Book Review: The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

Case Book of SHThe Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes is the last of the Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It opens with a preface from Doyle himself, rather than Watson, saying that “I fear that Mr. Sherlock Holmes may become like one of those popular tenors who, having outlived their time, are still tempted to make repeated farewell bows to their indulgent audiences. This must cease and he must go the way of all flesh, material or imaginary.” He says that he “had fully determined at the conclusion of The Memoirs to bring Holmes to an end, as I felt that my literary energies should not be directed too much into one channel,” but he later revived him (reportedly due to public demand, though he doesn’t say so here). He goes on to note:

I have never regretted it, for I have not in actual practice found that these lighter sketches have prevented me from exploring and finding my limitations in such varied branches of literature as history, poetry, historical novels, psychic research, and the drama. Had Holmes never existed I could not have done more, though he may perhaps have stood a little in the way of the recognition of my more serious literary work.

The Wikipedia article on Doyle states that he “wrote seven historical novels, which he and many critics regarded as his best work,” as well as other pieces, but he’s best known for Sherlock Holmes.

A couple of variations in this volume are two stories written as by Holmes himself rather than Watson and one written from a third person point of view. One of the two stories by Holmes occurred when he criticized Watson’s style of storytelling, and Watson told him he should give it a try; the second occurred after Holmes had retired and was no longer in touch with Watson when he came upon an unexpected case.

Twelve stories are included in this book, with some editions arranging them in different orders. The very last Holmes story written was “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place” in 1927.

The stories include a variety of cases brought to Holmes’ attention in a variety of ways, most often by someone connected with the case. The include a woman seen only in a veil, a mother accused of vampirism, a missing diamond, the theft of papers from a dead son’s trunk, a man searching for two other men with an unusual last name, a jealous wife, an unusual sea creature, a missing soldier, and a wax effigy of Holmes. In one of them, Holmes says, “In all my chronicles the reader will find no case which brought me so completely to the limit of my powers. Even my imagination could conceive no solution to the mystery.”

They occur in a variety of times as well: some when Watson was rooming with Holmes, some when he was not, one after Holmes retirement.

A few sentences stood out to me concerning Holmes’ regard for Watson. In “The Case of the Blanched Soldier,” one of the stories written from Holmes point of view rather than Watson’s, he says, “Speaking of my old friend and biographer, I would take this opportunity to remark that if I burden myself with a companion in my various little inquiries it is not done out of sentiment or caprice, but it is that Watson has some remarkable characteristics of his own to which in his modesty he has given small attention amid his exaggerated estimates of my own performances.” He says in this same story, “The good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association. I was alone.” In “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,” the one written in the third person, it’s said that, “Watson was always the man of action, and he rose to the occasion.” In one story in which Watson was wounded, Holmes cried out, “You’re not hurt, Watson? For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!” Watson thought to himself, “It was worth a wound–it was worth many wounds–to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.”

After receiving a note from Holmes in one case which simply read, “Come at once if convenient–if inconvenient come all the same. S.H.,” Watson muses:

The relations between us in those latter days were peculiar. He was a man of habits, narrow and concentrated habits, and I had become one of them. As an institution I was like the violin, the shag tobacco, the old black pipe, the index books, and others perhaps less excusable. When it was a case of active work and a comrade was needed upon whose nerve he could place some reliance, my role was obvious. But apart from this I had uses. I was a whetstone for his mind. I stimulated him. He liked to think aloud in my presence. His remarks could hardly be said to be made to me–many of them would have been as appropriately addressed to his bedstead–but none the less, having formed the habit, it had become in some way helpful that I should register and interject. If I irritated him by a certain methodical slowness in my mentality, that irritation served only to make his own flame-like intuitions and impressions flash up the more vividly and swiftly. Such was my humble role in our alliance.

