review: the thinking engine

The Thinking Engine by James Lovegrove (2015)

If you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, I have a book for you to add to your reading list. The Thinking Engine by James Lovegrove is a compelling, well-written read from start to finish, and Lovegrove has joined my list of writers to watch for new installments in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries currently being published by Titan Books (the other writer on that list is Mark A. Latham). Like Latham, Lovegrove has a strong understanding of Holmes and Watson as characters as well as the original Holmes canon by A. Conan Doyle. Lovegrove masterfully delivers an intricate mystery complete with enough foreshadowing to help readers unravel parts of the puzzle but not enough clues to let them guess the whole puzzle before Sherlock makes his grand reveal. Lovegrove situates the story within a larger thematic context that makes the events of The Thinking Engine relevant to modern 21st century readers, all while offering a fascinating portrait of Holmes, Watson, and their friendship that has an incredible depth of insight. For those readers with a book budget, here’s what you need to know: the book is not available through the Kindle Unlimited library and it also wasn’t available through my local library, either in print or ebook format. If you want to read The Thinking Engine, you’ll have to buy it. This is one of my recommended reads (so far the list this year is short!) and in my opinion, it’s absolutely worth your book dollars, especially if you’re a fan of Sherlock and Watson. Continue reading

review: the vanishing man

The Vanishing Man by Philip Purser-Hallard (2019)

In case you missed it, Titan Books is publishing new novels featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. The books are written by a variety of different authors, and since I’m a fan of the original stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s interesting to see how close to the originals the books in this series feel. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I have previously reviewed The Red Tower by Mark A. Latham. I have also read A Betrayal in Blood by the same author as well as The Legacy of Deeds by Nick Kyme. For any reader who loves the original stories by Conan Doyle, I highly recommend all three of these books. The Vanishing Man by Philip Purser-Hallard is the latest book in this series to capture my attention. It’s not my favorite among the group of books I’ve read so far, but it is an entertaining and engaging read. It follows many of the Sherlockian conventions and I don’t think readers will walk away disappointed. If you are on a budget, be aware that I wasn’t able to find this book in my local library and it’s not available through my Kindle Unlimited subscription. I also couldn’t find a copy in my local used bookstore, so I paid full price for my book. If you want to read one of the books in this series and make your book budget dollars count, I humbly recommend starting with A Betrayal in Blood or The Red Tower, as both of these are the best books in the series I’ve read so far and well worth your book dollars. Continue reading

review: the red tower

Sherlock Holmes: The Red Tower by Mark A. Latham (2018)

Here’s what you need to know. If you are a fan of the original Sherlock Holmes stories written by A. Conan Doyle, then you should read this book. If your only experience with Holmes and Watson is through television or film, then you should read this book. If you think Holmes is the main character of these stories, well…you’ll have to have a little patience. There is a whole lot to like about Mark A. Latham’s latest contribution to the Sherlock Holmes collection of books currently being published by Titan Books. Sherlock Holmes: The Red Tower is just the fourth book of the year to get a five-star rating from me. I loved this book and couldn’t have asked the author to do anything more, and one of the best parts is that I had no idea what the solution to the puzzle was until I got to the very end of the book. The Red Tower is a great read, and though it’s not currently available from my local library, it was worth every single dollar from my book budget. Continue reading

review: the valley of fear

The Valley of Fear by A. Conan Doyle (1915)

Reading The Valley of Fear, the final Sherlock Holmes novel, has been on my to do list for quite some time. Imagine my surprise when I started reading and discovered that I had at least started it in the past. I’ve got notes in the margins and underlined sentences throughout the first part of the story, but then nothing for the second part, which leads me to think that I started the book but then didn’t finish it because this is one of the Holmes novels that does that thing I don’t really like—but more on that later. Like I said, The Valley of Fear is the final Sherlock Holmes novel. In case you’re wondering, the others are (in order): A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Also, if you are a fan of the BBC’s Sherlock, the beginning of The Valley of Fear will be familiar to you, as the decoding of a cipher received by Sherlock is adapted in the series one episode titled, “The Blind Banker”.

Structurally, The Valley of Fear is a framed narrative. The story is divided into two main parts and the frame is closed with an epilogue. The use of the framed narrative is actually one of the things that turns me off about the story, and I’m guessing that it was at the start of the inner story that I put the book down. That being said, the framed narrative works for this story. At the beginning of the novel, Sherlock receives a coded message from one of the many confidential informants he’s built a relationship with over the years. The message warns of mortal danger to John Douglas, owner of an old manor house called Birlstone. However, before Holmes can act to save the endangered man, he receives a visit from Inspector MacDonald, who brings news of the brutal murder. Holmes, Watson, and MacDonald make plans to travel to Birlstone the following morning. Prior to their arrival, Watson inserts a chapter into the story that reveals the statements made by those within the house at the time of the murder. In this way, Watson provides back story and what basically amounts to an information dump, so that when the trio arrives at the manor house, Sherlock and Inspector MacDonald can begin their interrogations of the witnesses. Because Sherlock falls into the category of the “Great Detective,” it is often the case that he makes deductions, solves the mystery, and reveals the solution to readers in such a way that readers cannot themselves figure out whodunnit. The Great Detective is needed to explain the crime to us. The first part of The Valley of Fear follows this same structure, however, perhaps more than any of the other novels (and short stories), there is a heavy smattering of clues. While I wasn’t able to figure out the whole of the mystery, there were parts of it I had already deduced before the reveal of the solution. One other noteworthy aspect of the mystery itself is that it is a kind of “locked room” murder mystery, in that the manor house at Birlstone is surrounded by a moat and thus can only be accessed by a drawbridge. Douglas insists the drawbridge be raised every night, and the fact that the drawbridge was raised at the time of the murder is another puzzling fact that Holmes must take into account as he deduces the chain of events leading up to and immediately following the murder.

