do with the plot but how much alcohol is consumed right from Maigret’s arrival and introduction to the local detective whom immediately suggests going to a bar. Every time we see Boutigues he is either drinking or about to open a bottle and Maigret gets through plenty in his own right especially when he finds Liberty Bar. The characters we are introduced to are wonderfully drawn by Simenon, the four women in particular, the mistress, her mother, the alcoholic bar owner and the prostitute and the time when they finally meet at the funeral, which is engineered by Maigret whist he claims to not know anything about it, is poignant but also funny as they manoeuvre for precedence.

Right up until almost the end I had no idea who had done it and you are cleverly pointed into various dead end possible solutions. My first Maigret story was an absolute delight.

The Madman of Bergerac (Le Fou de Bergerac)

To my surprise the next novel included in this book was written earlier, being number fifteen in the Maigret series, but just emphasised that you really can read any of the seventy five novels plus numerous short stories pretty well in any order. If anything it was also a better story with Maigret solving the murders and the mysterious past of some of the most important characters in Bergerac all from his bed after being shot. I’m not really giving anything away here as that happens very early on in the novel and provides a reason for the Inspector not being able to see for himself what is going on but having to piece everything together from conversations in his room at the hotel where he goes to convalesce.  This plot device is fascinating as Simenon tells the reader Maigret’s thought processes as he slowly unravels the tangled web of lies and half truths surrounding the people he suspects.

The novel starts with Maigret having to go to Bordeaux just to tidy up some loose ends on another case and he takes the overnight train. However the upper bunk of the couchette he ends up in is occupied by a restless man whom in the middle of the night sits up, nervously pulls his patent leather boots over knitted grey wool socks, climbs down the ladder, slips out of the compartment leaving the door open and after waiting for the train to slow down jumps from the carriage. This wait had alerted Maigret as he hadn’t closed the door behind him so he saw him about to jump and got up and followed him being shot by the stranger when he realised he was being pursued.

Who was the mysterious man in grey socks? Why did he jump from the train? And is he anything to do with the murders of women who are strangled and then a long needle inserted in their hearts that has so rattled the town of Bergerac? All this Maigret solves from his bed in one of the best murder mysteries I have read for a long time.

One thing is certain I need to read more Maigret.

Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle – 4

The final stage of my August 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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Two novels and fifty six short stories down, just two novels to go to complete the exercise

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The Hound of the Baskervilles

As mentioned in last week’s blog “The Hound of the Baskervilles”  appeared in Strand magazine in August 1901 was serialised over the following eight months. Doyle did not intend this to be a reboot of the series and it is deliberately set before the ‘death’ of Holmes in “The Final Problem”. It appeared in book form in 1902 and the next year Doyle gave in to public pressure and ‘resurrected’ his most famous creation. The first two novels had disappointed me but this was an excellent adventure well told. In the many years, if not decades, since I last read it I had managed to completely forget the plot other than a vague memory of a luminous dog chasing people to their death so the solution was still a revelation to me.

It all starts with the arrival at Baker Street of Dr Mortimer, a country physician from Devon with the strange tale of a curse on the Baskerville family from the time of the English Civil War when Hugo Baskerville had kidnapped the beautiful daughter of a neighbour intending to force her to marry him. The maiden escapes and he sets off to hunt her across the moor having first offered his body and soul to the Devil if he could catch her. Catch her he did but with a tragic end as found by three of his friends who followed him.

The moon was shining bright upon the clearing, and there in the centre lay the unhappy maid where she had fallen, dead of fear and of fatigue. But it was not the sight of her body, nor yet was it that of the body of Hugo Baskerville lying near her, which raised the hair upon the heads of these three dare-devil roisterers, but it was that, standing over Hugo, and plucking at his throat, there stood a foul thing, a great, black beast, shaped like a hound, yet larger than any hound that ever mortal eye has rested upon. And even as they looked the thing tore the throat out of Hugo Baskerville, on which, as it turned its blazing eyes and dripping jaws upon them, the three shrieked with fear and rode for dear life, still screaming, across the moor. One, it is said, died that very night of what he had seen, and the other twain were but broken men for the rest of their days.
“Such is the tale, my sons, of the coming of the hound which is said to have plagued the family so sorely ever since.

