Arthur Conan Doyle: Sherlock Holmes


My May 2021 reading included one totally predictable binge: It’s Arthur Conan Doyle’s birth month, and I still had the complete Sherlock Holmes Canon as read by Stephen Fry that I’d acquired long ago sitting in my Audible app, waiting for the perfect moment to indulge … well, I figured this was it. 

However, I don’t think the world needs yet another beat-by-beat rundown of every individual story in the Canon; and anyway, the Sherlock Holmes Canon as a whole really is a single literary entity and, as such, much bigger than its individual parts — larger than life, in fact –, and the same is true for every single one of the five short story collections belonging to the Canon in and of themselves.  Never mind that Conan Doyle wrote the individual works forming part of the Canon in fits and starts, over a period of 40 years, with huge gaps between the later works especially; and never mind that his outlook on life changed substantially (and noticeably in the Holmes Canon, too) over the course of that period — due to his, and his country’s, war experience in South Africa and in WWI, the loss of his first wife (which Watson is promptly made to experience, too, if only in passing so as not to distract from the all-important detective work), his emerging interest in spiritualism, etc.  There is a reason why the reading public didn’t let him get away with killing Holmes off at the Reichenbach Falls — and what a good thing it turned out, too, that we never actually see Holmes tumble down the Falls in The Final Problem but are getting the whole thing second-hand only, from Watson’s perspective.  Conan Doyle may initially have considered this merely the logical consequence of telling each of Holmes’s adventures (at the time, anyway) in the voice of his trusted sidekick; but that alone certainly doesn’t explain why he has Watson being called away just prior to the apparently fateful encounter, and thus not on the spot as an eyewitness to the event.  Honi soit qui mal y pense?  Stephen Fry, judging by his introduction to The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, seems to think so.  Whatever Conan Doyle’s reasoning, it’s certainly a heck of a lot more convincing than walking out of your (ex-)fiancée’s dream and having a shower …

Somewhere buried in the depths of the list of projects I might get around to at some undefined point in the future (and if life doesn’t get in the way, which it has an irritating habit of doing) is the idea of a multiple-dimension series of reviews, taking into account not only the written originals as such but also their respective adaptations in the Granada / ITV series starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes and first David Burke, then Edward Hardwicke as Watson (word to the unwary: in my book, the only screen adaptation of ACD’s works worthy of notice), along with the published commentary on that series (inter alia, by its producer / executive producer, Michael Cox), as well as other works of reference, and quite possibly also some of the Canon’s more notable audio editions (narrated by Stephen Fry, Derek Jacobi, Edward Hardwicke, and Simon Vance, respectively, plus the radio dramatizations starring John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Orson Welles).  Merely writing all of this down has made my head spin, however, so don’t expect it to happen any time soon.  If ever. 

Anyway — for the moment I’m just going to highlight a few things that struck me upon this particular revisit (most of them, not for the first time) … and

*** SPOILER WARNING: ***

With works as well-known as these, I am going to assume that readers of this blog are familiar with their contents, but if you aren’t, you’re proceeding at your own peril from here, because I will be mentioning not only significant plot points but also the ultimate solutions of various stories. 