Other interesting features in this story: in one Holmes refused to eat, and when Watson asked why, he replied, “Because the faculties become refined when you starve them. Why, surely, as a doctor, my dear Watson, you must admit that what your digestion gains in the way of blood supply is so much lost to the brain. I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix. Therefore, it is the brain I must consider.” I don’t think that’s the wisest course of action for most people, but it is interesting that he thought of himself primarily in terms of his brain. That appears to be a factor in his suppression of emotion and lack of relationships as well. Holmes says in one story: “Women have seldom been an attraction to me, for my brain has always governed my heart, but I could not look upon her perfect clear-cut face, with all the soft freshness of the downlands in her delicate colouring, without realizing that no young man would cross her path unscathed.”

Another observation I thought unusual for Holmes occurred when a man was taking a potion to seem to become more youthful: “There is danger there–a very real danger to humanity. Consider, Watson, that the material, the sensual, the worldly would all prolong their worthless lives. The spiritual would not avoid the call to something higher. It would be the survival of the least fit. What sort of cesspool may not our poor world become?”

One sentence that struck me as particularly clever: “When his castle in the air fell down, it buried him beneath the ruins.”

It’s been fun to read of the “real”…or at least, the original Sherlock Holmes. One of my main curiosities was whether he was really as rude as some modern conceptions of him make him out to be. I was happy to find he wasn’t. He was eccentric in some ways and could be egoistical, but he knew how to interact with people when he needed to and could even be kind and comforting when needed. He was a classic introvert and only had a very few close friends. I was surprised to find that his nemesis, Moriarty, only appeared in two books, with just a mention in one of them. I was also pleased to find that Watson was not a doddering old man, but was vibrant, described as “fleet of foot” in one story, and that Holmes valued him for his medical skills as well as his skills with a revolver, besides his being a good sounding board.

I was concerned, before reading the stories, about his rumored drug addiction, but it wasn’t enough to be an addiction, only appeared in a couple of books, and Watson talked him out of using drugs any more. I was also concerned because I had heard there were instances of spiritism in the book, but I did not find any. I did just read yesterday that Doyle was heavily involved in such, but Holmes, although he was not a religious man, did use various Biblical phrases and did not participate in anything like spiritism. There were a couple of cases where there were evidences of voodoo or something similar, but those involved were always portrayed as being from some island or another.

Here are my reviews of the other Holmes books:

A Study in Scarlet (novel)
The Sign of the Four (novel)
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (short stories)
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (short stories)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (novel)
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (short stories)
His Last Bow: Some Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (short stories)
The Valley of Fear (novel)

I listened to the first books read by various narrators, and the last ones read by Simon Vance in this collection, who once again did a wonderful job. This edition of all the Holmes stories together came through on a good sale, so I got it, but it was maddening that the divisions weren’t according to the books. They are just run together one after the other, which is fine if you’re listening to them that way, but it’s hard to find a particular book. Thankfully one listener posted a table of contents which shows where the various books begin and end.

I don’t feel all warm and fuzzy toward these stories as I do some other books, so I don’t know that I’d reread or relisten to them, at least not any time soon. But they were fun while they lasted! And Holmes is such an iconic figure with so many cultural references to him, it’s nice to be familiar with him now.

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

Book Review: The Valley of Fear

Valley_of_fearThe Valley of Fear is the fourth of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s full-length Sherlock Holmes novels. Like most of his other stories, it first appeared serialized in a magazine, this time in The Strand.

The book opens with Holmes and Watson trying to decipher a message from an informant concerning Professor Moriarty. The only other time Moriarty has been mentioned was in the last chapter of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, in which he died. So this story predates that one, but there is a bit of a disconnect in that Watson didn’t know who Moriarty was in Memoirs, and if the events in The Valley of Fear occurred in the timeline before that book, Watson would surely have known the name. But as far as I know that’s the only major slip up in Doyle’s narratives, so we can forgive him: he may have even been aware of the problem and decided to write this story as is anyway.

At any rate, Holmes and Watson are interrupted by the arrival of a Scotland Yard Inspector MacDonald asking Holmes to assist on a case and then being stunned to learn that the message Holmes had just deciphered concerned the very man who had been killed. The victim had been shot in the face with an American sawed-off shotgun. There are a number of odd incidents and clues that do not add up. Holmes fixates on one that the others do not think is important, and, of course, solves the mystery.