Holmes is not interested in superstitious “fairy tales” and says so but Dr Mortimer does catch his attention when he says that the the most recent owner of Baskerville Hall had died of heart failure in the grounds and near the body was “the footprints of a gigantic hound!” There is but one remaining Baskerville to inherit the estate and he is to arrive in London from Canada that very day and Mortimer wants to know what to do. Hugo Baskerville duly arrives at Baker Street and the fact that he is clearly being followed by somebody and even more peculiarly has had two of his boots stolen on separate nights convinces Holmes that there is more to this case than superstition but apparently he is too busy in London to look into it in person so Watson will have to go.

All this happens in the first five chapters and for the next six (90 out of the 211 pages in my edition) the case is solely pursued by Watson and we get his reports back to Holmes along with extracts from his diary as the narrative. I really enjoyed the way Doyle wrote this, it was good to see Watson at work rather than just following Holmes and reporting on his actions. The addition of an escaped prisoner from the high security prison on the moor further complicates the tale and leads Watson down other tracks other than those immediately involved in the case in hand. The reappearance of Holmes in the story with just 59 pages to go is the signal for the various strands of the case that have been apparently heading off in various directions to be drawn together, even that of the convict is significant right until the end. It’s a great story, far better than the first two Holmes novels and makes me look forward all the more to the final book in this reading marathon.

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The Valley of Fear

First serialised in The Strand Magazine between September 1914 and May 1915 “The Valley of Fear” was published in book form in February 1915 in America by George H Doran and in June that year the UK edition came out published by Smith, Elder and Co. this was the only time that the American edition preceded the UK one for any of the nine books.

OK at halfway through this book I felt a deep sense of disillusionment, here we are back to the worst aspects of the first two novels, lots of back story with no Holmes and Watson, in this case far worse than those books as over half the book is back story. But I persevered and I’m glad I did so because whilst it doesn’t involve our heroes it actually reads like a separate novella which includes a couple of the characters from the Sherlock novella making up the first half. The first part (99 pages in my edition) is an excellent Holmes and Watson tale which is complete in itself, there is no real need for the American adventure in part two other than to pad the story out to novel size. When read in the original serial I’m sure readers felt they were being short changed as the 107 pages (again my edition) that has no Holmes, but instead is a Pinkerton Detective Agency mystery, would have made up probably five months of the magazine.

The Holmes story is probably the closest Doyle gets to the classic ‘locked room mystery’ there is no obvious way for the culprit to escape as each possible solution is shot down by the ridiculousness of the events needed to affect such an escape. And there is also The Case of the Missing Dumbbell to solve! The mystery is maintained until the last few pages and it is an excellent place to finish my Holmes and Watson marathon; but it isn’t where it ends. There are still the 107 pages of Pinkerton and 3 pages of epilogue to go. Now I said at the start of this review that I wasn’t happy with the way the novel was split but unlike the first two novels, where it really did feel like padding, the non-Holmes story was actually very good and written (and consequently could be read) as a complete separate work. It also has to be said that I worked out who Jack McMurdo was, not just in his alias in this part of the book relating to the first, but also his real profession within a few pages so there was absolutely no surprise at the end. Neither was the epilogue unexpected as Professor Moriarty had been mentioned at the start so I was fully prepared for him to act at the end but I did really enjoy this story after I got past my initial disappointment.

This marathon reading of the Holmes and Watson books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has been great fun, some I have read within the last few years, others (like the two here) it has been decades since I last tackled them but I’m very glad I gave them all a go this month and I recommend anyone to dip into the stories and enjoy the evolution of one of the greatest fictional detectives.

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.