The opening frame ends with the presentation of the solution to the murder. The inner story then goes back twenty years into the past. Part of the function of this inner story is to further illustrate the character of John Douglas. Indeed, it is in many ways a character study. It is also there to explain the motive for murder. Part two of the story paints a vivid and engaging portrait of the man as well as the so-called Valley of Fear, explaining the source of the title. However, what I think is most notable about the second part of the story is that it meditates upon the issue of class warfare and considers the limits of what constitutes justifiable behavior in the struggle between the “little man” and the large corporation. At the same time, the inner story invites us to determine how we feel about a character who is presented as being more than a little morally grey. We have to ask ourselves how we feel about him. Do we like him? Do we abhor him and his actions? Do the ends justify the means? These questions earn greater importance as the inner story concludes, and we as readers must reconcile our impressions and judgement of Douglas in light of the conclusion to his story. The inner story is complex and pushes the reader outside of the bounds of detective fiction and into the margins of moral fiction. Read in this light, the inner story fascinates me on a level that I hadn’t quite expected but definitely appreciate.

Finally, the closing frame of the narrative calls back to the opening, where the spectre of Professor Moriarty hovers of the story as the catalytic force that sets the whole of the initial murder mystery into motion. Because The Valley of Fear was written after “The Final Problem” it is worth pondering how Conan Doyle shaped this story based upon his knowledge of how Holmes’ battle with Moriarty played out. That is, his hindsight allowed him to sprinkle in these references to Moriarty and show him to be the masterful consulting criminal who cannot fail. It could be that if Conan Doyle hadn’t written “The Final Problem” when he did, the stories and this novel that come after it would lack these elements of intrigue and insight into Moriarty as well as the struggle between Sherlock and Moriarty for supremacy.

Though the structure of the framed narrative frustrates me on one level—because I read the Sherlock stories because I want to see Sherlock and Watson in action—I have to admit The Valley of Fear commanded my attention and provoked me to think about the story on a philosophical level. Even though it took me two attempts to get to the end, I recommend reading this novel, especially if you’ve never read any of the stories or novels. You will definitely watch film and television adaptations of the Sherlock and Watson stories in a different way after you’ve read the stories that inspire them.

Have you read The Valley of Fear? What are your thoughts?

from the memoirs of sherlock holmes – part three

“The Resident Patient” (1893)

The case in this story is brought to Sherlock by Dr. Percy Trevelyan.  The doctor comes to Sherlock because his “resident patient” calls to his attention that an unknown person has entered his personal rooms in the house where Trevelyan has his medical practice.  The only people in the house at the time of entry are a Russian count, who is there to see the doctor for treatment of a nervous condition, and his son, who opted to remain in the waiting room during his father’s consultation with the doctor.  Sherlock listens to the doctor’s story and agrees to go to the house to talk with Blessington, the resident patient, but when the man refuses to tell the truth to the questions Sherlock puts to him, Holmes leaves the scene, though he tells Watson that he expects to hear from the doctor the next day.  This prediction comes true, and the case takes a turn before Sherlock solves the puzzle.

For the most part, I have enjoyed the stories in this volume; however, “The Resident Patient” is, I would say, the weakest of them all so far.  If you cannot make your way through the full volume, this story is one you can skip.

“The Greek Interpreter” (1893)

Wow.  Unlike “The Resident Patient” which is something of a disappointment, “The Greek Interpreter” is a must-read in this collection.  Where do I even begin? This appears to be the story in which Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother, is introduced and makes his first appearance.  The first paragraph of this story is elegant, as Watson begins his tale by saying that one of the things that has been one of the greatest mysteries about his friend was his lack of any references to his relatives.  Watson writes: “This reticence upon his part had increased the somewhat inhuman effect which he produced upon me, until sometimes I found myself regarding him as an isolated phenomenon, a brain without a heart, as deficient in human sympathy as he was preeminent in intelligence.  His aversion to women and his disinclination to form new friendships were both typical of his unemotional character, but now more so than his complete suppression of every reference to his own people”.  It’s an insightful portrait into how Watson sees Sherlock.  The appearance of Mycroft and the way he and Sherlock interact, as observed by Watson, is also intriguing.  Sherlock tells Watson boldly that his brother is better at logic and deduction that he is himself, but Mycroft’s problem is that he is lazy.  The narrative proves this as the two catch sight of a man walking along the street and proceed to reveal everything that can be known about him just from his mere appearance and what he carries.  Frequently throughout this volume, Watson has remarked upon Sherlock’s level of energy, and in this story, it is in striking contrast to Mycroft’s sedentary ways and lack of energy.  Through Watson’s gaze we see Sherlock differently because we are also able to see Mycroft–the ways in which they are similar and how they are different.

One question, of course, is whether or not this view of Sherlock in the company of his brother works in humanizing Sherlock. I’m not sure that I know what the answer to that question would be from Watson’s point of view, but we have to remember that Watson’s gaze is also the clinical, medical gaze of a doctor.  Perhaps how he sees Sherlock–as inhuman, unemotional, and heartless–makes it easier for him to dissect his friend, metaphorically speaking, within the pages of the Memoirs.

