‘The Collected Sherlock Holmes’ – Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes
Paget's illustration of Holmes, image via Wikipedia

This is the first time that I’ve ever read the novellas and short stories.  Any of them.  I partly blame the way that Holmesians play their games and how Sherlock Holmes is such a prominent and echoed figure in our culture.  I knew already that there were more misquotations and misinterpretations than there was truth to the original characters and stories, and that itself has put me off trying the series at times, but I hadn’t realised how bad it actually was.  Rather, how different the original stories are from their pop-cultural reinterpretations.

Perhaps this has more to do with general perceptions of forensic science and logical reasoning and accuracy.  But even with the CSI effect and allowing for my own training in some of these disciplines, I find it odd that so many people think so highly and seriously of the series.  There are a lot of jokes – silly, cute, over-the-top jokes – at the expense of police officers and often at Holmes’ own expense.  There’s silly and exaggerated portrayals of women and men of every profession.  Then we’ve got the bohemian rogue, the clinical genius, and the sycophantic friend.  As much as I loved the characters of Holmes and Watson, I found it baffling that so many people who read books could possibly think that Holmes was a genius, or that Doyle was an innovator.

Not that Doyle didn’t do a lot in his work that others did not, or write well, because he did.  But he himself cites influences (for example, Poe’s Dupin) within the text of his series; he’s tipping his hat to the influences in crime and mystery fiction that he drew upon.  Ignoring even that Holmes ‘deductive’ logical reasoning is quite obviously more often ‘inductive’ than anything else, there’s been mentions of super-sleuths in fiction and non-fiction for as long as humanity has been around, as well as forensic science and high-speed footchases in busy cities.  If the most notable part of Doyle’s stories was that he inspired popular crime fiction – thus creating the CSI effect and all stupid questions asked of experts at parties – then I would have to shake my fist.

But luckily this is not the case, and my frustration with the hype aside, I did enjoy reading the novellas and stories.  I was a bit frustrated that half of the plots were recycled, dealing with the same hysterical women time and time again.  I am sad to say that what I liked the most about it all were the moments of insight into the interpersonal relationships; Holmes and Lestrade and Watson and Mrs. Hudson.  The long clumsy adumbrations and smarmy expositions were cute but far less rewarding.  I can see where the fans get their inspiration from; I myself would much prefer to discover the more scandalous cases merely hinted at by Watson’s narration or to see the central characters interacting with each other instead of dashing off to obvious conclusion number three.

Still, I had a lot of fun reading the stories, and aside from some niggling issues with accuracy of terms and the odd exclusion of some contemporary and useful crime-fighting technologies (photography,the chemical analysis hinted at in the first novel, etc) I found it to be a much better read than I had expected.  I was happy to read my secondhand copy, which contained facsimiles of the original magazine pages, but now that I’ve read further I’m quite interested in one day finding the Baring-Gould annotated version.

Some other thoughts and reviews of the short stories and novellas:

Libri Touches is quite good, though mistakenly thinks that there is one (not three) novellas featuring Holmes.

Jules’ Book Reviews has had a look at The Adventures collected in to one volume, as does Fabula.

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