 

Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle – 2

Continuing reading 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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Last week I read the first two novels as these preceded the appearance of Holmes in short story format however it is now time to tackle the first twenty three short stories in volumes one and two of the set I have.  The first group of short stories is collectively titled…

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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

This consists of twelve short stories and in this edition it also has a short introduction by Peter Cushing who played the part of Holmes many times both in film and on television. Originally printed in The Strand magazine between 1891 and 1892, the collection was first published in book form in 1892 and the twelve stories are as follows:

  • The Adventure of a Scandal in Bohemia
  • The Adventure of the Red Headed League
  • The Adventure of a Case of Identity
  • The Adventure of the Boscombe Valley Mystery
  • The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips
  • The Adventure of the Man with the Twisted Lip
  • The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle
  • The Adventure of the Speckled Band
  • The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb
  • The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor
  • The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet
  • The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

I do not propose to review each story as that would make this blog excessively long and I am also concerned about revealing too much about the plots, but let’s look briefly at each, there may be small spoilers ahead but nothing that gives away solutions. However I do need to answer a question posed at the end of last weeks review, where is Watson? Straight away on the first page of Scandal in Bohemia we find

I had seen little of Holmes lately. My marriage had drifted us away from each other.

Watson had indeed moved out and Holmes was now living alone in Baker Street and for the most part the stories in this volume deal with cases after that separation. But the Speckled Band specifically mentions that it occurred before Watson’s marriage to Mary, but only now can Watson reveal it to the world as the lady concerned in the case had passed away. This story also includes the information that some seventy cases had been documented by Watson over the first eight years of his friendship with Holmes so Doyle was clearly already allowing for a significant number of stories to be eventually written even if he didn’t increase the time line any further. The last three tales also relate to the time before Watson’s marriage, The Noble Bachelor specifically states that it occurs a few weeks before he moves out whilst the other two are clearly set whilst the two men are sharing the apartment.

Going back to Scandal in Bohemia, this is the only time that Holmes would be defeated by a woman,  although later on in this book he also admits to three failures against male opponents.  Irene Adler not only bamboozles Holmes but has the nerve to speak to him whilst in disguise outside his own home. so he greatly admires her, keeping a picture of her in 221b Baker Street. The next three tales are a bit of a let down as it is obvious what is going on and who the respective culprits are well before the end however the Five Orange Pips, which is the first ‘old’ tale i.e. before Watson’s marriage and has interest as it is effectively Holmes versus The Ku Klux Klan or at least the remnants of its first incarnation. When Doyle wrote this story the KKK was a thing of the past having effectively died out in the mid 1870’s and it wouldn’t be revived until 1915.

The next three stories, along with the Copper Beeches are my favourites from this set with enough detail given to make it possible to reason along with Holmes as he solves the cases but with enough of a twist to make them interesting. The Engineers Thumb is another where Holmes fails to capture the perpetrators but you do still get a satisfactory resolution to the case however the solution to The Noble Bachelor revolves around the price of a hotel room being high, but it is just given as eight shillings, which a reader from over a century later simply has no idea if that is high, low or a median for London prices at the time. This leaves The Beryl Coronet which frankly has a ridiculous plot device that a banker is worried about a famous treasure being stolen from the safe in his bank so takes it home and locks it in a bureau which has such a poor lock that pretty well any key will spring the drawer, and having first shown it to everyone in the house.

On to the second volume of short stories.

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The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Again all the stories were originally printed in The Strand magazine, this time between 1892 and 1893; the collection was first published as a book in 1894 and there are eleven stories included as follows:

  • Silver Blaze
  • The Yellow Face
  • The Stockbroker’s Clerk
  • The Gloria Scott
  • The Musgrave Ritual
  • The Reigate Squires
  • The Crooked Man
  • The Resident Patient
  • The Greek Interpreter
  • The Naval Treaty
  • The Final Problem

I enjoyed this selection rather more than the first, it gets off to a great start with Silver Blaze which is a really good story about a murder and a missing racehorse although the denouement would certainly not be allowed in modern times and I doubt it would have been possible back in the 1890’s either. One of the joys of this collection is that unlike the first there is no obviously weak story, Doyle appears to have gained mastery of the difficult genre of mystery short stories. Considering that the entire tale from setting out the original position, through investigation and then to the conclusion has to be done in such a condensed manner, the eleven cases here average just over 8,100 words each, this is quite a challenge and that all of them work well says a lot about his improved abilities as a writer in this style over the first collection.

There are really just ten cases in this collection as The Final Problem is supposedly written by way of an obituary and description of how Holmes met his death at the Reichenbach Falls whilst fighting Professor Moriarty, but published two years after it happened.  Doyle must have realised that separating his two compatriots was not really a good idea so only three stories are set after Watson married Mary, these are The Stockbrokers Clerk, The Crooked Man and The Naval Treaty. There are also a couple of tales set before Holmes and Watson met (The Gloria Scott and The Musgrave Ritual) where Holmes is telling Watson about the cases which alters the narrative structure. The Gloria Scott is apparently the first ever case that Holmes was consulted on and he clearly enjoys telling the tale. The Musgrave Ritual is his third and is more of a treasure hunt rather than one of his more usual endeavours. I like this structure of the two men just discussing a case in their apartment and I hope there will be more like this in the further books. The other five tales are set during the time whilst the two men are sharing 221b Baker Street.

The Greek Interpreter marks the first appearance of Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older and even more astute brother, and is technically another of his few failures as although he saves his client the protagonists get away. The Resident Patient also has the wanted men escape but at least we get to understand what and why they do what they do. Probably the weakest story included is The Stockbrokers Clerk and that would have been fine apart from the fact that the plot is quite similar to The Red Headed League, although the ultimate reason is different.

It is difficult to pick out a favourite, The Yellow Face has an interesting twist at the end and for a change Holmes is not dealing with a crime, just a mysterious circumstance. I also liked the Naval Treaty particularly as it is one of the few examples of Holmes showing a sense of humour along with an urge to be dramatic in his final reveal. I think these have to be joint favourites and as I said at the start of the review of The Memoirs the writing is definitely better than the first collection.

And there this reading marathon of the tales of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson should have ended. Doyle made it quite clear in 1893 that he had no intention of writing any further stories about the duo which is why he killed off his hero in his Final Problem as he wanted his other works to be appreciated more.

However after a break of eight years Holmes would be back…

It remains for me to provide a link to my Catalan friend Mixa’s, reviews of my second weeks books which we read simultaneously. The Google created English translations are readable if not very good English but at least you get the feel for what she wrote.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Original Catalan

Translation to English via Google

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Original Catalan

Translation to English via Google

 

Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle – 1

Last August I completed a reading challenge of all ten books in the first Penguin Books crime set from 1938. So this month I have decided to also attempt more than the expected four books by tackling the complete Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as 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. My copies are well read and the titles on the short stories are badly worn, although looking at other examples in various bookshops this does seem to be a common feature of this particular edition.

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Now although this looks like a logical reading order in fact Doyle wrote the first two novels “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Sign of Four” before he produced any short stories so in fact a better reading sequence is those books this week, followed by the short stories then finally the last two novels. Although novel number three “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is set during the time of the first two collections of short stories it didn’t actually come out until much later and it doesn’t affect time lines too much to leave the last two novels until the end as they both are looking back on past cases.

As last year I will be writing about each volume as I go along rather than waiting for completion so without further ado lets jump in with the first two novels

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A Study in Scarlet

This is the first appearance of Holmes and Watson and originally appeared in print in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual before being published in book form in July 1888.

“Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” said Stamford, introducing us.

“How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

“How on earth did you know that?” I asked in astonishment.

“Never mind,” said he, chuckling to himself.

and so a partnership was born…

The book fairly rattles along, just ten pages in Holmes and Watson are ensconced in 221b Baker Street and Holmes has started his work much to the puzzlement of Watson. The two men are after all just sharing the property there is no indication that Watson would get involved in anything in fact he is specifically looking for a quiet life whilst recovering from his injuries from the war in Afghanistan. Watson however is intrigued as to what Holmes is up to and creates a list of attributes to try to work it out, these include him knowing nothing of literature, astronomy or philosophy, whilst other things such as botany (natural poisons anyway) or geology (soils and clays) were specialised in the extreme. Chemistry and sensational literature however he was a complete master of; none of these items seem to make any sense though.

