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Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

By (December 26, 2015) No Comment

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Storiesbig book of sherlock

edited by Otto Penzler

Pantheon, 2015

The eighty-three items legendary editor Otto Penzler has assembled for The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories – out now in a big, beautiful hardcover from Pantheon Books, complete with double-columns and a built-in cloth bookmark – will constitute either the biggest banquet of the season or else the biggest big yellow “Stay Away” warning sign, depending on how the potential reader feels about the almost morbidly cozy world of 221b Baker Street. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began to elaborate in 1887. Penzler has gathered together here a sprawling collection of expertly-chosen pastiches, parodies, and homages that will be the very bread of Heaven to Sherlock Holmes fans, who’ll read, for instance, Barry Day’s “The Adventure of the Curious Canary” and smile when they encounter a moments like this:

“What do you have there, Mr. Holmes?”

It was Miss Lucas, riveted as anyone must be watching Holmes at work for the first time.

“The final pieces of our little puzzle, unless I am very much mistaken,” Holmes replied. “Now, why don’t we all repair to the morning room – I believe the local constabulary will require the library in due course – and I will attempt to explain the series of events.”

The smiles wouldn’t be universal, perhaps; purists among even Penzler’s Sherlockians might grimace a bit at that creaking “the local constabulary,” for instance (or, if it was intended as irony, not grimace enough), and the whole lumbering machinery of the thing – the clues, the deductions, the assembling of the suspects, the droning narration, the climactic revelation – feels almost more like dutiful holiday charades than anything related to drama.

If you read enough of these selections in one sitting, you’ll practically be able to hear that lumbering machinery crank into motion. The better you know the canon, the better you can predict what will invoke it, and the more accurate those predictions are, the more cloistered they tend to feel, as when some poor sap in James Iraldi’s “The Problem of the Purple Maculas” says the wrong word, that hated word:

“How on earth did you guess that, Mr. Holmes? No one could have …”

Sherlock Holmes stopped him with a gesture. The quick smile of pleasure which had come to his lips vanished, and a frown creased his high forehead.

“Young man,” he said sternly. “I never guess! It is destructive to the inferential faculties, and abhorrent to the trained analytical reasoner. I base my inferences upon a chain of reasoning drawn from the appearance of things.” He stopped to apply a glowing coal to his pipe before resuming. “The links in my chain were forged, Mr. Morrison, by noticing your underlip and your right thumb. On your lip I observed the layer of protective skin left there by the reed; and when we shook hands I distinctly felt the horny ridge of the top knuckle of your thumb.”

Passages like this one – and The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories has hundreds of them – will strike newcomers to Holmes pastiche fiction as the very worst, the most lifeless of parodies, and they’ll be mystified by the grins of ecstasy on the faces of true believers reading the same passages. Penzler himself gets in on the fun, striking a very familiar tone in his opening remarks:

About a hundred years ago, Sherlock Holmes was described as one of the three most famous people who ever lived, the other two being Jesus Christ and Houdini. There are some who claim that he is a fictional character, but this notion is, of course, absurd. Every school-child knows what he looks like, what he does for a living, and most know many of his particular characteristics.

Probably in a collection this big and this notable, there was no other viable way to go about things than to organize everything for the amusement of the faithful. After all, surely any honest Sherlockian would tell a newcomer to start with A Study in Scarlet, read through all the stories and novels Doyle wrote, and only then, once the spell had been cast, take up this big book. Probably Penzler’s spectacular efforts here are meant only for the true Baker Street Irregulars – and they’ll love every page of it.

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