The case involves a man who is, as the title previews,, a Greek interpreter.  He is engaged by a man that he doesn’t know to use his skills but is threatened with death should he tell anyone of what he sees and hears.  It, too, is remarkable in that it offers a mystery that is substantial and, surprising, can only go solved by way of conjecture.  This isn’t one of Holmes’ failures, but it also isn’t one of his successes.  The story calls out several things that would have been sensational to readers of the time–forced imprisonment, legal redtape that gives the criminals the opportunity to escape justice, and how foreigners were without protections or assistance in England.  I highly recommend this story, and if Moffat and Co. decide to make a fifth series of Sherlock, this story would be a great candidate for an episode.

“The Naval Treaty” (1893)

In the case of “The Naval Treaty” one of Watson’s grade school fellows reaches out to him to request that he bring Sherlock to visit him in Woking (I can’t believe it’s Woking–every time I see that I think of Wells’ The War of the Worlds).  Sherlock agrees to make the journey, and when the arrive, Watson’s old classmate, Percy Phelps, explains that for the last nine weeks he has been confined to bed as he recovered from a brain-fever–which, in this case, means that he has suffered a severe shock and his nerves are shot–due to an incident at work.  Phelps has a position in the Foreign Office, a job he received, in part due to his family ties to Lord Holdhurst.  As part of his duties, Lord Holdhurst asks Phelps to make a copy of a treaty between Great Britain and the Triple Alliance–Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Germany.  The details of the treaty are, in modern terms, highly classified and top secret, and the consequences of any of Britain’s adversaries–France or Russia–learning of the terms of the treaty are grave.  Phelps is instructed by his uncle to stay late in the office until everyone has left for the evening and then begin transcribing the document.  He is in the middle of copying the document, if you can believe, the man needs a cup of coffee in order to stay awake (apparently not a 21st century problem!) and rings the bell to the commissionaire downstairs.  He orders a cup of coffee from the commissionaire’s wife, but after a while passes and he realizes he has not received his coffee, he leaves his office and the top secret document on his desk to get some much needed caffeine (oh, the things we do for coffee and the stupid things we do when our brains are caffeine deficient!).  When he returns to his office, he finds that the top secret document is gone, stolen by someone who he has failed to see come or go through the limited access to the room in which he works. After enlisting the assistance of the police but failing to recover the document, Phelps begins to realize the ramifications of the document going missing on his watch, and the brain-fever ensues (no, I’m not going to comment on that, I’m just going to move along…).

Sherlock agrees to take the case, and after a couple of days of investigation solves the puzzle.  “The Naval Treaty” is the penultimate story in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and in a sense it does heighten a reader’s sense of tension if for the only reason that she knows that the next story in the volume is “The Final Problem”. Sherlock does not give much away in this story, keeping not only his client in the dark in terms of his suspicions as well as the steps he intends to take to catch the thief, but also Watson, and in that way we are just as cut off from Sherlock as he is.  As he unravels the details of whodunit, we see how Holmes solved the puzzle and though the thief’s identity does not come as any great surprise, the way that he brings off the crime is interesting and shows Sherlock’s skills of deduction.  In all honesty, I am looking forward to finally reading “The Final Problem” for the first time, and perhaps that excitement has unfairly dulled my appreciation of “The Naval Treaty”.  I liked this story, but it is not my favorite story.  I say read it, but don’t make it your first priority when it comes to the short stories.

“The Final Problem” (1893)

I have read that this story was first published in the December 1893 issue of the Strand Magazine.  What a Christmas present for Doyle to give to his readers!

It is a strange experience, reading “The Final Problem” for the first time after having seen so many adaptations of it in popular culture.  And the thing about reading, whatever story or novel you are reading, is that you can only read it for the first time once.  I can read the story again and again, but nothing will ever be like reading it for the first time.  The first paragraph is striking and sets the tone.  Watson tells us that it is with a heavy heart that he writes these lines.  He had not intended, he says, to include it for publication, and yet feels compelled to do so because the brother of Professor Moriarty has made claims that, he says, are untrue.  It is for him to tell the true story.  In this he reminds a bit of Horatio, who has the responsibility of telling all those interested of the tale of Hamlet.  Watson is writing the events of the story two years after they have happened, and so he has time to compose himself, and there is a sense of acceptance of Sherlock’s choices.  This is, I think, in opposition to the BBC’s Sherlock, where it is still raw in the telling for Watson.

The story unfolds when Holmes–who has had a mostly long absence from Watson in the past few months–arrives at Watson’s house and explains what he has been doing, how he has uncovered Moriarty and the extent of the man’s criminal enterprise and organization.  He is every bit the criminal mastermind and genius that popular culture portrays him to be, and he has garnered Sherlock’s appreciation in this regard.  Still, Sherlock is intent up on bringing him to justice, and he is willing to give his life in the cause.  This is something that Sherlock repeats more than once–that he is willing to die if that means removing the threat of Moriarty from the world.  It is, in every sense, built up to be a clash between two opposing forces; however, neither man walks away from the battle.  Both are believed to have perished, and this prompts Watson to describe Sherlock as the greatest man he has ever known.  This last is notable because Watson so often views Sherlock as being robotic, inhuman, a machine without a heart or feelings.  But in the last line of the Memoirs Watson refers to him as a man.  Perhaps it is only in Sherlock’s death, in the proof that he is subject to that final end just like any other human, that Watson is finally capable of seeing Sherlock as human, of seeing his humanity.  Or perhaps it is Sherlock’s willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good.  I cannot say.

