The Complete Sherlock Holmes, consisting of:
- A Study in Scarlet (1887, 104 p)
- The Sign of the Four (1890, 102 p)
- The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892, 246 p)
- The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894, 208 p)
- The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902, 146 p)
- The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905, 263 p)
- The Valley of Fear (1915, 144 p)
- His Last Bow (1917, 168 p)
- The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927, 214 p)
- Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 - 1930)
- Published: see above
- Publisher: various, mostly George Newnes, after initial publication in The Strand
- Pages: see above (all page totals from the Bantam Complete Sherlock Holmes)
- First Line: “In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the Army.”
- Last Line: “Both police and coroner took a lenient view of the transaction, and beyond a mild censure for the delay in registering the lady’s decease, the lucky owner got away scatheless from this strange incident in a career which has now outlived its shadows and promises to end in an honoured old age.”
- ML Edition: #206 (1946 – Adventures and Memoirs published together); gold hardcover (Adventures and Memoirs published together); Modern Library classics (Adventures and Memoirs published together; A Study in Scarlet; Hound)
- Films: see below
- First Read: high school
The Novels and Stories:
Veronica, who has never read any Sherlock Holmes, has been trying to get me for a while to watch Sherlock. I had decided a few months ago to go ahead and get the first two Series watched before the third one debuted on PBS on 19 January. So, in the first week of January I finally dived in. And the results? Well, if you watch Sherlock, you must certainly know what the results are. And if you don’t watch Sherlock, you can’t imagine what you are missing – a take on the character unlike anything I had ever seen and something that immediately sent me back to the books, to revel in all this wonderful source material. For the great thing about Sherlock is not just what they have done with the amazing cast, but the way in which they have stuck to the original novels and stories and re-imagined them in the modern world, yet in so many ways, so incredibly true to what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in the first place.
I am not a Sherlock Holmes film obsessive. There are numerous takes on the character, both on the large screen (my speciality) and the small (definitely not my speciality). My copy of The Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats is now 21 years old and it says “The character most often portrayed on screen since the inception of the story film has been Sherlock Holmes, the master detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), who has been played by 75 actors, including one black (Sam Robinson), in 211 films produced between 1900 and 1993.” (p 46). And that’s not including television. I have seen only a handful of those. And I am hardly a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, those Sherlock-obsessed fans who have been drooling over the published works since he first graced the pages of London magazines over 125 years ago. But, what I am, is a lover of great literature and I want to stress that however much you may love Sherlock, you really need to go back and read those original stories again (or, for the first time), not only so you understand what a masterful job Moffett and Gattis have done in creating this show, but also so you can revel in some of the best mystery stories ever written.
Sherlock Holmes began as a character in A Study in Scarlet. It is here (so much of which is reimagined in “A Study in Pink”, the first episode of Sherlock) that we first meet Dr. Watson, the Afghanistan veteran returned to England, wounded, searching for a living situation that won’t tax him financially. He is introduced, through an old friend (that we never see again – there are several characters who come and go through the books, but there are also many who come once and are never seen again) to Sherlock Holmes, the man who instantly deduces all he needs to know about Watson and sets them on a course of adventure that will follow through 4 novels and 56 stories. Next comes The Sign of the Four, another very good mystery novel and one in which familiar things begin to come around: by the end of the story, Watson is going to marry Mary Morstan and Sherlock will be on his own and we finish with one of the most well-known lines of all the works: ” ‘For me,’ said Sherlock Holmes, ‘there still remains the cocaine-bottle.’ And he stretched his long white hand up for it.”
After that comes the first of the stories and it kicks off in fine style. In fact, there might not be a better Holmes story than the very first one published: “A Scandal in Bohemia”, from the memorable opening line (“To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman.”), right down to its reprise in the final lines: “And that was how a great scandal threatened to affect the kingdom of Bohemia, and how the best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit. He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard of him do it of late. And when he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always under the honourable title of the woman.” And yet, that is followed up by another story which many others might place as the best of the lot: “The Red-headed League.” Both of these would be collected in the first collection, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which would also include such classics as “The Five Orange Pips”, “The Man with the Twisted Lip” and “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.”
