Book Review: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Adventures of Sherlock HolmesThe Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a collection of short stories published after the first two novels. All were originally published in magazines. I’m not a great fan of short stories, but it was a nice break to have each case end with the chapter rather than having novel-long plots and twists and characters to keep up with. I enjoyed the audiobook read very nicely by actor Derek Jacobi.

The format of the stories is much the same as the novels. The ones in this volume are not told in chronological order: some occured while Watson still lived with Homes, others occured after Watson married. At the beginning of many of them Watson explained why he chose to chronicle that particular case out of the many Holmes had solved. Though there are similar characteristics in each story, Doyle did an excellent job in keeping them from becoming formulaic and predictable. Some involve the police, some don’t. In a few Holmes let the perpetrator go for various reasons (in one, the man did not have long to live; another involved a young man whom Holmes thought would go right after the scare of almost getting into big trouble). Some involved a crime that had already been done, some involved a crime that had yet to be committed, some involved other mysteries.

This book contains twelve stories: probably the most notable is “A Scandal in Bohemia” for the mention of Irene Adler. Some portrayals of this story of Holmes cast her as a love interest, but in this story she is not that. He admires her wit, which rivals his own, and the fact that she is one of very few people who have ever outsmarted him. In fact, Watson says,

It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer — excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his.

I thought it interesting, after wondering aloud in my review of The Sign of Four whether a genius in one area has to be unbalanced in others, that Watson says Holmes has a “precise but admirably balanced mind” while explaining that emotions were “abhorrent” to him — which seems a little unbalanced to me. 🙂

I enjoyed more unfolding of Holmes’ personality. Some accounts I’ve read cast him as manic-depressive or autistic, but I think (at least so far) that he was just a classic introvert. He claims Watson as his only actual friend, spends a great deal of time alone and thinking, but can be genial and even soothing when he needs to be. Some modern versions also portray him as rude, but in these first three books I haven’t seen that, at least that I can remember.

I’m glad that more modern versions of Holmes’ stories cast Watson as a strong character rather than a doddering old man who is only along as a sidekick. He is a skilled doctor and apparently handy with a revolver (from his army days) since Holmes asks him to bring it along for particularly dangerous cases.

I’m trying to read the Holmes stories in publication order, and the next is another collection of short stories, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. I may skip ahead to The Hound of the Baskervilles, which I’ve been particularly wanting to get to. I don’t think the reader will lose anything by reading them in any order: I just wanted to partake of them as the general public would have at first in order to see how they unfold. But I’ll put off that decision for a little while in order to take a break from Holmes to participate in the Austen in August challenge.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: The Sign of Four

sign of fourThe Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle is the second Sherlock Homes novel. It was originally published in a magazine as The Sign of the Four and later published as a novel. Later publications shortened the name to The Sign of Four.

Sherlock and Watson are visited by a Miss Mary Morstan. Her father had disappeared ten years earlier and she began receiving a valuable pearl from an anonymous source every year for the last six years. She’s just received a note saying she is a wronged woman and requesting a meeting. She can bring two friends as long as they are not police. Sherlock and Watson agree to go. Mary shows them an odd paper found among her father’s things that appears to be a map with four crosses and four names, three of them English and one Indian.

When they arrive at their destination they are greeted by one of two twin brothers who were sons of an associate of Mary’s father. I’ll leave what he told them and what they found there for you to discover if you read the book. 🙂

Hearing that Holmes engaged in drug usage caused me to hold his stories at arm’s length at first, but Wikipedia explains that the drugs he uses are not illegal at the time. He uses them when he is extremely bored or when he feels his brain needs the stimulation. This book introduces the habit and Watson’s disapproval, which he finally works up the nerve to express to Holmes. According to Wikipedia, in later stories Watson is eventually able to “wean” Holmes off of them. The drug use doesn’t play a major role in this book, but it’s there, mainly at the beginning.

This book also delves more into Holmes’s pysche and personality, which I found as interesting as the mysteries. We saw in the first book that Holmes had a brilliant intellect and developed his skills for deductive reasoning and crime solving almost to the exclusion of others, even to the point of not knowing that the earth revolved around the sun or caring since it didn’t affect his work. Some years ago I saw an documentary on Einstein which showed him to have a horrible relationship with his wife. I almost wondered then whether becoming a genius in one area required one to be out of balance in other areas. I don’t know – I’ll have to explore that idea further if I read about any more geniuses. 🙂 But it appears to be true in Holmes’ case: if he is not solving a crime or developing a skill which will help in the future, he’s utterly bored and doesn’t know what to do with himself. This book humanizes him a bit and we see him as more than just a brilliant intellect.

Part of my interest in reading Holmes’ stories is spurred by some modern adaptions of them, mainly the BBC television production of Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which depicts Holmes as a modern London city-dweller and adapts the stories in the current culture and technology.  I’ve only seen the first three episodes and have been advised that the fourth (or actually the first episode in the second season, concerning Irene Adler) is best avoided. But I’ve enjoyed the three I’ve seen and thought they were quite well done. They don’t follow the original stories exactly but there are enough similarities to make the modern Sherlock as much like the original as possible within a modern framework.

But even though the TV series touched off my reading of the Holmes books, they are interesting enough that I want to continue to read them for themselves. For this book I listened to the audiobook ably narrated by David Timson. The text of the story can be found online here.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)