  • While most of my favorite short stories come from the first three collections, and are fairly evenly spread across those, the final two collections do contain a few absolute gems as well.  The Bruce-Partington Plans, for example (contained in His Last Bow, 1917; originally published in Strand Magazine in 1908), would likely not have been written before Conan Doyle had developed a pronounced interest in naval operations and, more specifically, the potential risk to Britain emanating from Germany’s submarine fleet, which would later, in the immediate run-up to WWI, also translate into the stand-alone short story Danger!  (written in early 2013 and published in Strand Magazine in July 2014, the month when WWI actually began).
  • For all of Holmes’s alleged misogyny, and Conan Doyle’s general alignment with political conservativism, Sherlock Holmes doesn’t only treat women with unfailing courtesy — which Watson expressly acknowledges –; he, and through him the author, also gives women substantially more genuine agency than even certain female authors writing later in the Golden Age did.  And I don’t just mean obvious examples, such as THE woman, Irene Adler, who famously bests Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia; or, for that matter, women who valiantly “stand by their man” and are the true agent of his recovery from a traumatic experience (cf. The Naval Treaty).  No: none other than Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’s landlady, puts her own life at risk in assisting Holmes to outwit a vicious sniper (in Holmes’s own words, “the second most dangerous man in London”) in The Empty House.  And even in “woman in peril” stories, such as The Copper Beeches, The Speckled Band, and The Solitary Cyclist, either the women themselves manage to outfox their pursuers / adversaries for a considerable time (cf. The Solitary Cyclist and, arguably, also Wisteria Lodge), or Holmes assigns them an active (and not necessarily easy) part in their own rescue and in the solution of the mystery (cf. The Copper Beeches and The Speckled Band) — or after their abusers have been punished and removed from circulation by another man, the women play a crucial, brave, and very active part in shielding their rescuer from prosecution (cf. The Abbey Grange).  That is more than can be said for many a heroine of the “women in peril” stories by Ethel Lina White, who made a minor specialty of this kind of thing, and whose first crime novel (Put Out the Light, 1931) appeared four years after the final Sherlock Holmes Collection (The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, 1927), with her first genuine “woman in peril” mystery (Some Must Watch, aka The Spiral Staircase) published another two years later (in 1933), and her — today — best-known book, The Wheel Spins (aka The Lady Vanishes), even almost a full decade after The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

    Yes, there are also genuinely stupid women who are the agents of their own misfortunes as much as the men who take advantage of them (A Case of Identity, anyone?), and Holmes theorizes about “the drifting and friendlesss woman” as “one of the most dangerous classes” and “an inciter of crimes in others” in The Disappearance of Lady Francees Carfax (which is, incidentally, one of the reasons why neither of these stories will ever be among my favorites).  But stories such as these are a minority, and just as importantly as all the above examples, in a time when it was still perfectly acceptable for a husband to beat his wife, Conan Doyle took a a firm stance against spousal abuse; not only by painting abusive husbands in the blackest of colours (Black Peter; The Abbey Grange), but even to the point of having Sherlock Holmes explicitly let a man who has killed the abusive husband of his unhappy lady love de facto get away with it (The Abbey Grange again).  All in all, thus, Conan Doyle may have been a man of his times in many respects, and a proud son of the British Empire — but he was decidedly ahead of the curve in his literary treatment of women.