This would be followed by the second collection (The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes), and to Doyle’s original plan, the last. For, after such stories as “Silver Blaze”, in which we have both an ingenious murderer, not to mention the single most famous line in all of the stories (” ‘Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’ ‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’ ‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’ ‘That was the curious incident,’ remarked Sherlock Holmes.”), the first case Sherlock ever involved himself in (“The ‘Gloria Scott’”) and “The Greek Interpreter”, the story in which we are introduced to Mycroft Holmes, the older brother who is Sherlock’s “superior in observation and deduction”, we end with “The Final Problem”, the story in which we are both introduced to Moriarty, the “Napoleon of crime” (“He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of them. He does little himself. He only plans.”) and where we find, at the end, Holmes and Moriarty, locked in each other’s arms, going over the edge of Reichenbach Falls, leaving only Watson behind to mourn “the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known.”
Holmes, would of course, return. Doyle couldn’t keep him dead and he would eventually revive him. It wouldn’t ever quite be the same. While 33 of the 56 stories would come after his incredible return in “The Adventure of the Empty House” (“I moved my head to look at the cabinet behind me. When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then 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 upon my lips.”), few of them reach the level of the first 23 stories. And yet, there are classics there as well: “The Adventure of the Empty House”, “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” and “The Adventure of the Second Stain” in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” and “His Last Bow” in His Last Bow and “The Problem of Thor Bridge” in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.
But, more importantly, there would be two more novels. The first, written during the time where Doyle had left his creation for dead, is certainly widely considered the best Holmes work: The Hound of the Baskervilles. It is the story most likely to have been read by those who have never read any other Holmes work, and yet they might be confused, thinking the incident of the dog is here (it’s not) and thinking it strange that Holmes is missing for so much of the story (which is actually the case for three of the four novels – only in Sign of the Four is he present for the majority of the narrative). But it has perhaps the best story, it has the best sustained narrative. The other novel, The Valley of Fear, is also quite good, and it provides some fun for the readers. For Valley takes place before “The Final Problem” and Watson is told of Moriarty. Yet, Watson has never heard of him in “The Final Problem” (part of the problem of writing stories out of chronological order). Yet, there are many such errors across the canon (How many times was Watson married? Where is his wound?) and part of the fun for the really obsessed fans is trying to reconcile all of these errors and have them all make sense (for a true sense of that, read the Annotated).
Though it would be “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place” that would be the final story, published in The Strand in 1927, the last story, chronologically, is “His Last Bow” (the first Annotated prints the stories in story order – see below). In this story, a long-retired Holmes has spent nearly two years doing work for the British government and is now acting on it, during what would be one of the worst weeks the world would ever endure: the first week of August in 1914. It has the ending that Holmes really had earned, a movement into the sunset as the world had grown a bit too dangerous, and he and Watson have one last poetic exchange:
“There’s an east wind coming, Watson.”
“I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.”
“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared. Start her up, Watson, for it’s time that we were on our way. I have a check for five hundred pounds which should be cashed early, for the drawer is quite capable of stopping it if he can.”
There are numerous, numerous editions of the Sherlock Holmes stories which can be found currently in print. Aside from the various editions of the separate books, up above (I tried to make them as different as possible), there are a variety of editions in which you can get a number of the books together. But, to me, there are three key ways to get them:
The Complete Sherlock Holmes: All 4 Novels and 56 Short Stories - Pictured above, this is the Bantam edition. This is probably the easiest (and cheapest) way to get all the Holmes works together. They are in mass market form, complete with a small slipcase and easy to read in bed, immersing yourself in the stories.
The Annotated Sherlock Holmes (2 volumes): The first version of the Annotated Sherlock Holmes was published in 1967 as part of the Annotated series then being published by Crown Publishers (more on that here) and is sadly out of print. It was edited and annotated by William S. Baring-Gould, a noted Sherlockian, who, sadly, died that same year before the books were published. It is done in an interesting manner – Baring-Gould put the stories in the order that he believed they took place, rather than the order they were published (which has the nice touch that it ends with “His Last Bow”). A lot of the annotations focus around the various dates that Baring-Gould assigns to each story.