Another insight that I have now after reading the story is the fact that throughout the story, Sherlock only refers to his adversary as Professor Moriarty–indeed, in the beginning of the story, Watson refers to Moriarty’s brother as Colonel James Moriarty.  Also, the story closes with a note from Sherlock that he writes to Watson, but in many ways it may as well have been written directly to Doyle’s readers–that he is okay with his death, glad even to give his life if it means eliminating Moriarty’s influence upon the world.  It is not intended to be a sad ending though it is meant to be a final goodbye.  I can’t help but compare this to the end of the “The Reichenbach Fall” of the BBC’s Sherlock, where Sherlock calls Watson and tells him that his phone call is his “note”. There, Sherlock means his suicide note, but in the story it is something quite different entirely.  Similar but different, and a wonderful adaptation.

If you think you know the story but haven’t read it, please read it. Though it will feel familiar, it is essential reading.  “The Final Problem” does not disappoint.

from the memoirs of sherlock holmes – part two

The “Gloria Scott” (1893)

In my opinion, “The ‘Gloria Scott’” is a must read story within the Holmes canon.  Several things make this story remarkable.  First, it is a framed narrative that contains another framed narrative.  If you have read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, you’ll be familiar with that narrative structure.  The primary, or first frame, is Sherlock’s narrative that recounts the case that convinced him that he could make a living as a consulting detective and that his powers of deduction and observation could be used for something more than a hobby.  The story that Sherlock tells reveals several personal details about him–that he spent only two years in college, and that even then he did not make friends easily, thus demonstrating him to be isolated and existing on the fringes and margins even as a young man.  The one friend that he does make is Victor Trevor, and during the winter holidays, Sherlock joins Trevor at this father’s country estate.  One day, Trevor explains to his father that Sherlock can deduce things about people that no one else can.  Of course, Trevor Sr. asks for a demonstration and Sherlock obliges his host.  One of the things he says is that Trevor Sr. had a close association with someone referred to as J. A. but that he had wished to erase all memories of that association at some point in his life.  This startles Trevor Sr. so badly that he faints, and though he minimizes the episode, he remains uncomfortable around Sherlock for the remainder of his stay at the estate.  Another incident happens while Sherlock is visiting the Trevors.  A man named Hudson comes to visit Trevor Sr. on the night before Sherlock is scheduled to leave.  Trevor Sr. is quick to invite Hudson to stay with him and promises to find him a job, but it’s clear he makes the elder Trevor uncomfortable.

About seven weeks after Sherlock leaves the country, his friend comes to his door and implores him to return to the country to solve a puzzle–Trevor Sr. is dying and the younger man believes that Hudson’s appearance and presence at the estate is the cause.  Trevor tells Sherlock on their way back to the estate that his father had received a short note that seems to carry no threat or hint of malice and yet upon reading it he suffers a stroke.  When they arrive at the estate, they find that Trevor Sr. has died, and that his last words to the doctor was to communicate to his son the location of the letter he had written a few months before, when Trevor had pressed him to explain why he tolerated Hudson’s presence on the estate.  Trevor finds the letter and asks Sherlock to read it.  Sherlock agrees, and this begins the second framed narrative.  Thus, “The ‘Gloria Scott’” is a narrative within a framed narrative.

Trevor Sr.’s letter unwinds the mystery, explaining why Hudson had come to see him and why he took pains to keep him happy and satisfied.  It also explains why the note that Trevor Sr. received shocked him so badly that he suffered a stroke even though on the surface it seemed nonsensical and random.

After he finishes reading the letter to Watson, which he still has along with the note, he hands both documents to his friend and tells him that he can use them in his writings of their cases if he so chooses.  Obviously, Watson does choose to do so because we have this story, which in many ways is Sherlock’s origin story.

“The ‘Gloria Scott’” is a fascinating read and one I definitely recommend.

“The Musgrave Ritual” (1893)

This is another story that is a must read within the canon. It begins with Watson commenting on the paradox between Sherlock’s well-ordered mind and his disordered style of keeping house.  The beginning is also interesting in that, if you have watched the BBC’s Sherlock, it will call to mind the scene where Sherlock is firing off a gun at the living room wall in the flat that he and Watson share, the scene where he leaves a note for Watson by affixing it to the mantle with a knife, and the scene where Watson is looking in the refrigerator and finds a human head.  Little easter eggs that the show has pulled from the stories themselves.

It is because the flat has become such a mess that Watson encourages Sherlock to do some cleaning, particularly putting away some of his papers that seem to overflow the space.  Obliging him, Sherlock retrieves a box from his bedroom that holds papers regarding old papers.  He pulls out one particular set and explains to Watson that they refer to the third case he investigated, which he refers to as the adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.  Intrigued and more than willing to hear Holmes recount one of his earliest cases (with Watson commenting that he regretted he had no notes regarding Sherlock’s early work), Watson gives Holmes a free pass when it comes to tidying their flat if he’ll tell the story.  What follows is Sherlock’s rendition of the case.  One of his old college-mates comes to Sherlock for assistance, explaining that he had had cause to dismiss the butler who had been with his family for nearly twenty years after finding him going through some old family documents to which he had not been given free access.  One of the documents included the Musgrave Ritual, a catechism of questions and answers that each Musgrave son had been put through for over three hundred years.  Sherlock at once recognizes the words as a kind of riddle that point to something that has been hidden.  He sets about finding the exact place referred to in the Ritual, and in doing so begins to unravel the mystery of the missing butler.

