The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
I was recently stunned when I stumbled across someone, in the midst of apologizing for being a new Sherlock Holmes fan (and you thought Star Trek had a hostile generation gap…), saying that the original stories made for slow reading. In fact, I wondered if we were reading the same stories at all. As I’ve been plugging on and off through the Holmes canon recently, I’ve found the writing swift and efficient. (I also don’t get these claims when they’re aimed at my beloved Tolkien. He’s remarkably clear.) In fact, I’ve found them to be fun, in a way modern procedurals rarely are—and that definitely keeps me on track to polish off the entire canon.
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes collects eleven of the Holmes short stories which were published in 1892 and 1893. In this collection, Holmes and Watson encounter ancient family mysteries, petty thefts, kidnappings, blackmailing, and even matters of national importance. We also meet for the first time Mycroft Holmes, Holmes’ smarter but lazier elder brother, see Holmes sick from his insane lifestyle, and, most shockingly, watch Doyle kill off his famous detective in a fit of artistic integrity. As you may have gathered from the popular culture of the last century, it does not take.
I have to admit, while the mysteries are nice (I quite liked the sweet solution in “The Yellow Face”), I don’t really read these stories for them. I read them for the characters—Holmes and Watson, of course, but also the bevy of pompous nobility and government officials, earnest and gullible working class men, loving and prudent women (although Watson’s wife Mary doesn’t make an appearance here, she clearly has the patience of a saint), and, of course, salty ne’er-do-wells. While they’re still formal, they’re still people, and that’s what makes the mysteries interesting to me, not the other way around. I’ve been burnt out on mysteries for ages—the fact that two different mystery series starring Jane Austen and her characters exist certainly doesn’t help. But I always enjoy a short Doyle mystery, because it’s about people who feel, more or less, like people, not stock characters. Plus, watching Holmes being almost intolerably smug as he deduces everything about a person is just hilarious. (That’s one thing the Guy Ritchie film version got right—with the added bonus of Mary throwing a drink in his face. I love Mary, guys, and I dread her death in canon.)
It was refreshing to come to “The Yellow Face” after the racism in The Sign of the Four—in it, Holmes fails to solve the mystery of a man’s disappearing wife because he has difficulty thinking outside the white London experience, although he seems to be pretty decent (if patronizing) at trying to think at different class levels. In fact, it’s the same reason that Holmes doesn’t recognize Irene in drag. There are things Holmes specifically does not learn about (all I’m hearing in my head is Lestrade from Sherlock going, “Do you really not know about the solar system?” right now) in order to save room for what he deems to be important to his line of work; when he discovers that these things are, in fact, important, he’s bewildered and humbled by the experience, which is why he asks Watson to remind him about this case in the future if he ever gets too smug. (I really hope Watson does this at some point. I like not knowing too much about the canon, guys, it’s a fun experience!)
“The Gloria Scott” is the first Holmes short story, I think, where Holmes tells the story instead of Watson—he relates his first adventure as a detective to Watson in his own logical, but still engaging, way; I just love how similar and how different Holmes and Watson are. Oh, boys. But just as Doyle was expanding Holmes’ universe with the introduction of Mycroft, he kills him off in “The Final Problem”. (I do have to mention that I love that Watson, before learning about Holmes’ family, starts to feel like Holmes just sort of coalesced into existence like a demented fairy godmother or something.) Doyle wanted to write serious literature, and he felt that writing the Holmes stories were distracting him from that goal, but he couldn’t do it meanly. Instead, he invented Moriarty—infamously described as the Napoleon of crime—as a criminal foil to his own mastermind and had Holmes sacrifice himself to rid the world of him. (Apparently, the British legal system sort of collapses when Holmes isn’t in town. This is probably why never takes holidays.) It’s a bit of a shock, after the fun of the other stories, to read “The Final Problem”. Watson is mourning his friend and has taken a while to pull himself together to put the story into words. It really shows how much they mean to each other—Moriarty allows Holmes a final note to Watson while Watson, obviously, gets the last word—and it’s quite sad. No wonder the Victorian fandom revolted and Doyle eventually bought Holmes back from the dead. I can’t wait to see how Watson reacts to this in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, but I have to get through The Hound of the Baskervilles first.
Bottom line: Great fun as always, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes collects stories as varied as “The Yellow Face”, where Holmes’ social tunnel vision humbles him, “The Gloria Scott”, where Holmes relates his very first case to Watson, and “The Final Problem”, a sad piece which shows just much the two mean to each other even as Doyle kills off his best creation. Good thing it didn’t take.