The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

One of the interesting things about finally delving into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories has been comparing the popular images of the characters with the originals. I was amazed, for example, to see that Steven Moffat lifted dialogue right out of A Study in Scarlet for “A Study in Pink,” the pilot episode of Sherlock. In the first two Holmes novels, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock is just as eccentric and prickly as the Sherlock I’ve gotten to know through the Sherlock series and Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell books. I’ve enjoyed seeing that, especially since before encountering those series I’d been under the impression that he was cold and rational, but not nearly so weird.

Readers who only know Holmes through the stories in this collection might be left with the same mistaken impression that I had. The 12 stories involve serious crimes and more trivial personal problems that Holmes assists his clients with. Watson, our narrator, has selected the stories not for their seriousness or drama but for the ways they demonstrate Holmes’s keen skills at deductive reasoning to solve seemingly impossible problems or see through apparently airtight ruses. The stories include such well-known tales as “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League,” “The Adventure of the Blue Carbunkle,” and “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.”

The stories are fun to read, but they generally focus on the mysteries themselves, with limited attention paid to the characters of the men working to solve the mysteries. We learn that Holmes is choosy about the cases he takes on, and we see evidence of his high energy when he’s on a case, but he doesn’t come across as nearly so odd here as he does in the two earlier novels.

Watson, too, suffers a bit in the stories. Watson is commonly perceived as being rather dim, thanks in part to Nigel Bruce’s comic depiction of the character in the first film adaptations of the Holmes stories. The novels, and Holmes’s own embrace of Watson as a friend and colleague, show Watson to be an intelligent and capable sidekick. It pains me to say, however, that the stories in this book do show Watson as being perhaps a little slow on the uptake. I thought that many of the mysteries were not all that difficult to solve—or at least get a start on solving—yet Watson often accepts alibis at face value or fails to see the flaws in the police’s theory of a crime. As I think about it, though, this weakness as a crime solver probably reveals not a lack of intelligence but a tendency to see things straightforwardly, probably because Watson himself is a straightforward man. In “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” Holmes explains that looking at the evidence requires the ability to view the same situation from multiple angles.

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 compromising manner to something entirely different.

Instead of just looking at what’s in front of him, Holmes looks at what’s missing, what led up to the situation, and why things are as they are. He’s a keen observer, but he can see beyond the details, putting those details in context to see the larger story. Watson sees what’s there and not much more, which makes him an excellent chronicler of Holmes’s adventures but not such a great detective. I’m now wondering whether his time with Holmes will improve his skills.

One character I was excited to meet was Irene Adler, who appears in the first story in the collection, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Irene is tremendously important in some of the more recent Mary Russell novels, and I wanted to see what she was like and learn how her relationship with Holmes developed. Alas, the meeting was anti-climactic. She’s clever, that’s for certain, but a love interest? I don’t see it. I wondered whether she shows up in additional stories, but Wikipedia tells me that she does not.

My guess is that the legend surrounding Irene Adler among fans comes less from her actions within the story and more from the story’s opening lines, in which Watson states that “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her by any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates most of her sex.” Combine those lines with the common desire to put characters in couples, and a romantic partner is born. If there were a woman in Holmes’s life, it would be Irene Adler. It’s just that there doesn’t need to be a woman in Holmes’s life at all.

In the next few months, I’ll be reading Garment of Shadows, the new Mary Russell mystery, and watching the second season of Sherlock. I’m looking forward to seeing how my greater understanding of the original character affects the way I see the newer versions. I feel confident that I’ll pick up on at least a few things I’d never noticed before.

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19 Responses to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

  1. Alex says:

    I have had the Complete Sherlock Holmes sitting on my shelves since my PhD supervisor told me I should read it. (I was a good student, I always attempted to do what my supervisor told me.) Unfortunately I never got any further than buying it. The same is true of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. Part of the problem is that I’m not really a short story reader. If there was just one story from the collection you’ve read that you think would push me into reading all of them, which would you recommend?

    • I’m not Teresa, obviously, but I’ve got some recommendations for you. Out of this collection, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” is particularly fun; it’s a Christmas story, the boys are in rare form, and it’s very sweet. From a later collection, “The Adventure of Charles Milton Augustus Milverton” is quite good; it’s not a traditional Holmes story, because the boys don’t save the day, but it’s got great character interaction, a good story, and one of Doyle’s very capable women.