The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (3 volumes): After Norton reprinted several editions of the Crown books (see above), they also started releasing their own annotated books. Among their choices, was a new, three volume edition of Sherlock Holmes, edited and annotated by Leslie S. Klinger (Klinger would later also do a New Annotated Dracula and next year will come out with an Annotated Lovecraft). This edition approaches the stories through the idea that these events all really happened (an idea he does again in Dracula, though it doesn’t work nearly as well there), presenting the stories in the order that they were written. You can get the volumes either in slipcases or separately.
Really, there is no way I am going to try and review a whole crapload of Sherlock Holmes films, nor will I attempt to even catalog them (see note above about how many there have been). Sherlock has been portrayed by more actors than any other character in film history and I have seen no less than 18 different Sherlock Holmes films, of varying quality. But I will mention all of the actors I have seen and discuss briefly what I think of each of them as the character, moving forward chronologically.
John Barrymore (1922, Sherlock Holmes): A good performance from Barrymore in this silent film. However, one of the drawbacks of the silent Sherlock Holmes is that we can’t really hear him explain his incredible deductions.
Reginald Owen (1933, A Study in Scarlet): Quite simply, terrible. Owen had previously played Watson and wanted to have a series with himself as Holmes – he even worked on the script himself. But the film is badly made and Owen quite simply is never particularly believable as Holmes; not once do we believe that he could make quick deductions. The film is also badly directed. Don’t waste your time.
Basil Rathbone (1939 – 1946, 14 films): I am not much of a fan of the Rathbone films (and, cue, my sister-in-law screaming). But, to be fair, while I have many criticisms of the film series as a whole, those criticisms aren’t really directed at Rathbone. For those people for whom Rathbone is Sherlock Holmes, I can understand how much you like him as Holmes – he has the look, he has the charm, he has the intelligence. But I can’t understand the fascination for the films themselves. For one thing, except for the first two, the ones made by 20th Century Fox, the films just aren’t very well made. I don’t mind as much that they updated them to modern times (hell, that’s part of what is so brilliant about Sherlock). It’s that the budget on them is so pathetic, they just always look cheap and they’re so short because they aren’t written well enough to sustain the stories. I don’t like the fact that they bothered to make up so many of the stories from scratch when they had so much they could have made use of. I don’t like how Nigel Bruce turns Watson into just a bumbler and never has anything useful to add. I don’t like how the actors keep turning up in different movies in different roles (like how George Zucco is Moriarty in one film but just a Nazi villain in a later one). Some of the films are better than others (I prefer Spider Woman of all the later ones) but try to stick to the first two.
Peter Cushing (1959, The Hound of the Baskervilles): I wrote one review of this film already in my Hammer piece. I understand why people like Rathbone, especially since there was a whole series for him. But Cushing to me is better – he has the look, the presence, the voice, the intelligence. And this is a much better film than any of the Rathbone films – the first version of the novel filmed in color, and with the full weight of Hammer talent behind it.
Robert Stephens (1970, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes): I was rather disappointed with this film from Billy Wilder, one of my absolute favorite directors. And I think that Stephens was a major reason for that – he just never fit what I ever really conceived of as Sherlock Holmes. The film is better served in Christopher Lee’s performance as Mycroft than it is with Stephens as Holmes.
George C. Scott (1971, They Might Be Giants): Not technically Holmes, per se, but a man who believes that he is Holmes. A very under-appreciated and funny film and Scott gives a very charming performance that is much better than many of the other ones I have seen.
Douglas Wilmer (1975, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother): Wilmer had played Holmes on the BBC but the only time I have seen him in the role is in Gene Wilder’s decently funny film about Holmes’ smarter, yet jealous, brother (not Mycroft, but Sigerson). Wilmer isn’t in it much and he seemed fairly forgettable when he was, but I think it was aimed towards people who had seen him on the BBC.
Nicol Williamson (1976, The Seven Per-Cent Solution): Nicol Williamson, as can be seen here, was always a complete pain in the ass to work with. But he was also an incredibly talented actor who didn’t make nearly enough films (probably for good reasons). This film, directed by Nicholas Meyer, based on his own Holmes novel, is quite good and Williamson is a primary reason that it is as good as it is. While not as much an iconic vision of Holmes as Rathbone or Plummer, this is perhaps the best acting ever done by an actor playing Holmes.