The second part of the book is the back-story of what happened leading up to these events and is written in a completely different style, much like the story within a story in A Study in Scarlet. At first nothing seems related at all, but the reader assumes that some of the characters are going by different names than what they’re known as in the first part. In this story, a young John McMurdo is fleeing from the law in Chicago and comes to a Vermissa Valley to start anew. He’s part of an organization called The Eminent Order of Freemen, which primarily engages in charitable works in Chicago. But in Vermissa Valley, it’s a tightly run gang of thieves, murderers, and extortioners called the Scowrers who have the area under their thumb so much that it is nicknamed the Valley of Fear. McMurdo has no choice but to become involved with the gang, even though his landlord kicks him out over it and refuses to let him see his daughter any more.

Events unfold with the Scowrers for several chapters until they learn that a Pinkerton detective is undercover in the area, and their focus turns to finding and dealing with him.

An epilogue ties up the loose ends of the story and brings it back to Moriarty’s involvement.

Though I eventually guessed who McMurdo was (and rereading the first few pages, I saw several clues which caused me to realize I should have guessed it much sooner), I was totally surprised by the twist in the second story. Though some of the first story gets a little boring with the deciphering and then the arguing over which clues mean what, the last couple of chapters were the most exciting of any of Doyle’s work that I have read so far.

After looking around Wikipedia a bit, I saw that the story was based on the real life Molly Maguires in PA and their encounter with Pinkerton Agency detective James McParland. I had heard the term Molly Maguires before but had no recollection of what it meant until reading about it just now.

I listened to the audiobook read by Simon Vance, who did a wonderful job not only with the various English accents and voices in the story, but also with American, Scottish, and Irish accents as well. I also read parts of the story online at Project Gutenberg.

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

Book Review: His Last Bow: Some Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes

HisLastBowHis Last Bow: Some Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is another collection of his Sherlock Holmes short stories, most originally published in magazines. One story, “The Cardboard Box,” was originally in another volume and added to this one in later printings.

The book opens with a preface from Dr. Watson saying that Holmes was retired and doing well except for occasional bouts of rheumatism. He had refused many offers to take up cases until called into service by his government on the eve of war with Germany. Watson states that the last story in this collection contains the details of that incident, and the other stories are some that he has had on hand for some time but not used in his other collections, but added them here to supplement the last story.

There are eight stories all together, covering various time periods (some when Watson was married, some when he was rooming with Holmes. Most contain trademarks of the other Holmes stories. A few are different, however.

In “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge” (sometimes published as two stories, “The Singular Experience of Mr. John Scott Eccles” and “The Tiger of San Pedro”), the inspector on this case, Inspector Baynes, is the only police official that Holmes has thought well of and thought almost as competent as himself. He had learned to work with Lestrade and Grayson and others, though he usually figured out the case long before they did. But Baynes he admired and predicted he would go far in his profession.

Some of the other cases involve assumed identities, stolen naval plans, a woman receiving severed ears in the mail, an incident that kills one sister and drives two brothers mad, a kidnapped woman, and Holmes’ seemingly fatal illness.

The last story, “His Last Bow,” is different in a few ways. It opens with someone other than Holmes or Watson, is told in the third rather than the first person, and is a spy story more than a detective story. It’s set after Holmes has retired but has been asked to help his government, and when it’s over, he and Watson reminisce as if they haven’t seen each other in a while and are catching up. I wonder if Doyle wasn’t planning to write more Holmes stories after this. There is one Holmes novel whose writing overlaps the time period when these stories were published, and one more collection of stories after this one. If all the stories were laid our chronologically, this one would be the last in the time frame though it’s not the last one written. It was published during WWI, and this quote was probably meant to encourage Doyle’s fellow countrymen:

“There’s an east wind coming, Watson.”

“I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.”

