Our book today is Arthur Conan Doyle’s unsinkable 1892 story collection, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which collects the twelve Holmes & Watson stories published from summer of 1891 to summer of 1892 in the Strand magazine. These stories followed in the wake of the novellas A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four – they were written at Doyle’s customary steam-engine speed, but unlike everything he’d done before, they were written in the full and confident expectation of an admiring audience. Sherlock-fever had already struck London and the world; now it was Doyle’s job to keep it going.
That he certainly does in The Adventures, although like almost any collection of work previously written under a dozen different deadlines (and in who knows how many different moods and weathers), the thing is uneven. Half of the stories in this collection suffer from one drastic weakness or another, whether it’s a gimmick quite obviously thought up while walking down the street (“The Man with the Twisted Lip,” “The Beryl Coronet,” “The Engineer’s Thumb”) or very nearly no gimmick at all (most infamously “A Case of Identity,” which hinges on its young heroine being so abysmally stupid that she fails to recognize a man she’s known for years because he puts on sunglasses). But oh! The other half! The other half take an already-memorable character and enshrine him in the fictional pantheon!
The other half includes the still-disturbing “The Speckled Band,” in which a fierce doctor retired from India and living deep in the country perpetrates an unspeakable evil upon the young women in his care. Readers of The Lord of the Rings will have no trouble discerning that Tolkien, too, found “The Speckled Band” indelibly memorable – especially the tense confrontation between Dr. Grimesby Roylott of Stoke Moran and Mr. Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street:
“I know you, you scoundrel! I have heard of your before. You are Holmes, the meddler.”
My friend smiled.
“Holmes, the busybody!”
His smile broadened.
“Holmes, the Scotland Yard Jack-in-office!”
And there’s also the near-perfect “Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” in which a hapless thief comes just close enough to obtaining one of the world’s most valuable rare gems to regret it for the rest of his life (“The Blue Carbuncle” is also one of the many Holmes & Watson stories that sheds an invaluable sociological light on everyday life in Victorian London – a long and fascinating treatise could be written about what an observant alien could learn about the time from these little mysteries). Here we get “A Scandal in Bohemia” and our tantalizing glimpse of Irene Adler, one of the only women in the whole of Doyle’s Holmes canon who’s every bit the equal of the Great Detective in brains and brio. And here we get one of the greatest Sherlock Holmes stories of them all, “The Red-Headed League,” in which a seemingly preposterous set-up yields to a tense and satisfying climax. And before we reach that climax, we’re treated to perhaps the best of all the little moments when Dr. Watson pauses to consider his strange friend:
The swing of his nature took him from extreme languor to devouring energy; and, as I knew well, he was never so truly formidable as when, for days on end, he had been lounging in his armchair amid his improvisations and his black-letter editions. Then it was that the lust of the chase would suddenly come upon him, and that his brilliant reasoning power would rise to the level of intuition, until those who were unacquainted with his methods would look askance at him as on a man whose knowledge was not that of other mortals. When I saw him that afternoon so enwrapped in the music at St. James’s Hall I felt that an evil time might be coming upon those whom he had set himself to hunt down.
Reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes becomes a reflex after a while; more so than any of Doyle’s other Holmes collections, the book becomes a Victorian safe haven from the cares of the present. In this particular instance, the version I chose was from the old Reader’s Digest illustrated “World’s Best Reading” set with odd, moody illustrations by Richard Lebenson. Nothing really beats the binding and paper stock of those old Reader’d Digest editions – they take a beating on subway and steamy sidewalk like no other version of the classics. That makes them congenial choices, especially on those rare occasions when one is obliged to stray from the far more civilized option of e-books. The only drawback, of course, is that every edition of Sherlock Holmes should come only with Sidney Paget illustrations – since, as another wise man once said, when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.
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