I would love for this story to be one that is made into an episode of BBC’s Sherlock.  Part of the ritual has to do with the history of the British monarchy that I appreciate because I have taught that moment in history to a group of students, and that’s probably another reason that the story appeals to me.  I definitely recommend reading this one.  Don’t skip it!

“The Reigate Puzzle” (1893)

This story finds Sherlock Holmes recovering from an illness, an interesting state for Sherlock because one, Watson so frequently characterizes him as a man of energy when he is investigating a case but who is also given to bouts of lethargy when there is nothing for his mind to concentrate upon; and two, because Sherlock as a patient gives Watson yet another reason to keenly observe his friend but for a whole different reason.  Not only is Watson’s biographical gaze upon Sherlock in this story, but also the medical gaze of a doctor.  What Doyle does in this story that is brilliant is put those two gazes in conflict with each other–where the man who has been Sherlock’s biographer cannot be fully separated from the man who has been his doctor.

In order to further Sherlock’s recovery, Watson recommends spending some time in the country at a friend’s house.  They leave London, and Sherlock remains sunk in the restful peace of the country and absence of anything to really arouse his intellect.  Then comes news of a murder at a neighboring estate, and though Watson recommends that Sherlock remain uninvolved, an Inspector arrives and pulls Sherlock into the case.  As the case unfolds, Sherlock’s usual vigor and energy returns in full force, almost to the point that it appears to be manic and frenzied.  Perhaps it is, but by the end of the story, Sherlock feels entirely like himself again and is ready to return to London the next morning. In this way, Doyle enacts the critical “change” in his character by bringing him from the weak and ill man we find at the beginning of the story–someone very much unlike the Sherlock we think we know–to a man who relishes the next mystery and awaits it with fervor and energy.  Doyle does this to the extent that the mystery itself–who killed William Kirwan–is only the B plot. It is Sherlock who is the focal point and the A plot is getting him back on his feet.

“The Crooked Man” (1893)

If the note in my edition of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is correct, this story is the only one in which Holmes says the phrase “Elementary”.  It’s not even “Elementary, my dear Watson.”  Just “Elementary”. I love these little tidbits.  Sort of like the fact that in Casablanca, the phrase Rick utters isn’t “Play it again, Sam” and yet it’s one of the famous phrases associated with the film.

“The Crooked Man” is perhaps the most suspenseful story in the volume thus far. Sherlock arrives at Watson’s home late one night and recounts the details of a case he is currently working.  It is the story of Colonel Barclay, who is found dead in a locked room with his wife, who is passed out at the time of discovery.  It’s not entirely a locked room mystery, though, because one of the French doors is open and Sherlock believes that a third man was there.  Several details still confound the Great Detective, though, and it is only upon finding the third man on the following day, with Watson accompanying him as a witness, that he learns the full details of what happened in that locked room and the mystery surrounding Colonel Barclay’s death is unraveled.

The thing that interests me most about the story is the depiction of the Indian Mutiny (or, the Indian Rebellion).  Doyle shows what side of the imperial narrative he stands on, characterizing the Indian fighters as enemies and rebels to the authority of the Crown, and he does this through the story the third man tells regarding his time in India.  What cannot be overlooked is that the third man tells of a betrayal done to him by a fellow British army soldier, and though that betrayal is not absolved at the end of the story, it is also not framed as being as dastardly as the events of the Mutiny.  The point I’m trying to make here is that as part of my literary studies, this era of British history and literature was one of my focuses, and reading these stories further impresses upon me just how much events that occurred within the 19th century were integrated into the popular imagination and remained of great importance, and that stories like this one can be viewed as reinforcing rather than challenging Empire.  Doyle lends a historical dimension to the Holmes stories and in doing so demonstrates how certain historical events continued to be important to Britons in the late 19th century and influenced the making and sustaining of the British identity.

Like “The ‘Gloria Scott'” I think “The Crooked Man” is a must read in this volume.

from the memoirs of sherlock holmes – part one

*Note: These are just brief sketches of the short stories so that I can remember what each story is about and what I thought of it.  Beware: here may be spoilers!

“Silver Blaze” (1892)

I don’t know if the order is the same for all editions of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, but in my edition, the first story is “Silver Blaze”.  In this story, Holmes is involved in a case of a missing horse whose name provides the title of the story and the murder of the horse’s trainer, John Straker.

The stories of Sherlock Holmes are told through the first-person narrative of Dr. John Watson.  From the start of the story, it occurred to me how important this detail is.  I love watching the BBC’s Sherlock, but if you haven’t read any of the stories, it’s hard to understand that everything we know about Sherlock is filtered through Watson’s perspective of him.  It is Watson’s perspective of the way Sherlock uses logic and observation to solve crimes.  We see him the way Watson sees him, and that may or may not be indicative of who he truly is.  There is a moment in the story where Sherlock admits that he made a blunder, and he tells Watson that contrary to what he writes in his memoirs–which is interesting in itself, because it invites you to ask the question: Whose memoirs are these? Sherlock’s or Watson’s?–he does actually make mistakes.  Watson, as he spends more time with Sherlock, demonstrates that more and more he, too, is becoming an astute observer.  His powers of logic, inference, and observation, in his own opinion, are not as powerful as his companion’s, but they do still exist.   In turn, while Sherlock uses these skills to solve crimes, is it not possible that Watson uses those same skills to provide revelations about his friend to his readers? While Sherlock studies and solves crimes, it’s as though Sherlock is the mystery that Watson is studying and trying to solve.

As expected, Sherlock not only solves the mystery of the missing horse as well as the murder of the trainer.  He lays out the details and facts of the case to Watson as they travel to the scene of the crime, and he uses logic, inference and deduction to lead him to the solution of the case.  While I was able to deduce the murderer with the clues given in the story, I still didn’t have the full picture, and so the conventional scene in a detective story where the great detective explains how the crime was committed and how he found out the culprit filled in the details for me.  Overall, this was a good story and one that I would recommend reading if you are looking for a way to spend a spare hour.

One other noteworthy thing about this story that I was not expecting.  There is a line in the story that reads: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”  I recognized the words as the title of a book, and sure enough when I looked it up, it’s a mystery where the protagonist uses Holmesian logic and inference to solve said mystery.  Now I want to read that book because my interest has been peaked, and I’m often willing to give fiction inspired by Sherlock Holmes a try.

“The Yellow Face” (1893)

This story is preceded by a note, if you will, from Watson, where he explains that if may seem to his readers that he only presents Sherlock’s successes rather than his failures.  He goes on to say that the reason he doesn’t write about the failures is in part due to the fact that where Sherlock has failed, so has everyone else failed to solve the mystery.  He says this by way of letting us know that in the story that follows, he will relate a case in which Sherlock was wrong.

In this story, the facts of the case are related to us by Grant Munro, a man who has come to Sherlock for help in solving a mystery that involves his wife’s strange behavior.  He wants Sherlock’s help as a consulting detective but also as a judicious man who can tell him what to do.  The story is an interesting read for a 21st century reader, in that it reveals the prejudices and racialized thinking of the late Victorian era.  It also exposes gender politics and male privilege, in that Munro comes to Sherlock because his wife is keeping a secret from him and refuses to reveal the truth behind her recently odd behavior.  In this sense, there’s the underlying presumption that as her husband, he has a right to know everything and anything about her, and all he need do is demand that she tell him what he wants to know.  Her continued refusal to reveal her secret is what drives Munro to Sherlock, and mistaking what is really going in in this case, Holmes and Watson accompany Munro as he sets about revealing his wife’s secret by force.

Because of the insight it gives to race and gender relations in late 19th century England and because it shows us that Sherlock is, indeed, infallible, “The Yellow Face” is worth the read, but it’s not the best of the stories in the collection.

“The Stock-Broker’s Clerk” (1893)

I happen to work in the financial services industry, and so reading “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk” is an interesting look into what the industry looked like over a century ago.

The beginning of this story provides some insight into Watson’s life and current circumstances.  He is married and has recently purchased a medical practice, and it’s been some months since he last saw Sherlock or worked a case with him.  This story takes place after The Sign of Four, which Sherlock makes a direct reference to while inquiring about the health of Mrs. Watson.  When Sherlock explains he’s there to invite Watson to join him on a case in Birmingham, Watson jumps at the opportunity.  The two join Sherlock’s newest client, Mr. Hall Pycroft, who is waiting in the carriage outside of Watson’s door, and on the journey to Birmingham Pycroft recounts the details of the case that have caused him to enlist the services of Sherlock Holmes.  Pycroft had been, in today’s terms, laid off from his previous job, and after a few months of searching for a new position and running through his savings (a plight 21st century readers can relate to) he finally got a new job at a prestigious financial firm that was known for managing large sums of money.  While the salary was less than what he had been making in the past, Pycroft agreed to take the position because he had no other options.  Until, that is, a man appears at his door and offers him a position that will pay at least twice what he would make at his new firm.  After several questions, Pycroft decides to take the offer, but at the request of the headhunter, to use a modern term, Pycroft does not write to his new employer to officially resign his position.

Pycroft becomes suspicious that something is not right with his new employer when he arrives at the corporate offices and there are no other workers and only a chair and two empty chairs for furniture.  After a week, he appeals to Sherlock to determine if his employer is legitimate or if he has fallen into some sort of scam.  It does not take much time for Sherlock to solve the case, and it’s charming that an article in the newspaper is what helps him put all of the pieces of the puzzle together.  It demonstrates just how important newspapers were at the time as a source of information.

The thing about this story is its relatability to 21st century life.  Here is a man who has lost his job, spent several months looking for a new job and depleted his small savings, and when he does find a new job, he gets a “better offer” and ultimately ends up being caught in a scam.  If the story was a cautionary tale at the time it was published, it can be viewed in the same way to modern readers.

from the adventures of sherlock holmes – part two

“The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb”

Watson tells us at the beginning of this story that this is only one of two cases that he referred to Holmes during their partnership.  The puzzle begins with a man arriving at Watson’s residence in dire need of medical attention as a result of his thumb being amputated.  Victor Hatherly tells Watson that the story of his missing thumb is an extraordinary one for which he’ll need to contact the police, but Watson recommends that he tell his story first to Holmes, and Hatherly agrees, saying he is familiar with Holmes’ reputation and will pursue whatever recommendation Holmes gives him.  Once at Baker Street, it is revealed that Hatherly is a hydraulics engineer who used to be employed with an engineering firm but now is in business for himself.  He hasn’t many clients or a lot of work, so when a man appears—Colonel Lysander Stark—with a job for him which he is willing to pay Hatherly twenty guineas to complete, Hatherly instantly agrees.  However, the job is a curious one—he must appear at his client’s house at 11pm in the evening, and he must tell no one anything about the job itself.   There is also no train back to London and so Hatherly will have to spend the night at his client’s home.  Hatherly is a bit suspicious but he agrees, and as the evening progresses he becomes even more suspicious.  He does finally have a look at the machine and identifies the problem, but he also knows that the machine cannot be used for the purpose that Stark has claimed it is used for.  Revealing this knowledge puts Hatherly in danger and results in the loss of his thumb.

