The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)
Synopsis: A collection of twelve stories revolving around cases of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson; including the appearance of the oft portrayed and mentioned female criminal, Irene Adler.
*Seeing as how this book actually consists of twelve different cases, I’m going to do things a little differently. For the Story section, I will briefly break down each short story with a rating of its own and a small commentary. For the Character section, naturally there are a lot of characters involved here (Holmes, Watson, clients, villains, police, witnesses etc.) so it would be ridiculous to assess them all. Instead, I will pick out key elements of Holmes and Watson’s development and any other key characters that I feel have a significant impact on the series. The other two sections will just cover the book as a whole.*
A Scandal in Bohemia: Holmes is hired by an illustrious client from Europe to help prevent a scandal that is bound to occur if a certain photograph isn’t procured from a blackmailing woman by the name of Irene Adler. Holmes is more than happy to assist, Watson at his heels, though the case proves more challenging than he has anticipated. Or, more accurately, his opponent is more challenging. Irene quickly proves to be a quick-minded woman who doesn’t make the mistake of underestimating Holmes like so many other criminals do. As a result, just as Holmes expects the case to be closed in their favour, he discovers that he has been bested by this woman that has been one step ahead of him. Despite this, he takes it good-naturedly, appreciating the challenge and believing that, even though they are still not in possession of the documents, there is no immediate threat posed. This is also the first real instance we have of Holmes adopting one of his infamous disguises to further the case. It’s understandable why this is one of the more popular stories as it is proves one of the few times that someone gets the better of the detective and examines his relationship with the female population. 4/5
The Red-Headed League: A case comes Holmes’ way regarding a suspicious sounding “league” that appears to have duped the client in some way. It is down to Holmes and Watson to uncover the real reason for this and to prevent the outcome. This is a classic example of Holmes’ approach to choosing cases. Even though Holmes and Watson both laugh at the absurdity of the situation, Holmes still agrees to get to the bottom of it because it has piqued his interest. He doesn’t know what the result will be but it’s the mystery that he enjoys primarily, rather than the rewards or acclaim. This is an enjoyable case and it’s fun to see how quickly Holmes figures it out while still keeping everyone in the dark until the vital moment. 4/5
A Case of Identity: This case revolves around the apparent disappearance of a young woman’s husband-to-be. It actually turns out to be a case of secret identities and fraud which culminates in a rather strange story in itself. The biggest issue with it is that there really hasn’t been a crime committed so there isn’t much for Holmes to do with the matter except uncover this deceit. But, even then, he chooses not to tell his client the actual result in order to protect her and because he doesn’t think she’d believe him. So, technically, he doesn’t even complete the job he was hired to do. It feels a little lacklustre compared to the other stories in the book but it still has its moments. 3/5
The Boscombe Valley Mystery: Another popular story, this also sees the return of Lestrade, sceptical as always. Holmes and Watson travel down to Boscombe Valley to try and solve a murder and find out if the culprit is indeed the man who’s been accused. The short story involves murder, blackmail and romance…all the ingredients for a good mystery. There’s plenty of threads for Holmes to follow and Watson provides some vital input with regards to the murderer’s left-handedness. There are plenty of twists and turns in the small number of pages to make this one of the best paced stories. It is also an example of Holmes withholding evidence to suit the situation. Usually this is only done when he is hired by an outside source, while here he was technically brought in by the Yard. However, going by his own moral compass, he decides that nothing good will come of turning the murderer in and he no longer poses a threat so he will keep the results to himself unless they are needed to prove a man’s innocence. 4/5
The Five Orange Pips: This feels like a very short story, mainly because it only takes place in the rooms of Baker Street. Holmes and Watson are visited by a John Openshaw who regales them with strange happenings of his family and letters that they have been receiving with five orange pips. Because it is not so much a crime that he is offering, Holmes can only offer his advice on how to proceed. Unfortunately, it is to no avail as they get word that he has been found in the Thames. Considering the short length of this story, it is very sinister in nature; not just because of the fate of the client but because of the culprits involved. The letters are signed from the KKK, initials that mean nothing to Watson but are known to Holmes thanks to his wide-spread knowledge and his encyclopaedia. The Ku Klux Klan, being an American organisation, wouldn’t have been so well-known in Britain which just adds to their sinister quality. It’s also one of the rare times where things aren’t remotely resolved. Not only does the client lose his life but the culprits do not succumb to the justice Holmes had arranged, however they are felled by mother nature. 4/5
The Man With the Twisted Lip: This story starts completely apart from the case as Watson is attempting to retrieve a wayward patient from an opium den, running across Holmes in the process. Not surprisingly, Holmes is rather more surprised by the doctor’s presence than vice-versa but he is eager to involve Watson in the case as soon as possible. This is a good illustration of the fact that they are not attached at the hip; Watson has his patients and his own life while Holmes continues with cases on his own but is always happy for Watson to come along when he is available. The case has been brought to him by a distraught woman who is worried for her husband and Holmes chooses to take care of things from her residence, rather than Baker Street. Most of the story consists of narrative of events, rather than investigation because Holmes comes to his conclusions in a single night. It illustrates a combination of two particular habits of his when he’s on a case; not sleeping and smoking excessively. But it serves its purpose as the next morning he has solved it and merely needs to prove it. The case in itself is not particularly complicated and fairly easy to predict but, as per usual, it’s the journey that is appealing and this is an enjoyable story. 4/5
The Blue Carbuncle: Not one of my favourite stories of the book but it has some note-worthy aspects to it. Firstly, there is the element of morality. While this case is brought to his attention by a member of the police force, it’s still treated as a case from a member of the public. As such, Holmes has more freedom in how he goes about the case and, more importantly, how he concludes it. When he catches the thief floundering in his trap, he makes the decision to let him go. He knows that no real harm has been caused to any persons, the stone is safe in his possession and the wrongly accused man will not be charged without the false witness; therefore, he chooses to let the man go on the condition that he leaves the country. Maybe it was good will on his part for the festive season (unlikely, this is Holmes, after all!), but it isn’t the last time he uses his own moral judgement on a criminal. The other particular point of this story that I love is Holmes’ ‘reverse psychology’ trick. When extorting information, he takes the stand of a doubter, claiming that what someone says is untrue which then subconsciously causes the other person to prove Holmes wrong, thus giving him the information he was after in the first place. It’s fun to watch Holmes finding clues in his surroundings but I do love to see how he manipulates suspects without them even realising it. (This was illustrated well in the BBC episode ‘The Great Game’ where Sherlock deliberately says opposing things to a suspect so that she will contradict him, giving him vital information.) 3/5
The Speckled Band: One of my favourites in “Adventures”; we have a truly evil antagonist, an almost impossible crime and a good dose of peril. Dr. Roylott proves to be a worthy adversary and one that Holmes doesn’t take lightly and is only too eager to defeat. When initially confronted with the arrogant man, he affects his usual aloof manner, riling the man up even more. Holmes doesn’t suffer fools gladly but he rarely reacts to them unless truly provoked; his cheery dismissal is perfect and amusing (especially at his disdain of being associated with the force). His awareness of the man’s mistreatment of the client adds to his dislike, showing that he isn’t always solely focused on the case and does care about the welfare of his clients, assuring her that she will come to no harm. The vigil that Holmes and Watson hold in the lady’s room is intense and edgy. We are definitely in Watson’s position as he has no idea what to expect whereas, as we find out later, Holmes has figured most of it out by this point. The result leads to the inadvertent death of Roylott, caused in a way by Holmes himself; he is not particularly guilt-ridden however, feeling that it was what he deserved. The story also features an element of Holmes’ ‘activities’ that always makes me laugh; namely his habit of hovering over Watson while he’s asleep. This happens numerous times throughout the books with Watson only seemingly mildly perturbed, showing how the boundaries of normality between them are very blurred. 4/5
The Engineer’s Thumb: This is an interesting story, mainly because not a whole lot happens where Holmes is concerned. It’s also the only recorded time that Watson is the one to bring the case to Holmes’ attention via his professional standing. It’s one of the few that are actually quite grisly in its happenings, what with the client losing a thumb during his adventure and Watson having to clean up the ghastly wound. The majority of the tale revolves around the recounting of the crime in the rooms of Baker Street, where Holmes pieces things together. He makes use of his extensive filing system, illustrating his fascinating ability to recall the most minute details. We learnt early on that Holmes has a wide knowledge of criminal history and these files and scrapbooks demonstrate it further. While Holmes does solve the mystery in itself (the cause of the attack, the scene of the crime etc.) and justice has been served inadvertently by the victim, the three culprits have flown the coop along with their money, no doubt to set up shop elsewhere. It may not be a totally satisfying ending but it is realistic and for that reason, I like it. 4/5
The Noble Bachelor: My favourite stories tend to revolve around murder or secret past lives; this one covers the latter and is one of my favourites contained within this book. It has several interesting elements: a mention of Watson’s war wound, which is aggravated during the dull weather, Holmes embracing the violin to while away the time and his familiar ability to solve things within minutes due to his extensive criminal knowledge. But what is particularly interesting is that Watson is able to contribute his own knowledge to Holmes as the detective is unfamiliar with the events. It’s quite obvious that he could have simply looked through the newspapers himself but I see it as an attempt from Holmes at involving Watson wherever possible, making him indispensible. What I also love about this story is the inclusion of Lestrade, my favourite Yarder. As usual, he gets his teeth into a case and follows one line of thought doggedly while missing clues that lead Holmes in another direction entirely. The interaction between them is always a delight and I love it especially in this story. I also love Holmes’ irritating way of solving cases with his simple exclamation of something like “It is solved!” when everyone else is in the dark; clearly delivered in such a way to provoke audacity, especially in the case of the inspector. The case in itself is an interesting one, though not focused on in a great deal due to Holmes’ familiarity with the set-up. It’s also interesting to note his inclination towards America and her natives, something that is apparent in many of Conan Doyle’s stories, no doubt a parallel to his own interest. 4/5
The Beryl Coronet: For some reason, I enjoyed this more on a second read-through. The case is a fairly basic one, revolving around some missing gems form a coronet. The client’s son has already been taken into custody for the crime but Holmes’ is almost instantly sure of his innocence. It’s both gut instinct and certain facts that lead him to this deduction and strengthens his resolve to solve the case in time to exonerate him. After the initial work (hearing the story, examining the scene of the crime etc.), Holmes handles much of the case on his own, employing the use of a disguise to achieve his results. As he is sometimes wont to do, he reveals the conclusion with a flourish; asking the client for £4000 under the pretence of trying to conclude the case, before instantly handing over the missing gems, much to the shock and glee of the man. I love the moments of enjoyment he gets out of his work, namely his ability to endlessly astound people. Another highlight for me is the blatant domesticity of Holmes and Watson in this story. It starts with them just lazing about in their rooms, not having anything in particular to do, the arrival of the client serving to brighten their day. Then, in the middle of Holmes’ time in disguise, he returns to Baker Street for literally no reason other than to tell Watson that he is going to be late, possibly in an effort to prevent his friend from worrying about him. As it is, Watson stays up late anyway, until giving him up for a lost cause at around midnight. The one thing about this story that may pull people out of it, are its elements that really date it. Firstly, there is the instance of mania from the client which was seen much more as a medical condition then than it would be now but, more noticeably, the mention of the two cousins marrying. Obviously this is not considered appropriate now but was thought little of in Victorian time. I personally like the very Victorian elements of these stories but they can be off-putting to some. 4/5
The Copper Beeches: Another of my favourite stories in “Adventures”, mainly because of the truly peculiar mystery at hand. While Holmes is mourning the lack of decent cases, he is confronted by Violet Hunter whom he is about ready to dismiss until he hears her out, finding her tale interesting after all. We are kept very much in the dark in this tale with regards to Holmes’ deductions, making it all the more intriguing. Violet provides in-depth accounts of her situation giving us plenty of information to try and draw our own conclusions on what kind of conspiracy she is involved in. As it happens, plans are being made off-page that cause some confusion during Holmes’ conclusion, making it so that, while he has solved the mystery in itself, he draws the wrong conclusion as to the disappearance of the true victim. In fact, had Holmes not been involved in the case at all, it would have been resolved in the same manner (although the outcome for Miss Hunter may not have been as favourable). The story also features the familiar thread of Holmes’ distaste at Watson’s writing style; choosing to focus more on the fantastical than the logic, which never fails to nettle poor Watson. There is also the final paragraph which mentions Watson’s disappointment that Holmes didn’t maintain an acquaintance with Violet. Indeed, of all the clients mentioned, she is one of the most fleshed out and would be understandably appealing (what with her attention to detail and well-spoken manner) but Holmes’ interest in her lasted only so long as she was connected to a case. Lastly, one of my favourite moments of all of the books appears here, when Holmes and Watson are on the train to Winchester. Watson comments on the lovely scenery while Holmes states that all he can see are the perfect places for crimes to take place, much to Watson’s horror. I think this is a perfect snapshot of them and why their friendship works; it’s all about balance. Holmes is very clinical, very single-minded and focused whereas Watson is always able to see the positive in things, to find comfort. It’s interesting to see their very different outlooks on life and the world. 4/5
Characters – Taking into account the large amount of characters contained within this book, I will only be focusing on Holmes and Watson’s development, Irene Adler and Inspector Lestrade directly.
Due to the sporadic nature of the stories, it’s not always easy to tell how long Holmes and Watson have been acquainted during each story but their relationship doesn’t falter too much because of this. The most notable difference is the fact that, during some of the cases, Watson isn’t living at Baker Street but even this separation doesn’t seem to have the impact you’d expect. That leads me on to Mary. Poor Mrs. Watson…she really, honestly may well have not existed! She is rarely ever mentioned except for Watson to tell her that he’s going off with Holmes. Maybe Conan Doyle felt pressured into splitting them up because of their rather unusual living habits for the time period, but really it doesn’t pose much of a bearing on them at all. It’s interesting that, even though Holmes knows about Watson’s family commitments and his practice, he still expects Watson to drop everything and join him (which he invariably does).
As is mentioned in many of these cases, Holmes requests his company because he is invaluable. However, for the most part, Watson doesn’t play much of an active part in the case, maybe just making the occasional observation. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Holmes exaggerates his need for Watson’s presence just to make him seem indispensable when instead he is just intent on keeping him around. I think this may partly be the case as we know he’s become closer to Watson than possibly anyone else and was unimpressed with his taking of a wife, but I believe Holmes to be perfectly genuine in declaring how important it is to him to have Watson on a case; whether it’s to bounce ideas off of, to have as back-up or just for pleasant company, all are important and Watson is the only one he can rely on to provide all of them.
It’s obvious that, despite their separation, Watson is still eager to be a part of Holmes’ life and to participate in his cases. The reverence he still holds for the detective is apparent in the florid way he retells things to us, the readers. This is a point of contention between the two of them throughout the whole series; Holmes wanting to focus on the deductive techniques while Watson often chooses to recount cases that are more aesthetically pleasing and exciting. But he is still very keen to impart upon the audience the extraordinary abilities his friend possesses, still clearly overwhelmed by them. His pride in these abilities is palpable, especially when he is keen to offer his services to a patient during “The Engineer’s Thumb”.
Holmes is still an arrogant sod and Watson doesn’t shy away from this side of Holmes, either. He still shows that habit of expounding information as if it is the most obvious thing in the world, purposefully making those around him (usually Watson, often the police force) feel utterly stupid. It’s a truly frustrating habit (one that you keenly feel along with Watson) but it’s one of the things I love about Holmes; he is not above egotism. Despite this, however, we are shown more clearly Holmes’ method in choosing cases. He only pursues things that stimulate him mentally. He will accept money that is offered, although usually just what it costs to solve the case (as illustrated in “The Beryl Coronet”, for example) and appreciates the praise of his skills but it isn’t his main goal; the case is its own reward.
Now on to one Ms. Irene Adler. She is, without question, the most talked about woman of the Holmes fandom (yes, even more so than Mary, I would wager) despite her having only appeared in the one story. She is one of the few characters that are mentioned in passing in other stories throughout the years.
I have to admit that I am not a fan of the woman in her own right. Like Moriarty, I feel she has grown beyond her original persona thanks to the adaptations (more on that later), where she has been made into a proper adversary of Holmes and a criminal. To my eyes, she is actually quite a weak-willed and flighty woman who just happens to see through Holmes’ ruse right at the last moment. Her own moment of disguise was somewhat redeeming in that it showed a devilish side to her that almost puts her on par with the detective.
However, I find her very important on a larger scale because of the character traits it reveals in Holmes; namely, his dislike of women and the “softer emotions”. We know that Watson is a romantic from his rapid romance with Mary and his fanciful depiction of cases and so you can really understand his fascination with Holmes’ disregard of these elements. He never properly chastises him or presses the point, accepting that there is no room in his logical mind for the unpredictability of emotions. Holmes is far from a misogynist, of course, happy to interact with women and work for them if required, he just has apparently no interest in them romantically. It comes across at times that he distrusts them or he is just downright wary of them because of their irrational behaviour. Naturally, this has led to many a discussion regarding Holmes’ sexual orientation with no definite conclusion ever being reached (and will likely never be so).
Now onto Inspector Lestrade, my favourite Scotland Yarder. At this stage, he’s still developing as a character and has more appearances ahead of him (being the most used representative of the law) but the core of his being is in place. What I love about Lestrade is his relationship with Holmes. It’s obvious that they have a professional history, having worked together on cases that Watson either hasn’t been aware of or hasn’t published because of their more casual banter. However, there are mixtures of feelings between them that often make up some of the more hilarious interactions.
Lestrade is a good detective, Holmes says that he is one of the best that Scotland Yard have to offer. He’s tenacious and dedicated, striving to bring criminals to justice. His main problem, as far as Holmes is concerned, is that he fails to look at the big picture; once he sees a solution, he buries his teeth into it and doesn’t let go. This is more or less the centre of their relationship. Lestrade always feels like he has something to prove when Holmes is involved and has a tendency towards smugness when he sees Holmes following apparently random leads. Of course, we know that Holmes always has a method to his madness and usually solves the case while Lestrade is still in the dark. But, the most notable point, for me, is that Lestrade is never begrudging of this. As soon as Holmes gives the explanation of how he solved the case, the awe and pride the Lestrade feels is almost palpable. It’s for this reason that he is my favourite and probably why he was the most used and also why Holmes often refers to him as “friend Lestrade”. The balance of friendship and rivalry is a pleasure to read.
Writing Style – All the stories in “Adventures” are all written in first person from our ever reliable narrator, Watson. They take more or less the same structure as “Scarlet” and “Sign”, starting with the background from the client, then the investigation and closing with the conclusion in various forms. However, with Watson now no longer living at Baker Street, he isn’t always present when the client arrives and so it is left to Holmes to relay the case to him (and to us).
One interesting thing of note is that the book is not chronological. Each story does not follow on from the next for various reasons. Watson usually states at the start of the story round about when the story took place, whether it was while he was still living at Baker Street or during his first year of marriage etc. He will also give a reason as to any delay in the retelling; usually it is to protect those involved so as not to cause a scandal. However, this is something I’ve always found a little confusing with some of these stories…Some of them are very delicate and yet Watson (and, I guess by proxy, Holmes) don’t seem to see any problem in publishing the tales for anyone to read. I’ve taken to the theory that Watson changes some details like locations and perhaps even names to protect identities, while still retaining the case and the methods with which they were solved.
I also like how cases are mentioned and we are left wondering about them. In the “Red-Headed League”, Holmes mentions the case of Miss Mary Sutherland which would be unknown to the reader and is, in fact, the next story to be told. I do wonder if Conan Doyle had actually written that one first and they were just published back to front or if the mention of it made him want to pursue it separately. But then in “The Engineer’s Thumb”, Watson mentions that there were only ever two cases which he brought to Holmes’ attention; the one titled and the case of “Colonel Warburton’s madness”. Which never gets told! I believe it has been written by people subsequently but it is never broached in any of the canon stories and I actually love that aspect of it; it really hits home that this is just a small portion of everything they’ve worked on together, it leaves so much up to the imagination (and open to later authors).
Other Points – I suppose the main thing to note here would be the various adaptations. I haven’t seen every incarnation available so I will simply mention the ones that I have so far stumbled upon.
First up, then, we have Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. The story and villains are original but Irene’s appearance is a familiar one. However, it doesn’t play on her role in “Scandal” as that has already happened (as can be told from the fact that Holmes already has her photo, his distrust of her and Watson’s recognition as she leaves). This allows for a much more lenient relationship between them as it plays off of their rivalry and mutual appreciation. The character has been altered in as much as she appears much more of the criminal in this film, rather than merely a woman scorned and I think it works in her favour. The filmmaker’s did lean towards making her a romantic interest for Holmes (which, we know from Watson’s original narration, was never the case) but it never really amounts to anything, the focus definitely more on the dynamic between Holmes and Watson.
The Granada version of Sherlock Holmes tackled many of the Canon stories during its run including several from “Adventures” (don’t be misled, the series called “Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” does not correspond with the stories in this book). All of the early episodes are brilliant and ring very true to the original material and the main cast are wonderful in their depictions, making the words leap off the page and onto the screen.
The same can be said for the Russian version of Sherlock Holmes which attacks various stories (under the guise of different titles, sometimes covering more than one story in an episode) which is, remarkably, one of the most accurate interpretations of the stories.
I don’t want to get too far off track by focusing on the visual medium as this is primarily a book review and I may well approach this in another entry at a later date so I will end that here.
Worth Reading Y/N? – A resounding YES! In fact, why aren’t you reading it right now!? Go, now!
Favourite Quote –“‘In the dress is a pocket. In the pocket is a card-case. In the card-case is a note. And here is the very note.’ He slapped it down upon the table in front of him. ‘Listen to this: “You will see me when all is ready. Come at once. F.H.M.” Now my theory all along has been that Lady St. Simon was decoyed away by Flora Millar, and that she, with confederates, no doubt, was responsible for her disappearance. Here, signed with her initials, is the very note which was no doubt quietly slipped into her hand at the door and which lured her within their reach.’/’Very good, Lestrade,’ said Holmes, laughing. ‘You really are very fine indeed. Let me see it.’ He took up the paper in a listless way, but his attention instantly became riveted, and he gave a little cry of satisfaction. ‘This is indeed important,’ said he. ‘Ha! you find it so?’/’Extremely so. I congratulate you warmly.’ Lestrade rose in his triumph and bent his head to look. ‘Why,’ he shrieked, ‘you’re looking at the wrong side!'” (From “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”)