  • The same is true for Conan Doyle’s treatment of race issues.  In a time period when racial epithets and stereotypes were a given across all genres and types of literature, and society was divided not only along class but also along ethnic lines, with the lowliest white person (or natural-born citizen) more assured of their place in society than any foreigner or member of a different race, Conan Doyle had the heroine of The Yellow Face take the monumental step of leaving behind white society (as she necessarily had to) in order to marry the black man she loved, and describe her deceased husband later with the words “a nobler man never walked the earth” — and he had the lady’s new (British) husband eventually accept his wife’s mixed-race daughter as his own, albeit after some serious thought; an equally unheard-of thing in polite British society at the time.  (There are several versions of the story with differing time periods given for how long it took the gentleman to make up his mind — apparently Conan Doyle couldn’t decide whether two minutes’ worth of serious reflection would have been enough, or whether it would rather have taken “a long ten minutes.”)  By the same token, Conan Doyle was one of the first authors to highlight the KKK as both racist and criminal (in The Five Orange Pips).  He occasionally did resort to ethnic / national stereotype (a “hot-blooded” Brazilian in The Problem of Thor Bridge, another “hot-blooded” lady, Welsh this time, in The Musgrave Ritual), but unlike many of his fellow countrymen (and incidentally the citizens of most other Central and Northern European, as well as North American, nations at the time) he never fell into the trap of attributing the criminal nature of a given organization to all citizens of the country or community from which it originated: Yes, the Mafia happened to be an Italian crime syndicate, but that didn’t mean that ordinary Italians weren’t as scared of it as everybody else (cf. The Red Circle); and if there were rotten apples among the predominantly Irish American miners in Pennsylvania, that didn’t make every other American of Irish extraction a rotten apple, too (cf. The Valley of Fear).  In fact, every so often we even see him have Sherlock Holmes exonerate a person whom others have, at least implicitly, found guilty wholly or in part on grounds of national or linguistic affiliation (e.g., in The Priory School).  And one of (IMHO) Conan Doyle’s most silently brave characters is a landed British gentleman’s Peruvian wife (i.e., once more a woman character, too), who has chosen to bear to be ostracized on the egregious charge of vampirism, after having sucked poison from a wound in her baby’s neck and been found bowing over her child with blood on her lips, rather than expose the true criminal, her husband’s ludicrously spoilt teenage son from his first marriage (The Sussex Vampire).  (Arguably, this particular story — if it could have happened at all — would have gone down quite differently these days; but back then, the lady, being both a woman and a foreigner, had every reason to fear that she would lose her child and, quite probably, also her husband and her home in England if she publicly accused her stepson and he contested the charge, predictably underlined by one of his recurring fits of temper … because it is clear that her husband would have jumped to believing his son’s, not his new foreign wife’s version of events.)
  • Conan Doyle is occasionally accused of “not playing fair”, i.e., not providing the reader with enough clues to solve the mystery “in competition” with the Great Detective.  By way of a tongue-in-cheek and apparently related charge, Holmes himself repeatedly accuses Watson of going for a thrilling and, at times, downright melodramatic narrative rather than a lesson in logic in recounting his cases: “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid,” he famously scoffs in The Sign of Four … only to (of course!) do exactly what Watson does, namely, withhold critical information on his process of reasoning until he is ready to reveal it in one piece in the story’s conclusion, in the two adventures narrated by himself (The Blanched Soldier and The Lion’s Mane, both contained in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes).  The larger point here, though, is that those who accuse Conan Doyle of “cheating” are missing two critical things:
    • The notion of the detective story as a “contest” between the reader and the Great Detective didn’t truly take hold until the 1920s, with the novels of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, and their contemporaries and fellow founders of the Detection Club, as well as Ronald Knox’s famous “Decalogue,” setting down the rules of the game (and subsequently incorporated into the statutes of the Detection Club).  Conan Doyle published most of his Sherlock Holmes stories — in fact, most of his crime fiction — before this period; in fact, when he was invited to become the Detection Club’s first President, he declined on age grounds … rightly, as it would alas turn out, as he died in the same year as the Detection Club’s formation (1930).  Obviously, he can’t be bound by the rules of a “game” that he never set out to play in the first place.
    • Conan Doyle’s intent, in writing the Sherlock Holmes stories — other than, of course, to entertain his readers and earn money in the process — was to demonstrate in a fictional setting what he had learned, years earlier, from his Edinburgh mentor Dr. Joseph Bell; namely, that logic and scientific deduction are indispensable in the solution of a crime.  What today is known as crime scene investigation technique, has long been considered the vital first stage of the investigation of any crime, and has developed in a highly specialized scientific branch of its own, was not even in its infancy when Conan Doyle began to publish his Sherlock Holmes mysteries; but he had seen by shadowing Dr. Bell that his mentor’s method worked and frequently produced results where nothing else would, and was eager to find a way to bring this notion to the attention of a wider public (as well as, if possible, the police).  So, Holmes’s expostulations about the “exact science” nature of detection actually do have a point beyond that of extracting crime narratives from what was then known as “sensationalist” literature.  Obviously Conan Doyle knew that you still had to tell an interesting story, and he concluded that laying both Holmes’s actions and his inferences from his discoveries before the reader in the same moment as they happened would have taken away much of the suspense.  On the other hand, Holmes’s deductive process is much easier to follow — and the usefulness of its application is much easier to understand — in context, rather than ripped apart into tiny fragments.  So, Conan Doyle decided to tell the reader precisely which steps Holmes takes in his investigation (including which items or parts of a given room he examines at length, etc.), while giving us a lovely, thrilling chase in the process (and bamboozling Scotland Yard and other police inspectors by the dozen) — and in the conclusion let Holmes detail, from minute point to minute point, what his inferences had been and how his reasoning had progressed.  And readers have been finding it consistently entertaining and engaging for the better part of a century and a half at this point, so arguably whether or not he “cheated” is a moot point anyway.
  • If you have not yet listened to the complete Canon’s audio version as narrated by Stephen Fry, do yourself a favor and remedy that sooner rather than later.  In retrospect, I could have kicked myself for not having done so myself much earlier, either, because this is definitely one of my favorite audio versions.  (I had, in fact, started to listen to it immediately after I’d first acquired it, so I knew exactly just how good it is, but then life interfered … oh well.)  Two things stand out for me in particular:
    • Stephen Fry’s introductions to each of the nine books in the Canon.  They are as informative, entertaining, and personal as anything you’ll ever hear (or read) about ACD and Sherlock Holmes — and the reading experience, and the Canon’s legacy, and plenty of anecdotes to boot; in short, they’re quintessential Fry and all the better for it.
    • The fact that Fry gives both Holmes and Watson a very “natural” voice, not unlike his own natural speaking voice: not Holmes and Watson are the characters to be primarily distinguished but, rather, the other characters in the story are.  Don’t worry: unlike in other audio versions — that narrated by Simon Vance springs to mind especially — you’re still able to distinguish the speaker at every given moment.  But not only does Fry avoid the trap of making Holmes come across as arrogant (as he surprisingly sometimes does in Edward Hardwicke’s narration — and of course in Simon Vance’s, but then, Vance always sounds like that, which is why he isn’t one of my favorite narrators to begin with; and to have even Watson sound like the toff that he manifestly isn’t is arguably considerably worse than the occasional stridency in Holmes’s pronouncements).  More importantly, though, by giving both of the stories’ protagonists an only minimally modulated version of his own, natural speaking voice, Fry makes both of them supremely relatable, in the same way as the written stories themselves do (yes, dammit, I do find Holmes relatable, too … well, except for the cocaine thing at least), and in a way that only one other audio version of the complete Canon does as far as I’m concerned; the one read by Derek Jacobi. (As well as the abridged version of The Valley of Fear narrated by Ian McKellen; but then, that is one of my least favorite individual episodes in the Canon, so it’s not one I’m likely to rush to very often.)