I think that this story is one of my least favorite stories.  Hatherly states the case to Holmes and Watson, but once he does, Holmes calls in Scotland Yard and they go to apprehend the culprit.  There’s not much thinking involved, just the resolution and reveal of the business that Hatherly has gotten himself mixed up in.

“The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”

This is the story of Lord St. Simon and the “strange” events of his marriage.  Holmes receives a letter from St. Simon, requesting his assistance in a highly delicate matter.  Holmes turns to Watson to get the backstory on St. Simon, who has been following the man’s story—both leading up to and after his marriage—in the papers.  Watson explains to Holmes that St. Simon at last finally proposes to and marries a young American heiress, and that the newspapers are up in arms because it seems that the sons of the British aristocracy have begun to select American wives instead of British wives.  Immediately after the wedding takes place, the wedding party returns for a wedding breakfast, and ten minutes into the breakfast, the bride excuses herself and completely disappears.  St. Simon hopes that Sherlock can help him solve the mystery of his missing wife.  Holmes does, quite easily, and he says that he’s known even before meeting St. Simon what the likeliest explanation was for his wife’s disappearance.

This story is similar to the one that precedes it in the collection—there is long exposition of the case and the reveal happens almost instantaneously.  This story was okay, but again, not one of my favorites.  I like it better when Holmes and Watson actually do some detecting.

“The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”

In this story, Sherlock’s client is one Alexander Holder, a London banker.  This story also begins in an entertaining way.  Watson is standing at the windows and notices a man running down the snowy, icy streets of London; he thinks the man is an escapee from an asylum, while Sherlock believes that he is their newest client, and of course he ends up being correct.  Once the banker is able to calm himself, he begins to state the case to Holmes and Watson.  Just the previous day, he was approached by an incredibly prominent, important personage whose face everyone in London would recognize but whom Holder will not name for reasons of propriety and discretion.  This person asks Holder for a short term loan of 50,000 pounds, and because the banker is known for not making loans unless some kind of collateral can be given to secure the loan, this person provides Holder with the beryl coronet—a most valuable public possession of the empire.  If anyone were to find out that this person has used the possession to secure a loan, or if anything should happen to the coronet, it would be quite the public scandal.  Holder, of course, agrees to give the loan, but at the end of the day he feels uneasy about leaving the coronet in the safe in his office.  He thinks it would be better to always have it in his possession, and so he takes it home with him, where it is promptly stolen from his bedroom that very night.  In the house at the time are some servants whom Holder has the utmost faith in, save one, as well as his son and adopted daughter.  Holder’s son has a problem with gambling and getting into debt, and when Holder hears a noise that night and goes to investigate, he finds his son holding the coronet, which has been damaged and from which three of the beryls have been removed.  Holder believes his son to be guilty and has him arrested.  He has come to Holmes for help in locating the missing beryls and trying to convince his son to reveal what he has done with them.  Sherlock takes the case.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, and it’s one of my favorites in this collection.  Again, Holmes has to do some detecting and looking into motives for the crime.  Holmes is notorious for donning disguises, and once again he puts on the disguise of someone who is “disreputable” merely by changing his clothes, offering further commentary on how appearances can be deceiving.  Another thing about this story is that Holmes’ favorite maxim makes an appearance: “When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”  After finishing this story, I found myself hoping that Steven Moffatt would choose this story to adapt for the Sherlock series.  I can totally imagine Mycroft bringing this case to Sherlock and asking him to solve it.  This is definitely one of the must-read stories in this collection.

“The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”

The beginning of this story is wonderful.  Indeed, the first couple of pages are the best part of the story.  Holmes and Watson are home at Baker Street, and Holmes tells Watson that he tends to embellish the stories, and notes that he doesn’t write up the cases that get the greatest public attention but those cases which showcase Holmes’ powers of deduction and logic.  Feeling a bit stung by Holmes comments, Watson calls Sherlock egotistical and that it is one of Holmes’ qualities that he finds most repellent.  Holmes says “Crime is common. Logic is rare.”  He goes on to tell Watson “You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales.”  The opening is a fantastic look into the relationship between the two men.  Of course, their conversation is interrupted by a new client.  Her name is Violet Hunter, and she is a governess.  She comes to Holmes to ask if she should take a new job and tells him the story of her potential employer and his odd idiosyncrasies.  The one she finds most offensive is his request that she cut her lovely chestnut hair.  Ultimately, Holmes advises her to take the case but also cautions her that there is something wrong about the job offer and tells her to call him when she feels herself to be in danger.  She does call, and Holmes and Watson go out to investigate.  The solution to the mystery reminded me a bit of The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, but otherwise, this was one of my least favorite stories in the collection.  It’s only the beginning that redeems it.



from the adventures of sherlock holmes – part one

from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by A. Conan Doyle (1892)

*Note: These are just brief sketches of the short stories so that I can remember what each story is about and what I thought of it.  Beware: here may be spoilers!