“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.”

In many of the stories, Holmes makes reference to Watson’s writings and even offers suggestions about what to include, even though he doesn’t like the way Watson tells the stories.

I found further evidence that Holmes was neither always rude nor antisocial or even autistic, as some modern portrayals seen to suggest. When interrupted from a project when asked to take on a case he is not interested in at first, Watson notes that  “Holmes was accessible upon the side of flattery, and also, to do him justice, upon the side of kindliness. The two forces made him lay down his gum-brush with a sigh of resignation and push back his chair.” In another case,

Holmes leaned forward and laid his long, thin fingers upon the woman’s shoulder. He had an almost hypnotic power of soothing when he wished. The scared look faded from her eyes, and her agitated features smoothed into their usual commonplace. She sat down in the chair which he had indicated.

In another place he said, “[The landlady] was fond of him, too, for he had a remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women. He disliked and distrusted the sex, but he was always a chivalrous opponent.”

Watson does admit, though, in another case that, “It was one of my friend’s most obvious weaknesses that he was impatient with less alert intelligences than his own,” in this case Lestrade’s.

Holmes also doesn’t misuse Watson, as some modern depictions portray. In one case here he sends Watson on a mission when he can’t leave the case he is currently involved with, and when he does catch up with Watson, he exclaims,

“I cannot at the moment recall any possible blunder which you have omitted. The total effect of your proceeding has been to give the alarm everywhere and yet to discover nothing.”

“Perhaps you would have done no better,” I answered bitterly.

“There is no ‘perhaps’ about it. I HAVE done better. Here is the Hon. Philip Green, who is a fellow-lodger with you in this hotel, and we may find him the starting-point for a more successful investigation.”

The only time that he seems genuinely rude was when he was ill but did not want Watson to examine him, saying, “After all, you are only a general practitioner with very limited experience and mediocre qualifications. It is painful to have to say these things, but you leave me no choice.” Watson “was bitterly hurt.” But later Holmes discloses that he did not want Watson near him because he was on a case to try and catch someone, and Watson’s “astute judgment” would determine on a close examination that Holmes was well, and Holmes needed him to believe in the urgency of the situation in order to convince the man Holmes wanted to come. He assures Watson of his high “respect for your medical talents.”

In one unguarded moment after Watson saves both their lives, Holmes declares,

“Upon my word, Watson!” said Holmes at last with an unsteady voice, “I owe you both my thanks and an apology. It was an unjustifiable experiment even for one’s self, and doubly so for a friend. I am really very sorry.”

“You know,” I answered with some emotion, for I have never seen so much of Holmes’s heart before, “that it is my greatest joy and privilege to help you.”

He relapsed at once into the half-humorous, half-cynical vein which was his habitual attitude to those about him.

There was one other glimpse in Holmes’ heart when, in a case where someone avenged the death of his loved one, Holmes said, “I have never loved, Watson, but if I did and if the woman I loved had met such an end, I might act even as [he] has done.” That also seems further proof of something I asserted in an earlier book, that Irene Adler was not the love interest many thought her to be, but rather just a woman he admired for being one of the few people to ever outsmart him.

I listened to the audiobook read by Simon Vance, who did a great job with the different accents and inflections. Overall I enjoyed these continuing adventures of Holmes and Watson and and discovering more of their personalities. I look forward to the last two books.

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

Book Review: The Return of Sherlock Holmes

TheReturnOfSherlockHolmesThis book by Arthur Conan Doyle is titled The Return of Sherlock Holmes  because Holmes was thought to have died at the end of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle had wanted to end the Holmes series to concentrate on historical novels, but he published The Hound of the Baskervilles (set before Holmes’ supposed death though published after) a few years later, and it was such a success that he was pressured to revive the series. Holmes returns to a stunned Watson three years after his disappearance, explaining that though Moriarty died (at the same time Holmes was thought to), his men were still alive and knew that Holmes was as well – one of them sought to kill him in the moments after Moriarty’s death. But Holmes is on their trail and has returned in disguise back to London.

