The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Normally, I don’t presume to claim a character for Team Ace, but I really must insist here—textually, Holmes is into no one, to the point that Watson notices it and mildly disapproves of it. I say this because the Irene Adler/Sherlock Holmes ship is a difficult one to sink. I’m not talking about subtext here, but just the text; there are some people out there who theorize that Holmes actually married her during “A Scandal in Bohemia”, which is one of those things that makes me realize fandom is much, much older than we think it is. I’m all for rioting in the subtext (I certainly do!), but when my mother thinks it actually happens in the books, I need to remind everyone that Holmes is playing on my team in the text. And we sit out games. Everybody clear? Alright, then let’s dig into The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes collects the Sherlock Holmes short stories originally published in the Strand Magazine between July 1891 and June 1892. In these short stories, ostensibly written by Watson, Watson and Holmes investigate the blackmail potential of a one Irene Adler, the operations of the Ku Klux Klan in England, disappearing bridegrooms and husbands, even have some Christmas cheer, and much, much more.
Holmes is so weird, and it’s fantastic. I certainly hope Holmes’s habit of looming over Watson until he wakes up shows up in Sherlock or Sherlock Holmes 2 (which includes Robert Downey Jr. in drag, incidentally). He’s superior, insults Watson (assuming that Watson has a thicker skin than he actually does), dresses up in costumes to infiltrate the city (Watson stumbles across him in an opium den while actually doing some doctoring), and keeps bizarre hours. I have to admit, my personal conception of Holmes—indeed, my personal conception of most of the cast—is a mix between Sherlock and Sherlock Holmes, which has only been strengthened by this collection. (Holmes’s delightfully dour Christmas cheer was one of my favorite things about this collection.) Watson remains his lovely self; we actually get to see him do his job and, less often, see Mary send him off to go have fun with Holmes. Irene Adler only appears in “A Scandal in Bohemia”, and I loved her—she’s quick, elegant, and dresses as a boy to go about the city as she pleases; Irene experimenting with gender seems to be the only thing that can befuddle Holmes, as he can’t place boy!Irene when she greets him, unlike everyone else he’s ever talked to. I was also fairly taken with the women presented here; a lot of Holmes’s clients are women looking for their wayward men, and, in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”, a sensible governess that Watson almost wants to fix Holmes up with (but Holmes is, of course, impervious). True, some of these women can be hysterical at times, but the situations often call for it, and Doyle seems fond of practical governesses such as Mary. Doyle has a lot of problems, racism being chief among them—but he distances sexism from Watson and the reader by ascribing it almost wholly to Holmes. I hope this holds up.
As I suspected, Doyle improves in his short stories—his formula for the short stories is rigid but flexible to some degree, such as “The Man With the Twisted Lip”, where Watson starts off on a personal errand to a friend of Mary’s and then falls in with Holmes already deep in an investigation. Usually, a client approaches Holmes with a problem; if it’s set during Watson’s bachelor days, the two immediately go off. If not, an excuse is invented or Mary just sends Watson out of the house, because she knows Watson better than he does. (They are a darling couple.) The short story format also cuts down on the lengthy stories characters tell, although Doyle makes them engaging without wholly relying on the novelty of the mystery. While most of the atmosphere is just wonderfully 1880s London, Doyle occasionally indulges in some wonderfully Gothic storytelling. “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” involves dark hallways and family secrets, only to be thwarted by a sensible governess with the backing of Watson and Holmes, and “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” takes place in a strange mansion and features a surviving twin terrified for her life. (Doyle apparently considered the latter his best piece of work in the Holmes canon, so make of that what you will.) These short stories are deft and fun; they might even make me like mysteries again!
Bottom line: As I thought, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle improves in short stories—the urbane and yet slightly Gothic atmosphere is fantastic, the mysteries engaging even without the novelty of their solutions, and the characters, as always, are fun and distinct. It’s free, so you haven’t got an excuse not to read it.