Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Complete Sherlock Holmes: A Review of the #1 Entry on the Mystery Writers of America List

I am reviewing the top 50 mystery novels which appeared on the Crime Writers' Association and the Mystery Writers of America best mystery lists. I began with the the first choice of the CWA, The Daughter of Time.  I am continuing by switching over to the first entry on the MWA list, The Complete Sherlock Holmes.

Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Entry: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, 4 novels and 56 short stories.
Publication: 1887 to 1927

#1 on the MWA list, included as #21 on the CWA list as The Collected Sherlock Holmes Short Stories, and #32 as The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Word Count: ~660,000
Age of author at time of publication: 28 to 68.
Previous novels published by this author: none.
First words: In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.
Last words: . . . the lucky owner got away scatheless from this strange incident in a career which has now outlived its shadows and promises to end in an honoured old age.
Significance: By far the greatest influence on the detective story. The most enduring literary character, period. Ripping good yarns.

Where to start in a critique of Sherlock Holmes adventures? I guess I should declare that I am, in a minor way, a Conan Doyle scholar. Along with researching Conan Doyle to include him in my mystery, A Predator's Game, I have an article forthcoming in the prestigious Baker Street Journal, a 70-year-old publication dedicated to all things Sherlockian.

Now as it has for 120 years, Sherlock Holmes has continued to demonstrate a remarkable popularity:
  • BBC's current series is a geekfest for a new generation. 
  • Robert Downey, Jr., the highest paid actor of 2015, recently starred in two comic bookish free adaptations.
  • Sherlock Holmes was cited in Guinness Book of World Records as the fictional human character most frequently adapted to film and television (Dracula, non-human, is in the lead). The survey notably left out Dr. Watson who appears in nearly all of the Sherlockian adaptations.

Dr. Gregory House, a literary descendant of Holmes. The "homage" of his home address is a bit too spot-on.

One of the joys of Sherlock Holmes comes from Conan Doyle's attention to world-building. The stories are set in a matter-of-fact existing world, a world that feels lived in even when the players are not out having adventures. One way in which this is done is by Conan Doyle often referring to stories that had never been written. Why did Sherlock Holmes seem so brilliant and his cases so exotic? Watson puts forward that there were many more adventures that were either mundane or else failures on the part of Holmes. He chose the good ones. And I nod and think, that makes sense.

The first forty-six short stories and all of the novels of Sherlock Holmes are public domain. The final ten short stories are not. If you are interested in saving money, there are many inexpensive editions that include the public domain works before having to go on to the final story collection: The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes.

(Note to the Doyle heirs. To extend your publication rights: The Cookbook of Sherlock Holmes.)

The endings in several stories were morally ambiguous. Irene Adler bests Sherlock Holmes. Moriarty kills him (although not permanently).

The final stories end on a gloomy note. The Adventure of the Retired Colourman, the last entry in The Case Book, features a killer who gases his victims in a sealed room later taking on Sherlock Holmes's detection as sport.

In that story Sherlock Holmes declares: But is not all life pathetic and futile? Is not his story a microcosm of the whole? We reach. We grasp. And what is left in our hands at the end? A shadow. Or worse than a shadow - misery.

Personal Verdict: Sherlock Holmes is by far the single most important formative influence in the history of detective fiction. Great reads of a world frozen in time.

Quibbles: Conan Doyle too often lapses into stereotypes and prejudice of his day. His villains include East Indian cults, voodoo practitioners, and evil Mormons. His portrayal of the last of these groups stains A Study in Scarlet, the novel with Holmes's debut.
Brendan Cumberbatch is an excellent actor and the embodiment of the modern Holmes but the BBC series writer Stephen Moffat is joyously, brilliantly clever to which he adds on too clever by half.

Other related posts:
The Crime of the Century
Nikola Tesla versus Sherlock Holmes.
Arthur Conan Doyle Versus the Evil Holmes


Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 


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