This book is a series of short stories that appeared first in a magazine called The Strand over 1903-1904. Holmes’s clients vary from a governess to the prime minister, and the cases include a missing heir, a stalker, a blackmailer, and crust ship’s captain, busted busts of Napoleon, a student cheating on an exam, a missing rugby player, a false testimony, and a stolen document which could lead to war if not found. Quite a variety! Watson says “As I have preserved very full notes of all these cases, and was myself personally engaged in many of them, it may be imagined that it is no easy task to know which I should select to lay before the public. I shall, however, preserve my former rule, and give the preference to those cases which derive their interest not so much from the brutality of the crime as from the ingenuity and dramatic quality of the solution.” Holmes accuses Watson once of sensationalism: “Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations. You slur over work of the utmost finesse and delicacy, in order to dwell upon sensational details which may excite, but cannot possibly instruct, the reader.”  When asked why Holmes doesn’t write them himself, he replies that one day he will in textbook form.

Holmes’s personality continues to unfold in these stories. Here are a few of Watson’s comments:

“My friend, who loved above all things precision and concentration of thought, resented anything which distracted his attention from the matter in hand. And yet, without a harshness which was foreign to his nature, it was impossible to refuse to listen to the story of the young and beautiful woman, tall, graceful, and queenly, who presented herself at Baker Street late in the evening, and implored his assistance and advice.”

“Holmes, however, like all great artists, lived for his art’s sake, and, save in the case of the Duke of Holdernesse, I have seldom known him claim any large reward for his inestimable services. So unworldly was he—or so capricious—that he frequently refused his help to the powerful and wealthy where the problem made no appeal to his sympathies, while he would devote weeks of most intense application to the affairs of some humble client whose case presented those strange and dramatic qualities which appealed to his imagination and challenged his ingenuity.”

“Lestrade and I sat silent for a moment, and then, with a spontaneous impulse, we both broke at clapping, as at the well-wrought crisis of a play. A flush of colour sprang to Holmes’s pale cheeks, and he bowed to us like the master dramatist who receives the homage of his audience. It was at such moments that for an instant he ceased to be a reasoning machine, and betrayed his human love for admiration and applause. The same singularly proud and reserved nature which turned away with disdain from popular notoriety was capable of being moved to its depths by spontaneous wonder and praise from a friend.”

“My friend’s temper had not improved since he had been deprived of the congenial surroundings of Baker Street. Without his scrapbooks, his chemicals, and his homely untidiness, he was an uncomfortable man.”

“I may have remarked before that Holmes had, when he liked, a peculiarly ingratiating way with women, and that he very readily established terms of confidence with them. In half the time which he had named, he had captured the housekeeper’s goodwill and was chatting with her as if he had known her for years.”

“Sherlock Holmes was a past-master in the art of putting a humble witness at his ease.”

Some of what I have read concerning modern depictions of Holmes seem to cast him as socially awkward, even rude, and perhaps having Asberger’s. I think these samples show that he was not socially awkward at all – he was described as being quite genial when he wanted to be, and he could carry on a conversation with anyone. But he preferred working alone or with Watson and one or two others – a classic introvert, in my opinion.

There were a few cases before now and a couple of cases here where Holmes decided justice was served, and he did not see a reason to report his findings to the police even when he was working with them. In one case he said, “No, I couldn’t do it, Watson…Once that warrant was made out, nothing on earth would save him. Once or twice in my career I feel that I have done more real harm by my discovery of the criminal than ever he had done by his crime. I have learned caution now, and I had rather play tricks with the law of England than with my own conscience. Let us know a little more before we act.” I wouldn’t advocate that in real life, but it did make sense in the context of the story.

At the end of this book Holmes was said to have retired, and only allowed Watson to tell a few of the stories long after they occurred. Since there are three more books about him, however, either he didn’t retire, or those stories are more past cases.