“The Man with the Twisted Lip”

This story is about the search for a man named Neville St. Clair.  One of the things I really liked about this story was the way it started—Watson has just returned home to his wife after a long day at work when a woman knocks on his door.  She entreats Watson to find her husband who has been missing for two days, and she suspects that he has spent the time in an opium den.  Watson dutifully goes to find the man and send him home to his wife, and while in the opium den he encounters Sherlock Holmes, dressed in disguise.  Holmes bids Watson to wait for him outside of the opium den, and when he appears, he asks Watson to accompany him to the home of Mr. and Mrs. St. Clair, the latter being his client.  Mrs. St. Clair has told Holmes that she saw her husband in a room above the very same opium den where he and Watson ran into each other, and that she fears for her husband’s life.  During the seven-mile journey to the St. Clair home, Holmes recounts the case to Watson (and thereby, the reader) and upon arriving puts several questions to Mrs. St. Clair.  Holmes and Watson then retire to bed—well, Watson goes to bed.  Holmes stays up all night smoking his pipe and puzzling out the case.  At dawn he wakes Watson and says he has solved the puzzle.  I’ll try not to spoil the ending, but one of the things that interests me about the revelation of the story is the way it demonstrates class privilege but also the way it explores how a man can make a more fruitful living by casting off the vestiges of his middle-class status and effecting a disguise of a man of a lower class.  As in so many other Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle uses the art of disguise to demonstrate that what is on the surface is not always indicative of what lies beneath or an accurate measurement of an individual.

“The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”

This story opens in an interesting way.  Watson makes a call on Holmes at Baker Street, and when he enters his gaze falls upon an old, beaten-up hat that is hanging on the back of a chair.  As is Holmes’ way, he invites Watson to examine the hat and relay what it tells him about its owner.  As is Watson’s way, he looks at the hat but can discern nothing.  Holmes proceeds to tell Watson all kinds of things about the owner of the hat, and Watson, astounded, encourages Holmes to explain how he has deduced all that he has.  I will say that I was particularly amused by the opening of the story.

The mystery comes when Peterson, the man who brought the hat as well as a goose to Holmes, returns to Baker Street to tell him that his wife discovered a blue carbuncle within the cavity of the goose as she was preparing to cook it for Christmas dinner.  A carbuncle is a precious gem, and because blue carbuncles are rare (indeed, the note in the story says that a blue carbuncle has never been discovered and that carbuncles are usually red in color) Holmes recognizes it as the very blue carbuncle that has been reported stolen by an aristocrat.  A man has already been arrested and held over for trial as the suspected thief, but with this new development Holmes begins to think that the man may indeed be innocent.  So the game is on to trace the goose back to the actual thief.

I actually enjoyed this story.  It was one of my favorites thus far in this collection.  I also found two great lines spoken by Holmes: “I am somewhat of a foul fancier, and I have seldom seen a better goose” and “My name is Sherlock Holmes.  It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” I feel like both of these are just classic Sherlock Holmes lines and I can imagine Benedict Cumberbatch uttering them.  The choice Holmes makes at the end about the fate of the actual thief is an interesting one in that it is Holmes obstructing justice for what he thinks is the greater good, and of course Watson’s agreement makes the reader think that what Holmes has done is ultimately the correct choice.

“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”

Something interesting happens in the first paragraph of this story – Watson says that, at the time he is writing this story, it has been eight years that he has known Sherlock Holmes and that together they have investigated over seventy cases together.  He explains that the case he is going to relate occurred early in his association with Holmes, while they were both still bachelors living at 221B Baker Street.  The client is one Helen Stoner.  She comes to see Sherlock because she fears for her life.  Her twin sister, Julia, died under somewhat mysterious circumstances two years before, just a couple of weeks before her marriage.  Now Helen is engaged to be married, and little things that have been happening in her home have raised alarm bells in her mind.  Miss Stoner explains to Sherlock that she lives with her stepfather, Dr. Grimesby Roylott (what a name!), and through Sherlock’s deductions it is revealed that Roylott is a cruel and abusive man.  Indeed, no one in the neighborhood where they live actually like Dr. Roylott.  Holmes agrees to take her case, and then he says something funny to Watson.  As they prepare to make the journey out of London to Surrey, Holmes makes sure that Watson will be bringing along his revolver and tells him that the only other thing they will need is a toothbrush. A revolver and a toothbrush.  Seriously?

One of the other things that I found interesting about this story is that (a) it delves a bit more deeply into motive—why does someone want Miss Stoner dead, and why would they have wanted her twin dead as well?  This doesn’t usually come up so strongly in the Holmes stories; and (b) Watson repeats a couple of times that Holmes works for the love of his art rather than the acquirement of wealth.  I think that that is such a wonderful statement to break down.  Holmes was able to work for the love of his art because he was already independently wealthy, and there is nobility in doing exactly that; and yet, most of us have the business of daily living and at best we look for ways to combine doing what we love for a paycheck.  Still, that sentiment recalls back to me the idyllic, and perhaps overly simplistic ideas about work and art.  It also reminds us just how singular Sherlock was, and how all of his eccentricities and peculiarities served to set him apart from the typical man.  I’ve noticed that a lot more now that I’m reading these stories a bit closer together (I’ve been reading before going to bed each night).  Doyle is definitely putting in characteristics and qualities of Holmes that make him not only unusual, but one of a kind.

**The first five stories of this collection, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Red-headed League,” “A Case of Identity,” “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” and “The Five Orange Pips” have already been written about elsewhere, so they won’t appear here.