A Reminiscence of Sherlock Holmes

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.” [A Study in Scarlet]

Non-canon FTW!

I was the chief of the doubters when I first resolved to read all 56 of the Sherlock Holmes short stories in a year. The reason I managed it was simple: for all their faults, they hold up remarkably well, particularly for a reader with fond memories of them. There are several decidedly ropey installments, and a number of distinctly average ones, but as a corpus of literature the stories coalesce into something much greater than the sum of their parts. They have their own momentum and movement.

There are two famous lists of the best stories, one composed by Conan Doyle himself and another by the Baker Street Journal. My own top ten differs markedly from both of them, containing just two from the author’s favoured dozen, and sharing only half of the Irregulars’ picks. This is heartening stuff: if I can’t quite understand Sir Arthur’s love of The Speckled Band, or might raise an eyebrow at the Journal’s inclusion of The Six Napoleons, then we can at least agree that it must be a canon of rude health which can support such differing assessments of quality. My list, for the record, would be something like this (arranged in merely chronological order):

1. A Scandal In Bohemia [also ACD and BSJ]
2. The Boscombe Valley Mystery
3. The Blue Carbuncle [also BSJ]
4. The Beryl Coronet
5. Silver Blaze [also BSJ]
6. The Naval Treaty
7. The Dancing Men [also ACD and BSJ]
8. The Solitary Cyclist
9. The Bruce-Partington Plans [also BSJ]
10. The Problem of Thor Bridge

It’s true that 40% of the list is taken up by stories from the very first collection – and 60% of it is populated by adventures which took place prior to Holmes’s trip to the Reichenbach Falls – but it’s also satisfying that, quite unplanned, there is a story from each of the collections in that list. Conan Doyle may be right that The Devil’s Foot is better than The Solitary Cyclist on a formal level; The Musgrave Ritual may well be in its own ways a more solid entry than The Naval Treaty. I compile this list merely from a recollection of past enjoyment – it’s open to revision.

Enjoyment is my prevailing memory of the whole endeavour, actually – even whilst reading a Mazarin Stone or an Engineer’s Thumb. To wit, I’m loath to say goodbye to Holmes this year. Expect more – ho ho – irregular posts, but posts all the same, on other matters Sherlockian: Basil Rathbone movies, non-canon novels, and maybe even the four longer stories Conan Doyle himself published. Watch this space…

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11 comments
  1. abrinsky said:

    Why not try The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu (aka Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years) telling the story of his adventures in India and Tibet between his ‘death’ at the ‘Reichenbach Falls and his return?

    May sound unpromising but it’s wonderfully done with a real feel for the characters and period without being just a simple pastiche.

  2. danhartland said:

    This was actually on my provisional list of non-canon works, which I guess I should have posted. (Ahem.) They were:

    The Seven Per Cent Solution [Myer], The Final Solution [Chabon], The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes [Norbu], Shadows Over Baker Street [ed. Pelan], The Curse of the Nibelung [North], A Slight Trick of the Mind [Cullin], The List of Seven [Frost], and Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorised Biography [Rennison].

    The thing with these is that it’s very hard to know if they’re worth shelling out for. Your recommendation of the Norbu, though, has tipped the take-a-punt scale for at least that one. Ta!

  3. abrinsky said:

    Wasn’t impressed with The List of Seven but The Final Solution is one that I’ve been meaning to read.

    And there is always Sherlock Holmes Vs.Dracula by Loren D. Estleman. Sure I’ve read it but can’t remember a thing about it (so not a strong recommendation!).

  4. Abigail said:

    I really enjoyed this project, Dan, thanks for writing it. And for including “The Dancing Men” on your list, which is still the Holmes story I love best.

    I’ve been meaning to read The Seven Per Cent Solution for ever and ever, so I suggest you do in order to goad me or let me know if it’s not worth reading. The Chabon and Cullin do similar things, both very well, though I may be the only person on the planet who prefers the former.

  5. danhartland said:

    First A – I’ve read ‘The List of Seven’ before – bonkers, but when I read it I remember finding it amusing – and also ‘The Final Solution’, which is gentle but well done. The others I haven’t read, either – including the Estleman, which comes with such glowing praise!

    Second A – glad you enjoyed the series, happy to have entertained! And I could be wrong, but you seem to be suggesting a joint read of some sort…

  6. Abigail said:

    Actually, more along the lines of you acting as my guinea pig, but I am looking to take a break from F&SF in 2010 and poke around in other genres, so a Holmes pastiche would certainly be a worthy addition to the year’s reading list.

  7. danhartland said:

    Abigail, for shame! I may, though, accept my role as guinea pig. What this space…

  8. A friend recommended your blog to me, as I’ve just read all the Holmes stories (including the novels), mostly over the course of a couple of months. By the end I found that I could almost invariably guess the solution from the setup: I’m not quite sure whether this is because I’d had practise at Holmesian thinking, or because the later stories are more simple, or some combination of these factors. But I certainly enjoyed it (I want Mycroft’s job!) and I’ll be interested to have a look at your reviews.

  9. danhartland said:

    Rachel – cheers for stopping by! I think it would certainly be fair to say that Conan Doyle’s primary strength is not the variety of his plotting. Do feel free to comment on any of my reviews (though that seems a bit of a grand word for them) – would love to know your thoughts on any of the stories, particularly having read all of them so quickly.

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