Once again I listened to the audiobook version superbly narrated by Derek Jacobi. In my journey through the Holmes books, I look for versions read by Jacobi now. I also looked at some portions in closer detail in the online version of the book provided by Project Gutenberg.

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

Book Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles

HoundThe Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was written 8 years after The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, in which Holmes supposedly died, but is set before that time. According to Wikipedia, its success prompted Doyle to write more Holmes novels, and it’s rated as one of his best Holmes stories.

It opens in typical fashion with Holmes wowing Watson with various deductions before they’re visited by a client. Dr James Mortimer has traveled to London to ask Holmes’ advice. It seems that the most recent baronet of Baskerville Hall in Devonshire (and Mortimer’s neighbor) , Sir Charles Baskerville, died of extreme fright apparently after being pursued by a large hound. A mysterious, monstrous hound killed one of his ancestors, and this and the ancestor’s evil deeds grew into a legend that the Baskervilles were cursed. Though the hound didn’t attack Sir Charles directly, its nearby footprints seem to give credence to the legend. Dr. Mortimer’s problem is that the new heir is supposed to arrive from Canada, and Mortimer doesn’t know whether it is safe to conduct him to Baskerville Hall. Holmes asks Mortimer to bring the new heir, Sir Henry, to him when he arrives. By the time they meet, though, Sir Henry has received an anonymous warning to avoid the moors at Devonshire, and one of his boots has been stolen. When they leave Holmes’s apartment, he discovers that Sir Henry is being followed. Henry wants to go to his estate despite the weird occurrences and warnings. Holmes is busy with another case but sends Watson to the Hall with Henry and Mortimer to observe, meet the staff and neighbors, and report back to Holmes.

Holmes says early on that there are several strands to the case, and he has to try various ones to find out which will lead him to the truth. His investigation and Watson’s reports put some strands to rest easily, but others cause more excitement and concern. An escaped convict hiding out in the moor complicates the case. When Holmes does arrive in Devonshire he discerns who was responsible for Sir Charles’s death and realizes Sir Henry is in imminent danger himself, but he does not yet have enough concrete evidence to make a case. While he waits to close the net on the perpetrator, will he be too late to prevent yet another crime?

In my venture through the Holmes novels in publication order, I’ve been piecing together his character as a whole and comparing it to some of the modern characterizations and adaptations of him. Most modern portrayals present him as somewhat rude, but I haven’t found him to be so in the novels, as least not yet. He is pretty egotistical, though. In one amusing exchange, he and Watson are disagreeing about their deductions from a certain piece of evidence. Watson eventually concedes by saying, “You may be right.” Holmes responds, “The probability lies in that direction.” Another conversation is perhaps a little more snide:

“Really, Watson, you excel yourself,” said Holmes, pushing back his chair and lighting a cigarette. “I am bound to say that in all the accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.”

He had never said as much before, and I must admit that his words gave me keen pleasure, for I had often been piqued by his indifference to my admiration and to the attempts which I had made to give publicity to his methods. I was proud, too, to think that I had so far mastered his system as to apply it in a way which earned his approval….

[After differing over the evidence in question] “I am afraid, my dear Watson, that most of your conclusions were erroneous. When I said that you stimulated me I meant, to be frank, that in noting your fallacies I was occasionally guided towards the truth.”

Watson’s character continues to emerge as well. Some older film versions portray him as a dumpy old man whose only purpose is a foil for Holmes and a chronicler of his cases: thankfully more modern adaptations show more of his strengths. In this story he is described as “fleet of foot” in a chase scene, and though some of his conclusions are wrong, his observations are helpful. When Holmes sends him with Sir Henry, he says of Watson, “There is no man who is better worth having at your side when you are in a tight place. No one can say so more confidently than I.” Watson himself confesses, “The promise of adventure had always a fascination for me.”

I listened to the audiobook read very nicely by Derek Jacobi. He not only portrayed the different characters very well, but he incorporated the action into his voice, sounding like he was running when his characters were, etc. I also looked at some passages a little more closely at the Project Gutenberg online version of the text.