Christopher Plummer (1979, Murder by Decree): Sherlock Holmes solves the Jack the Ripper case in a Ripper familiar to Stephen Knight’s readers or readers or viewers of From Hell. The film itself has some considerable flaws and gets bogged down in the conspiracy at the end. I am also not a fan of James Mason’s Watson, who isn’t as much of a bumbler as Nigel Bruce, but is quite stuffy. But Plummer is, quite frankly, a very, very good Holmes. Plummer had originally played the role in a half-hour television production of “Silver Blaze”, but this was a feature film. I don’t know why they didn’t make more – Plummer is first-rate, always having a good handle on everything and having the look down perfectly.
Nicholas Rowe (1985, Young Sherlock Holmes): Barry Levinson’s film didn’t really work all that well for me. Part of the reason, of course, is that it requires you to throw out the actual stories and just go with the characters, and I prefer returning to Doyle. But part of it is that I just didn’t care for Rowe in the title role.
Barrie Ingham (1986, The Great Mouse Detective): Of course, Ingham isn’t really Holmes. He’s the voice of Basil, the brilliant mouse detective who lives below Holmes. In fact, the actual voice of Holmes is Basil Rathbone himself, using clips from his film series. Ingham is solid as Basil, but he always gets over-shadowed by Vincent Price, playing the role of the villain.
Michael Caine (1988, Without a Clue): This film has very little Doyle, but it does, at least, have a charming original idea: that Watson was the brilliant one and he invented Holmes to mask that. So, he hires an actor, played by Caine, to be Holmes, and then they end up in the case. Ben Kingsley is solid as Watson and Caine is suitably clueless and then brilliant (or at least played at being brilliant) as “Holmes”.
Robert Downey, Jr. (2009-11, Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Homes: A Game of Shadows): There are parts of Doyle in here and you can see them around the edges. But for the most part, these are films that have been made up by the filmmakers, with a few Doyle touches thrown in here and there, most notably the conclusion of the second film. I find these two films as fascinating and as infuriating as the new Star Trek films – there are bits that I really like and things that really annoy me. I think Downey is a good Holmes and I like the way he sees things that are going to happen and plans for them. But I don’t think that steampunk really works for Holmes and that turns me away (although not as much as that they felt the need to simply make up a villain for the first film, and a supernatural one at that – I actually think I prefer the second film because of that). Perhaps the thing I actually like the best about the films, aside from the strong casting (Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly, Jared Harris, Stephen Fry as Mycroft) is the performance of Jude Law as Watson. He firmly takes the idea of the bumbling Watson and puts him to bed.
Benedict Cumberbatch (2010-present, Sherlock): The only television Sherlock I have indulged in and the results are beyond compare. First of all, I love that they return to the original Doyle stories and find magnificent new ways to reimagine them for the modern world. Second, I love that they find different ways to combine some of the stories or make allusions to other stories that they aren’t including – it’s full of in-jokes to those that know the original Doyle. Third, I love the performances – whether it is Mark Gattis as Mycroft (yes, he’s way too thin, but I don’t care), the unbelievably sexy Lara Pulver as Irene Adler, the fantastic Rupert Graves as the long-suffering Lestrade or the wonderful Louise Brealey, who both Veronica and I adore as Molly. But there’s also the incredible dialogue (“Punch me in the face! Didn’t you hear me?” “I always hear ‘Punch me in the face’ when you’re speaking but it’s usually subtext.”). And most of all there are the performances from the two leads. Because, more than any other Sherlock Holmes, this one, in spite of the name, really focuses on the two of them and their relationship. And while Jude Law may have rescued Watson’s reputation, there is no one I want more as my British everyman than the man who has already played Arthur Dent and would soon afterwards play Bilbo Baggins. Martin Freeman has come to embody the literary version of the British everyman and he is perfect, with the perfect chemistry, right from the first episode (“That was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever done.” “And you invaded Afghanistan.”). And Benedict Cumberbatch is exactly what I want from my Sherlock – smarter than everyone else, bored with how slow the world is, just looking for something to keep him interested, but solid in his partnership with Watson. He brings the character vividly to life in the world we now live in and I will gladly watch this show until it is no longer airing and then I will return to it again and again for as long as I can.