Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories Volume 1 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

(Book Review)

As I mentioned once before, I tried to read Sherlock Holmes back in middle school and found it too difficult. Not that I couldn’t have done it, but the intellectual work didn’t seem to be worth the pay off.

But having read, and enjoyed, “The Lost World” this past spring, I thought I’d give Sherlock Holmes another try. And I found it both highly readable and enjoyable.

Incidentally, I’ve talked to a couple other people, and it seems my experience with Sherlock Holmes is not unique. It seems a lot of us first try out Sherlock Holmes when we are in middle school, struggle through a couple chapters maybe, give it up, and often as not never pick it up again.
And I think this is the reason Sherlock Holmes isn’t as widely read today as he should be. When we are at the age when detective stories are most appealing to us, the prose of these books is slightly advanced. When we become adults and can read Sherlock Holmes with ease, we feel we have outgrown these kind of stories.

So, I decided to go back and round out this hole in my reading history. This first volume contains two of the Sherlock Holmes novels, “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Sign of the Four”. Plus 36 short stories. Altogether it comes to about 1000 pages. And I still have one volume left to go.

This is a long book to be sure, and yet I’ve read several other long books in a much shorter time. I hate to admit how long I’ve been working through this Sherlock Holmes volume, but I bought it when I was still in Japan. Of course if you’ve been reading this blog you know during that time I’ve gotten distracted by several other reading projects.

After the first two initial novels, this volume consists of several short stories, each about 20 pages long. And 20 pages is about the perfect length for a Sherlock Holmes story. It allows for a good set-up, some time to be spent hunting for clues and letting the mystery simmer, and yet you don’t have to wait too long for the pay off at the end and the solution to the mystery.

At the same time however it is difficult to read too many of these stories together in one sitting, which makes it hard, for me at least, to read this book quickly. But whatever, it’s not a race. I got some enjoyment out of this book by reading it at a relaxed pace, and that was good enough for me.

As for the stories themselves....
Once again, I’m reviewing a book that is actually several different books. Which makes a succinct summary difficult. This first volume starts out with the first meeting between Holmes and Watson, who become roommates because of convenience and a mutual acquaintance in “A Study in Scarlet”. Watson soon gets married and moves out of the famous 221B Baker Street in “The Sign of the Four.”

Several stories later, Conan Arthur Doyle gets sick of writing Sherlock Holmes stories and tries to kill Holmes off in “The Final Problem.” But because of public outcry, he eventually resurrected Holmes in “The Adventures of the Empty House.”

Many people like to read Detective stories because they like to try and solve the mysteries themselves. Often this is impossible with the Sherlock Holmes series because Holmes's eagle-eye observes many things that the narrator (Watson) does not, and these details are not revealed until Holmes sums up the case at the end. This may be a way of cheating on Doyle’s part to prolong the suspense of the mystery, but it doesn’t seem to take away from the enjoyment. There is still an appeal in seeing the brilliant way in which Holmes mind works, even if the reader isn’t allowed to solve the case with him. And, of course, there is always the appeal of seeing the police get their man and justice being served, which is doubtless the same appeal which makes crime shows like “CSI” and “Law and Order” so popular on TV. Occasionally the crime story will unfold in front of Holmes and Watson, with the two acting more as simple observers than detectives.

Most of the stories in the Sherlock Holmes Cannon are murder mysteries, but not all of them by any means. There is enough variety to keep things interesting. Love intrigues, missing love letters, black mail, etc. At one point Holmes even remarks to Watson that he feels his talents are being used not as a detective but as an advice columnist. (I’m paraphrasing, but it was something to that effect).

The individual stories are not always consistent with each other. I guess its important to remember that originally these stories were serialized in magazines, and Doyle probably didn’t envision them all under the same binding.

For example, the Sherlock Holmes in the early stories is a lot more of a flawed hero than the later Sherlock Holmes. In the early stories Sherlock Holmes is portrayed as having only acquired knowledge which he thinks will be useful to him in criminal cases, and completely ignorant of any broader culture. Also, a surprise to many of us who grew up on the cartoon version of Sherlock Holmes, much is made in the early stories of Sherlock Holmes cocaine addiction. And finally he is a bit of a misogynist. All of these character flaws drop away in the later stories.

The chronology is not entirely clear. After Watson gets married and moves out, Doyle evidently has a hard time inventing reasons why Watson should be involved in Holmes’s cases at all. Therefore many of the stories after that are told through the framework of Watson reminiscing about the past and his bachelor years with Holmes. Then, one story, Watson simply announces he is moving back in with Holmes with no mention as to his wife. (I guess Doyle figured the reader had long since forgotten about her).

(Incidentally, on the internet and in some literary criticism, there are some tortured attempts to explain all these glitches into a consistent framework. I find much of it to be a stretch, but, like Star Wars or Star Trek fans, Sherlock Holmes fans apparently find it very important to be able to explain away continuity errors.)

Next, onto volume 2.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
John Lennon insulted the song "Cry Baby Cry", as he did most of his songs, by calling it "A piece of rubbish"

Link of the Day
Local DFA Chapter holds Forum on Bush Impeachment

Bonus link: I always get a laugh out of this video putting duct tape on a cat.

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