I do agree that this is the best Holmes novel I have read/heard so far. Doyle did an admirable job setting the scene for a Gothic-type mystery with the  depressing old house, the mysterious legend, and the dangerous moors, and the plot was adequately suspenseful.

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

What’s On Your Nightstand: August 2014

 What's On Your NightstandThe folks at 5 Minutes For Books host What’s On Your Nightstand? the fourth Tuesday of each month in which we can share about the books we have been reading and/or plan to read.

Hard to believe we’re 2/3 through the year already and summer will be over before the next Nightstand. I’m glad to spend some of the passing time with good books.

Since last time I have completed:

Just Jane: A Novel of Jane Austen’s Life by Nancy Moser, reviewed here. Didn’t like this as much as I thought I would, but it is an interesting peek into her life.

Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay, reviewed here. Loved this!

On Stories and Other Essays on Literature by C. S. Lewis, reviewed here. Some excellent observations.

Gospel Meditations for the Hurting by Chris Anderson and Joe Tyrpak. Didn’t review this as it is just a 31-day devotional. The tone is not what I’d call warm and fuzzy, but the Biblical truths are right on target and helpful.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, audiobook, reviewed here.

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, audiobook, reviewed here.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, audiobook. This was a re-listen as I read it in 2008 and listened to the audiobook in 2013. My previous review is here.

I’m currently reading:

Undetected by Dee Henderson. Loving it.

Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi. Excellent.

The Girl in the Gatehouse by Julie Klassen. Enjoyed the first part – not enjoying the middle so much. We’ll see how it ends up.

Next up:

Why We Are Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be by Kevin DeYoung, Ted Kluck, and David F. Wells. This will finish my TBR Challenge list. I need to get it read and off my every Nightstand TBR section, but I wanted to take a break from my reading challenges with some fiction.

The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald for Carrie’s  Reading to Know Classics Book Club. I have been wanting to try MacDonald for some time and this book in particular.

Somewhere Safe With Somebody Good, NEWEST book by Jan Karon! Can’t wait! It’s supposed to come out in early September and I have pre-ordered it.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The Last Bride by Beverly Lewis

In Perfect Time by Sarah Sundin

I’ve got some good reading to look forward to! How about you?

Book Review: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

HolmesI’ve been going through the Sherlock Holmes books by publication date, but I was tempted to skip The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, which is another collection of short stories, and go on ahead to The Hounds of the Baskervilles, which I really wanted to get to. Then I remembered that Memoirs was the book where Holmes’ nemesis, Professor Moriarty, was introduced and where (slight spoiler here though it is well known and the title suggests it) the author seems to have killed off Holmes. According to Wikipedia he did so in order to spend more time on historical novels, but public pressure was evidently enough for him to bring Holmes back in a later book, saying that he had faked his death.

So I embarked on this collection of stories and was delighted to find that in addition to the above, this set introduced Holmes’ brother Mycroft (portrayed as smarter than Holmes but less energetic), shows Holmes as completely depleted physically due to one case, and shared one case where he totally missed the mark. Of the last, he told Watson, “If it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.” Holmes also shared with Watson the case that got him started investigating crime (I had wondered, with Watson, how a mind such as Holmes’ had gotten started on this particular career path.)

Holmes’ statement about having only one friend in college seems to conform his introversion: “I was never a very sociable fellow, Watson, always rather fond of moping in my rooms and working out my own little methods of thought, so that I never mixed much with the men of my year. Bar fencing and boxing I had few athletic tastes, and then my line of study was quite distinct from that of the other fellows, so that we had no points of contact at all.”

There is a story titled “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” which was originally published in the American version of this book but later removed because two characters in it were adulterous. It was not in the version I listened to.

Overall I enjoyed this collection of stories. Doyle continued to avoid a formulaic approach, with each story and case showcasing Holmes’ skills without becoming repetitive. One of the best of any of his stories that I have read so far is “The Final Problem,” the last story in the book which introduces Moriarty and deals with Holmes’ apparent death. There is an intensity about it that is different from the others. I thought at first perhaps that was just my impression because I knew what the end would be, but then I read this is one of Doyle’s favorite stories as well.

I listened to the audiobook read by Simon Prebble. I had avoided his narrations up until now because I am used to his voice in the Jeeves books by P. D. Wodehouse, which are a completely different tone and feel than Holmes’ stories. But he adapted to the tone very well and soon I had completely forgotten that this was also the voice in my head for Jeeves and Wooster.

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


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.)

Book Review: A Study in Scarlet

Some years ago in another town, the local radio station would play classic radio programs on Friday nights, and occasionally some of these would be Sherlock Holmes stories. I enjoyed them, but I was never inclined to read any of the books about him. However, over the past few years we’ve seen several film and TV adaptions or shows loosely based on the Holmes’ character, and I was curious to find out what the “real” (or maybe I should say original) Sherlock Holmes was all about.

Study in ScarletA Study in Scarlet is the first Sherlock Holmes book written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was first published in a magazine, and it’s one of the few Sherlock Holmes stories to be made into a full length book: the rest are short stories.

The book is told from Dr. John Watson’s point of view and opens with his coming back to England to recover after being wounded as an army doctor in Afghanistan. He runs into an old friend and, after sharing that he is looking for someone to share living quarters and expenses, the friend introduces him to Sherlock Holmes, who is looking for a roommate. The friend forewarns Watson that Holmes is a bit eccentric, but Watson feels he can get along with him well enough.

Upon their first meeting Holmes tells Watson he perceives he has been in Afghanistan, but doesn’t explain how he came to that conclusion yet. The two move into 221B Baker Street, and as they get to one another, Watson discovers that Holmes knows very little about literature, astronomy, politics, and other subjects, but knows a great deal about chemistry and sensational literature and a bit about geology and botany. Holmes feels he only has so much room in his brain and only wants to put into it what will help him in his craft. Watson can’t quite figure out what Holmes does for a living until Holmes reveals he is a consulting detective. Watson doubts Holmes abilities until Holmes tells him all about a telegram deliverer by observation, and Watson has the opportunity to question the messenger about Holmes’s speculations which are, of course, correct. Watson then becomes Holmes’ biggest fan.

The telegraph Holmes receives concerns a case in which his opinion is wanted. Holmes invites Watson to come along to meet Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade at an abandoned house where a male corpse has been found. There is a bit of competition between Holmes, Gregson, and Lestrade, but of course Holmes notices clues and makes deductions that the others miss.

Just when Holmes has identified the killer (but hasn’t yet explained how he did so), the story abruptly shifts to a desert scene in America where the only two people left in a caravan, an older man and a young girl, are about to die from hunger and thirst. At first I thought maybe this was a book of short stories after all and this was the next story, but after a while characters pop up with the same names of some of the characters in the first part. The man and girl are rescued by a caravan of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) who are traveling to Salt Lake City, and they invite them to come along on the condition that they adopt the Mormon religion. Not having much choice, they do so, and the man, John Ferrier, adopts the girl, Lucy. Lucy grows and Ferrier prospers until Lucy falls in love with a man who works in nearby mines. The man in not a Mormon, though, and Brigham Young tells Ferrier that this is against Mormon rules and he has thirty days for Lucy to chose one of two other men, or something dire will happen. Each day a number is painted somewhere on Ferrier’s property, counting down to the 30 days.

Though at first I resented this time away from Holmes and Watson, the story about Lucy did get interesting and suspenseful. I won’t ruin it by telling what happened except to say that it does connect with the corpse in London that Holmes is investigating.

Then the story shifts back to Watson’s retelling of the arrest of the killer, his confession and his side of the story, and Holmes’ explanation for how he found him out.

I very much enjoyed this adventure with Sherlock Holmes and will probably delve into some of his other stories in the future. I listened to this story via an audiobook read very nicely by actor Derek Jacobi.

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

This also completes one of my requirements for the  Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate.