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Posts Tagged ‘Sherlock Holmes’

The Sign of the Four (1890)
Arthur Conan Doyle
Penguin Classics, 160pp

The second Sherlock Holmes adventure sees Holmes in a deep melancholy, one that is only lifted by a visit from a troubled young woman, Mary Morstan, whose father disappeared ten years before. Four years later she began to receive a gift, once a year, and now she has been invited to meet her mysterious benefactor. She needs an escort, and Holmes is perfect… And in the ensuing investigation – which involves a wronged woman, a stolen hoard of Indian treasure, a wooden-legged ruffian, a helpful dog and a love affair – even the jaded Holmes is moved to exclaim, ‘Isn’t it gorgeous!’

The Sign of the Four introduced a number of key elements in the Holmes mythology: his cocaine addiction and Watson’s wife. It has a more romantic element than the other tales in the series, but as is typical of Doyle, he sacrifices character development for more chases. Unlike his first Holmes tale, he keeps his sleuth centre-stage for most of the action, and the story is stronger for it. There is some wonderful skulduggery here, and though much of it seems improbable, this is Sherlock Holmes’s London, not the real London, so we can forgive. It struck me reading, that it is with Sherlock Holmes that the comic book really begins: okay, there are no illustrations here, but what Doyle is create a London that isn’t London, but a world for his character to inhabit, and he stalks around it solving crime like many a comic book superhero would do forty years hence.

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A Study in Scarlet (1887)
Arthur Conan Doyle
Penguin Classics, 192pp

So we come to another classic of its genre that I’d never read: Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. I’d seen the films, the TV versions – including the just brilliant new BBC version, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I was once given the complete collection by my grandparents when I was ten, but the sheer size of the volume put me off. And it didn’t have spaceships on the cover. If only I’d known what they did contain.

Like Jules Verne, Sherlock Holmes really needs to be read when you’re a kid: it’s plotlines, and dramatic action are juvenile – brilliant, yes, but juvenile – and I think you respond more to them when you haven’t the critical faculties of age. Take this story: the first half is about Holmes, but the second leaves London entirely, and crosses the Atlantic to Utah, and a story about Mormons – that happens, at the end, to coincide with the Holmes tale. Of course, at the time, Conan Doyle had no idea that his character would become such a success, but it strikes us now that leaving Holmes out of most of his story is something of a mistake.

All this is not to say I didn’t enjoy A Study in Scarlet – I did, it’s fun, action packed, and has some very good detective work from Sherlock. I just don’t think it’s the great beginning some had made it out to be: but Holmes status is about to increase, and the tales are about to get bloodier, messier, and more complex, and that’s what Holmes does best.

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