Last but not least, lest anybody feel short-changed by my summary rating of the Canon as such with five stars, by way of a more detailed summary here are my individual star ratings — note, though, that they’ve been subject to occasion half-star (or in rare cases also one-star) shifts over the course of time; and again: the whole is decidedly more than its constituent parts here.

  • A Study in Scarlet
  • The Sign of Four
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
    • A Scandal in Bohemia
    • The Red-Headed League
    • A Case of Identity
    • The Boscombe Valley Mystery
    • The Five Orange Pips
    • 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
  • The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
    • The Adventure of Silver Blaze
    • The Adventure of the Cardboard Box
    • The Adventure of the Yellow Face
    • The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk
    • The Adventure of the Gloria Scott
    • The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual
    • The Adventure of the Reigate Squire
    • The Adventure of the Crooked Man
    • The Adventure of the Resident Patient
    • The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter
    • The Adventure of the Naval Treaty
    • The Final Problem
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles
  • The Return of Sherlock Holmes
    • 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
  • The Valley of Fear
  • His Last Bow
    • The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge
    • 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 Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes
    • The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone
    • The Problem of Thor Bridge
    • The Adventure of the Creeping Man
    • The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire
    • The Adventure of the Three Garridebs
    • The Adventure of the Illustrious Client
    • The Adventure of the Three Gables
    • The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier
    • The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane
    • The Adventure of the Retired Colourman
    • The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger
    • The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place

2 thoughts on “Arthur Conan Doyle: Sherlock Holmes

  1. If I ever found anything arrogant about Holmes (and I don’t) it would be his excuse for using cocaine. Though, as I type this, I’m not sure his excuse (to keep his mind from stripping its gears) was ever really his so much as Watson’s excuse for Holmes’ drug use.

    1. Perhaps not Watson’s — I think he shares ACD’s own abhorrence at “recreational” drugs — but it seems like it was the only excuse that ACD himself could come up with to make Holmes’s drug abuse to make any kind of sense. And from an authorial and psychological POV, it absolutely does. Even in Jeremy Brett, inhabiting the character over a period of years brought to the fore his own manic depression, after all.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: