Book Review: The Complete Sherlock Holmes

COMPLETE SHERLOCK HOLMES VOL 1 COMPLETE SHERLOCK HOLMES VOL 2The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Volumes 1 and 2, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and compiled by Barnes & Noble Classics. The material was originally published between 1887-1927. This version, with an introduction by Kyle Freeman, appeared in 2003.

For a collection of works, this one is tremendously steeped in history and widely adored. Therefore, to enhance your experience should you choose to read any of it, I would like to give you a little history and background. I went in blind and researched as I wondered, and found some very enhancing things out. And I adored the footnotes in the Barnes & Noble edition (I only wish there had been a little more). So here it is:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lived a very full and interesting life. He was born in Scotland in 1859 and had a childhood of trials and hard work, among nine siblings, a determined mother, and a drinking father. He had some Jesuit schooling before going to Edinburgh University to study medicine. He became a ship’s physician, from a whaler to West Africa, and settled in England, where he established a medical practice and started writing. The first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887. Conan Doyle continued to practice medicine and to write, and wrote another Holmes novel and twenty-four stories–published in periodicals–before killing Holmes off in “The Final Problem,” at Reichenbach Falls, in 1893. He continued to write, this time historical novels and medical themes, and traveled to South Africa as a war time physician. He wrote a treatise on the Boer War and was knighted for it, then wrote another Holmes novel, which was to have taken place before the untimely death of the hero. In 1903, however, Conan Doyle brought Holmes back to life and wrote another couple series and another novel about him (totaling 52 stories and four short novels). Meanwhile, he wrote other works on history, nonfiction, and spiritualism. He did some work to exonerate wrongly accused criminals, and served as a war correspondent across Europe. From that point until his death, he traveled and lectured on spiritualism.

When Conan Doyle started writing about the private detective, Holmes was a self-proclaimed anomaly, something that didn’t exist anywhere in the world or at any point in history. However, there was already groundwork laid for the detective novel, most notably by Edgar Allan Poe and Emile Gaboriau. Some say that detective novels may have started as early as One Thousand and One Nights or even Ming dynasty China, but the detective story as we would recognize it really didn’t surface until the 1700s. It was those eighteenth century writers who would influence Edgar Allan Poe to create the detective, C. Auguste Dupin. And shortly on his heels, Emile Gaboriau created Monsieur LeCoq. Between them and Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, Sherlock Holmes–perhaps the most famous of all fictional detectives–was born, and then fed into the Golden Age of Detective Fiction in the 1920s and 30s.

DoyleOne of the interesting facts always worth mentioning about Sherlock Holmes, is that his creator thought he was barely worth while. It is the reason Conan Doyle tried more than once to end the series. He thought his time and effort would be much better spent writing historical pieces and, eventually, about the afterlife. Many of the Holmes stories were written because of a clamoring fan base. Because that is part of this story, too: Holmes was intensely popular from the very first story. People begged for more Holmes. They still do.

And another interesting tid-bit: serious fans and Holmes academics treat Sherlock as a historical figure. It is done in jest, on some level, but it is a common convention which began as early as the series’ genesis. I mean, let’s think about it. Holmes lived in a real place, full of real details and even some real characters. The stories were “written” by the character’s likewise fictional friend and helper, Dr. Watson, who “published” the exploits in periodicals as case notes for the clamoring public. The stories themselves played to all these conventions. It was a sort of genius, really. And between that, the scientific complexity of his methods of detection, and some extremely well-drawn and fascinating characters, a tour de force was born.

I walked into the complete collection of the Holmes stories from the BBC’s totally awesome Sherlock series, after the third season. In no way could I completely separate what I read, therefore, from what I had so admired on my TV screen. Basically, the Sherlock of the books looked, in my head, like Benedict Cumberbatch, and Watson looked like Martin Freeman. And so on and so forth. Seems the whole world is having a Sherlock revival, lately. Between Sherlock and Elementary and the Robert Downey Jr. movies, one can hardly avoid them.

So here is, first of all, what I have to say about the 1200+ pages of Holmes.

COMPLETE SHERLOCK HOLMES FANCYAfter only one or two stories, I found the beginnings obnoxious and cloying. For one, Watson is always a little too in awe, a little too like, “Tell me again, Holmes! I’m a complete idiot!” Which has been interesting for the franchise, because actors often interpret him at one of two ends of the idiot spectrum. But I said we were talking about the books, and we are. Watson aside, the introductions got super-super old, and if I had to read “this is perhaps the most fascinating or complex or scintillating case we ever had” one more time…

Another thing that got me every time: reading into people’s natural appearance. Now I know that life is just never as simple as a detective novel, and this cleanness is part of what draws people to read the stuff. But I have never been able to determine from the shape of someone’s nose that he is cruel, and I don’t suggest that anyone try it. It’s borderline bigotry. And it’s just weird. But even beyond their appearance, every single character wore their heart on their sleeve, right on down to the brain fever. Something bad happen at 221B Baker Street? You can bet there was going to be a run through town in disheveled clothes, a poorly-jotted note, and brain fever. No stoics and no mystery there. And the dead faces! Must everyone die with horror stuck on their face and a note clasped in their hand?!?

So when I first picked up these books, years ago, I was so discouraged by the artificiality of the deductions that I put it back down. While I’m sure many people admire the reasoning, I was distracted by the cleanness. Everything always fits together. A spade is always a spade. The clues are always clues and never just a pile of ash or a dropped ring. At the time, though, I think I was missing the point of what I would come to love about the Holmes stories: the characters. Holmes and Watson. Even Mycroft and Moriarty (in a more chilling way). But really just Sherlock Holmes. He is one of the most interesting characters ever written. I’m just telling it to you straight. Somewhere between the genius and the quirks, the drug use and the autism, lies a riveting personality that seems anything but fake, everything but fictional.

And really, the stories and novels are well-written. There are passages of beauty, moments of suspense, and many, many quotables. In fact, it’s basically addictive. And it creeps into your own reality. You become a your-life detective.

Now, you want to recall that these stories were written and published over a lifetime. That does create some inconsistencies, and there are pinnacles to the collection (like The Hound of the Baskervilles) and low points (like “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” and “The Adventure of the Three Gables”). Reading from the Barnes & Noble collection, however, Freeman keeps you abreast of some of these issues in the introduction and in the footnotes.

All in all, then, I recommend reading The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Not like while you’re laying out on a beach blanket, perhaps, because it’s going to take you some time. But still, read it. If you are a fan of detective fiction, then definitely. If you are not, then even so.

_______________

Yeah, so there are a lot of Holmes knock-offs, fan fiction, and entertainment. As for movies and shows, I narrowed it down to this:

  • SHERLOCK 2Sherlock, the BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch, season 1, 2, and 3 (so far). Of course, I love it. It’s why I picked up Conan Doyle in the first place. It’s rated at like a 9.8 on IMDB, so I’m clearly not the only one enjoying it. Check it out, if you haven’t already.
  • Sherlock Jr., the silent move with Buster Keaton. So, I almost turned it off when I realized that it was silent film. Then I almost turned it off when I realized it wasn’t really about Sherlock Holmes. But I’m glad I stuck with it for the forty minutes it took to expose myself to a gem of silent cinema. Turns out, it’s a bout a regular ol’ guy who gets framed for robbery and loses his sweetheart, and when turning to detective novels doesn’t help, he falls into a dream world where he is Sherlock Jr.  In the end, it’s a romantic comedy, and I thoroughly enjoyed the early acting, special effects, innovations, etc.
  • SHERLOCK HOLMESHow Sherlock Changed the World, from PBS. Sorry, I really like PBS, but this was terrible. Actually, I can’t say that with finality, because I couldn’t even finish it. Just a repetitive opinion piece.
  • Murder by Decree, 1979. Pretty sure this is a classic. It blends fiction with reality, and I’m not sure that I like the idea. I mean, Jack the Ripper was a real disgusting guy, he was never apprehended, and the people who died were also very real. To put all this in a glass with a fictional detective and stir? I dunno. It’s not the only time is was done, or even the first. But considering that Jack the Ripper was killing during the publication of Sherlock Holmes (which was serialized), is interesting. If you want to see a classic? Fine. Otherwise, ehn.
  • Sherlock Holmes and A Game of Shadows, 2009 and 2011, starting Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Yeah, fine. OK. Within the first five minutes, my husband, who has never read a Holmes story in his life, said, “I’m pretty sure Holmes wasn’t an action hero.” That’s about it in a nutshell. Whereas Sherlock and Elementary plop Holmes into a modern setting, these two movies keep it historical… and yet, the whole thing is more modernized than any of the other ones. You know, they sexy it up, make it violent and Kung Fu-y, and blow up everything the camera crosses. So it’s entertaining, I guess. And I actually think Downey and Law do a decent job at acting. But, yeah. Fine. OK.

I have yet to watch and review:

  • ELEMENTARYYoung Sherlock Holmes
  • The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
  • Elementary, season 1, 2, and 3

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QUOTES

Volume 1

“‘What you do in this world is a matter of no consequence,’ returned my companion, bitterly. ‘The question is, what can you make people believe that you have done?'” (p93, A Study in Scarlet)

“Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth” (p102, The Sign of Four).

“…it is difficult for a man to have any object in daily use without leaving the impress of his individuality upon it in such a way that a trained observer might see it” (p102, The Sign of the Four).

“I have a curious constitution. I never remember feeling tired by work, though idleness exhausts me completely” (p146, The Sign of the Four).

“Dirty-looking rascals, but I suppose every one has some little immortal spark concealed about him. You would not think it to look at them” (p160, The Sign of Four).

“My dear fellow…. life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence” (p225, “A Case of Identity”).

“Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing,’ answered Holmes, thoughtfully. ‘It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different'” (p241, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery).

“There is nothing more to be said or to be done to-night, so hand me over my violin and let us try to forget for half an hour the miserable weather and the still more miserable ways of our fellowmen” (p269, “The Five Orange Pips”).

“There is nothing so important as trifles” (p283, “The Man with the Twisted Lip”).

“I have seen too much not to know that the impression of a woman may be more valuable than the conclusion of an analytical reasoner” (p284, “The Man with the Twisted Lip”).

“On the contrary, Watson, you can see everything. You fail, however, to reason from what you see” (p293, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”).

“In the larger and older jewels every facet may stand for a bloody deed” (p297, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”).

“Results without causes are much more impressive” (p433, “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk”).

“Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms” (p517, “The Greek Interpreter).

“Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers… Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from in flowers” (p541, “The Naval Treaty”).

“I have known for some time,’ said I, ‘but I never knew him do anything yet without a very good reason” (p551, “The Naval Treaty”).

“‘There is no danger,’ said he. ‘It is inevitable destruction'” (p561, “The Final Problem”).

“…him whom I shall ever regard as the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known” (p570, “The Final Problem”).

“And I would have you believe, my sons, that the same Justice which punishes sin may also most graciously forgive it” (p581, The Hound of the Baskervilles).

“That which is clearly known hath less terror than that which is but hinted at and guessed” (p583, The Hound of the Baskervilles).

“The devil’s agents may be of flesh and blood, may they not?” (p593, The Hound of the Baskervilles).

“The rattle of our wheels died away as we drove through the drifts of rotting vegetation–sad gifts, it seemed to me, for Nature to throw before the carriage of the returning heir of the Baskervilles” (p614, The Hound of the Baskervilles).

“The past and the present are within the field of my inquiry, but what a man may do in the future is a hard question to answer” (p695, The Hound of the Baskervilles).

Volume 2

“It appears that I must have fainted for the first and the last time in my life. Certainly a gray mist swirled before my eyes, and when it cleared I found my collar-ends undone and the tingling after-taste of brandy on my lips” (p8, “The Adventure of the Empty House”).

“The first faint winter’s dawn was beginning to appear, and we could dimly see the occasional figure of an early workman as he passed us, blurred and indistinct in the opalescent London reek” (p191, “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange”).

“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talent instantly recognizes genius” (p238, The Valley of Fear).

“He loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, with his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour or suspicion of unsolved crime” (p381, “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box”).

“What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable. But what end?” (p397, “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box).

“‘I know you could if you only would,’ / Holmes was accessible upon the side of flattery, and also, to do him justice, upon the side of kindliness” (p397, “The Adventure of the Red Circle”).

“Of all ruins, that of the noble mind is the most deplorable” (p437, “The Adventure of the Dying Detective”).

“Amid the crowded millions of London the three persons we sought were as completely obliterated as if they had never lived” (p453, “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax”).

“To let the brain work without sufficient material is like racing an engine. It racks itself to pieces. The sea air, sunshine, and patience, Watson–all else will come” (p467, “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”).

“Tut, my dear sir, we live in an utilitarian age. Honour is a medieval conception” (p482, “His Last Bow”).

“…the axiom that the only safe plotter was he who plotted alone” (p509, “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client”).

“It is said that the barrister who crams up a case with such care that he can examine an expert witness upon a Monday has forgotten all his forced knowledge before the Saturday” (p509, “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client”).

“I see no more than you, but I have trained myself to notice what I see” (p517, “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier”).

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