Another few pages and Holmes again demonstrates his deductive reasoning and explains he is a consulting detective just as he gets a message from Sergeant Gregson of Scotland Yard asking him to come to Lauriston Gardens; Watson joins him and so starts his journals that the Holmes stories are supposedly taken from. The case, to Holmes anyway, is absurdly simple. In fact so simple that by the eightieth page he has apprehended the murderer with the help of his street urchin employees also known as The Baker Street Irregulars, and there is where the book starts to fall apart. For the next fifty two pages are back story. Doyle writes well with the dynamic of Holmes and Watson along with the bungling Gregson and Lestrade from Scotland Yard but over fifty pages without any of these characters whilst he ranges over the settlement of the Mormons in Salt Lake City and the inter-family rivalries just plods along especially after the pace of the first half of the book. It is not even written as though being told to our protagonists it is just an over long history.

We finally get back to Holmes, Watson, Gregson, Lestrade and their prisoner in 221b with just 22 pages left for Watson’s journal to wrap up and the murderer to explain how and why he did it. Very much a book of two halves but with enough promising material regarding the great detective to make a sequel inevitable.

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The Sign of Four

The second time out for Holmes was in the February 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine issued jointly in the UK and US, and by October of that year it had been published as a standalone book.

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

The opening paragraph of The Sign of Four shows Holmes the drug addict, in this case injecting a seven percent solution of cocaine much to the disgust of Dr. Watson. This was turned into a particularly powerful scene in “The Secret of Sherlock Holmes”, a play starring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke that I saw in 1988 at Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End. These two actors, for me at least, are the definitive Holmes and Watson and to see Brett as Holmes in silhouette at the back of the stage injecting into his arm before the lights were cut at the end of the scene is a dramatic act that has stayed with me for over 30 years.

As for the book itself it is much better written than the first although there is again a large section of back story at the end. This time it is much shorter than in “A Study in Scarlet” and rather than being a standalone tale it is given as Jonathan Small telling his involvement in the crimes at 221b Baker Street with Holmes, Watson and in this case Athelney Jones of the Yard. This is a considerable improvement as the three can react to Jonathan Small’s story and there is no massive disjointed section. This is also the first appearance of probably the most famous Holmes quote

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

Still back to the beginning, Dr. Watson is trying to draw Holmes away from the cocaine over breakfast the next day when a young lady by the name of Miss Mary Morstan arrives and lays out a singular problem for the great man. Her father had returned to England eleven years ago and disappeared without trace however each year for the last six she has received a fine pearl from an anonymous benefactor and now she has had a letter from him desiring her to be at the Lyceum theatre and she can bring two companions. Naturally Holmes and Watson are willing to go but for very different reasons, Holmes to solve a puzzle but Watson has fallen for Miss Morstan almost immediately and in this state would do anything for her.

Without giving away the plot, the pearls are quickly revealed to be part of a large treasure and in searching for the remainder Holmes engages the use of a scent hound to follow a creosote trail left by one of the culprits from a house in Norwood after he stepped in some of this highly pungent liquid, and this provides one of the few bits of genuine humour in the books as the dog getting confused by crossing trails eventually comes to its mark…

On the dog raced through sawdust and shavings, down an alley, round a passage, between two wood-piles, and finally, with a triumphant yelp, sprang upon a large barrel which still stood upon the hand-trolley on which it had been brought. With lolling tongue and blinking eyes, Toby stood upon the cask, looking from one to the other of us for some sign of appreciation. The staves of the barrel and the wheels of the trolley were smeared with a dark liquid, and the whole air was heavy with the smell of creosote.

Sherlock Holmes and I looked blankly at each other, and then burst simultaneously into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.

Another funny passage occurs with Watson attempting to take Miss Morstan’s mind off the danger they may be in with some of his tales from Afghanistan.

To this day she declares that I told her one moving anecdote as to how a musket looked into my tent at the dead of night, and how I fired a double-barrelled tiger cub at it.

His tongue-tied behaviour is somewhat explained at the end of the book when less than a week after first meeting her he explains to Holmes that he will no longer be available to accompany him on adventures as

Miss Morstan has done me the honour to accept me as a husband in prospective.

Next week I start on the short stories first printed in The Strand Magazine between 1891 and 1893. Will Watson still be living with Holmes or are he and Mary setting up home together with him merely reporting from the sidelines?