  2. I also think Watson’s lack of understanding is meant to make Holmes look good; as modern readers in a world where Sherlock Holmes becomes a franchise every once in a while, we know how mysteries work and the like. In his time (because Watson is very much a man of his time), I don’t think he looked so bad. I think there’s a story called “How Watson Learned the Trick”, a story by Doyle himself, that has Watson trying out Holmes’ methods and failing, but that’s a parody.

    I love Irene myself (I think she and Godfrey are happily married and having wacky adventures nonstop), but her popularity is based on the fact that she is the woman and people have an extremely difficult time reading Holmes as asexual. I can’t remember if it’s another story or another novel, but Holmes’ attitude towards women isn’t the best, as noted grumpily by Watson. I mean, there are theories that Holmes marries her in the course of “A Scandal in Bohemia”. Goodness me.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m sure you’re right about Watson. This was just the first time I could see where some might get the idea that he wasn’t clever. I think it’s more that he’s smart in a different way from Holmes and maybe generally more trusting, which isn’t a bad thing, really.

      And yes–I think the Irene thing has a lot to do with people being reluctant to see Holmes as asexual, and what other woman could he be with? The idea of Holmes and Watson as a couple comes from a similar impulse I suppose. I think that meeting Mary Russell before meeting Irene Adler ruined Irene for me because Russell could do everything that Irene does, and in Laurie King’s world, she becomes the woman. :)

      • Actually, people pairing off Holmes and Watson comes from a different impulse. Whereas people pair Holmes off with Irene because she’s the only candidate (despite being married to another man entirely), people pair Holmes off with Watson because of their deep friendship. Rex Stout actually made a speech in the 1940s that posited that Watson must be a woman and married to Holmes, because of the way they interact.

      • Teresa says:

        I was speaking generally of the impulse to pair people off romantically, to look for partners even when the text doesn’t give an explicit reason to do so. I can definitely see the differences in why people might choose Irene or Watson (or Irene Watson, LOL) as Holmes’s romantic partner.

        And that speech was a scream. Thanks!

  3. dicameron says:

    I agree with The Literary Omnivore in that Watson’s “Mr Straightforward” is very much a product of his time and that he’s there to act as a foil to Sherlock. At the time Conan Doyle wrote, these stories were absolutely unique: no-one had ever written anything like them. I think that’s something you have to bear in mind when you read them. We’re used now to twisting plots, thrillers and unreliable narration but these, coupled with a character like no other who could diffuse them all with logic, was new.
    And hey, if you haven’t watched the second series of Sherlock yet, you’re in for some of the best TV ever. And keep your hanky ready.

    • Jenny says:

      I totally agree with that assessment of the second series!

      • Teresa says:

        Jenny, I’m really excited about the new series. I just need all the people who have discs from Netflix to return them! (Do you hear me, fellow Netflix customers?)

    • Teresa says:

      It’s true. We’ve had a lifetime of training at seeing around corners and looking at crime scenes and alibis in the way that Holmes does. Watson is encountering a whole new way of looking at things.

      The new series is at the top of my Netflix queue now, but so far it’s stuck on “very long wait.”

  4. brookebove says:

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. My book club has chosen this for our August read, and I’m going to save this to read or at least bring up some of the points at our meeting! I haven’t even started reading this yet, but I love the Sherlock show, and I’m interested to make some comparisons!

    • Teresa says:

      I’ll be interested to hear what your book club thinks :) Reading the originals after having so much exposure to Holmes through other means has given me lots of things to think about regarding how characters evolve over time.

  5. heavenali says:

    I love Sherlock Holmes, I have enjoyed the Mary Russell books that I have read so far too. Some of th Sherlock Holmes stories I have read more than once – they are me the kind of reading material I never really tire of.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m looking forward to reading more of the stories. I’d only read maybe three or four stories and The Hound of the Baskervilles before this year. And Mary Russell is the best! I’ve been following that series since around the time the fourth book was published, and King has really maintained a high standard through the whole series.

  6. Jeane says:

    My father had the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes and one summer as a teen I read them all. I found them fascinating but admit I was on level with Watson- I could never figure anything out until Holmes explained it all. I’m not very familiar with any of the popular adaptations so I think going back to read these again would be a treat, unaffected by other depictions of the stories or characters.

    • Teresa says:

      I wasn’t able to completely figure out any of them (sometimes because I lacked the actual specialized knowledge needed), but I could get partway there sometimes. A lifetime of reading detective fiction probably helped :)

  7. Pingback: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes « Fyrefly's Book Blog

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