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