Monday, June 4, 2012

Review: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (4/5)

What can I say about The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that hasn’t been said already?  Not much, I’m guessing.  It’s one of the seminal classics—and not just of mystery/crime fiction, but literature in general.  The stories of Sherlock Holmes are the bedrock on which the modern mystery is built, and it has been dissected and analyzed over and over again by literary minds a lot more brilliant than mine.  But this is me we’re talking about here.  I can’t pass up an opportunity to pontificate on literary matters.  What I’ve got to say is probably as original as a Def Leppard cover band, but I’ve got to at least give it a shot, right?

Right.  And since everyone and their mother has already heard about Sherlock Holmes, if not The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I’m going to skip the plot exposition, the character introductions, and author profiling.  You already know all about Holmes and Watson and Doyle, so I’m not to waste my breath… or my keystrokes.  And even if you did happen to crawl out from under a rock yesterday, Wikipedia is your friend.  So with that being said, let’s talk about this here book.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is the third book in the original Sherlock Holmes series.  Prior to that came A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four, both of which were full-fledged novels.  Adventures differs from its predecessors in that it’s a collection of twelve short stories that were originally published between July 1891 and June 1892 (that’s one story a month, if you’re keeping count at home) in The Strand magazine.  They were later anthologized into the volume we have today.  Included are the following Holmes short stories:

I enjoyed reading it—I mean, I did give it four stars and all—but I had to take it slow.  Some aspects of Doyle’s fiction grated on my nerves like a fork in a garbage disposal.  For one, Holmes’ analytical methods are inductive rather than deductive (I think I mentioned that before in relation to The Mystery of the Yellow Room, which could be viewed as a French imitation of Doyle’s novels, so the similarity makes sense).  In a nutshell, that means he builds his conclusions using observations that only suggest a certain outcome rather than ensuring it.  For instance, because a man’s fingers are smudged with ink and his cuffs are worn, Holmes says that he must be a clerk typist.  But those conditions could exist if the man was a starving novelist who liked to read shoddily printed newspapers, or if he, I dunno, recently voted in an Iraqi election.  You get what I mean.  The individual details don’t guarantee the accuracy of his conclusion—which isn’t bad in and of itself, but Holmes is never wrong, and that’s just annoying as hell.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Another annoying thing about most of the stories is that most of them contain absolutely zero investigation.  A hapless clod goes to Holmes in need of help, tells him what’s the matter, and then, based upon that information at hand, Holmes immediately solves the mystery.  True, there are several instances where Holmes runs off to investigate, but it’s generally by himself where he does some magic behind the curtain and comes back to dramatically nab the baddy and explain the mystery to Watson.  I enjoyed “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League” and “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” more than the rest mostly because there was at least a small investigatory phase to the story.  But that’s largely what you’re getting into when you sit down to a Sherlock Holmes book.  You’re not going to get a Wambaugh police procedural or a detailed, convoluted mystery a la Ellroy.  It’s kind of like ordering a bucket of KFC and the complaining that it’s too greasy.  Fried chicken is effing greasy, just like Sherlock Holmes stories are effing anti-climactic.  You should know this going in.

Other than those two gripes, I really don’t have anything else to complain about.  Sherlock Holmes is Sherlock Holmes.  These are timeless stories that continue to entertain more than a hundred years after they were written.  Of course, some people aren’t going to like them (I could name an ex-girlfriend, for one), but no work of art is ever universally liked.

Oh, but I do have a general observation about the text.  Two observations, really—a couple gems of feminist and colonial literary criticism that I would be remiss not to mention (‘cos then you wouldn’t get to see how amazingly smart I am).  First, several of the stories involve women being deprived of their monetary rights by their relatives—father, brother, uncle, what have you.  This alone could be seen as an early appearance of feminist activism in literature.  Doyle seems to be genuinely concerned about the state of women’s property rights in Victorian England; however, at the same time he inserts comments about women’s irrationality and “women’s intuition”—as if women are incapable of rational thought and any correct conclusions they might have must be based upon an ethereal sixth sense rather than any sort of deductive logic.  Therefore in some ways Doyle appears to simultaneously be feministically progressive on some issues and chauvinistic on others—quite an interesting dichotomy, if you think about it. 

Secondly (and this is the Colonial bit), half of the stories here, as well as the earlier novels A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four, deal with foreigners as the cause of trouble.  Americans, Indians, Germans—their nationalities run the gamut.  But this high instance of foreigners as perpetrators indicates an overall distrust of those who are not properly “English bred,” which has survived in some respects to this very day.  Doyle expresses the very English, very colonial viewpoint that the colonial machine is necessary in order to “protect the savages from themselves.”  After all, if it wasn’t for English law and order they’d just be killing and raping indiscriminately, right?  That’s the thinking, at least.  Of course, this viewpoint has been severely diluted (if not gone the way of the dinosaurs entirely) in our day and age, but it’s an interesting observation about the literature of the era.  Interesting to me, anyway.

With that said, I’ll spare you any further literary analysis (for now) and cut to the chase.  I give The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes four out of five stars.  I’d recommend you read it for yourself, but I have a feeling most of you already have.  If you haven't, you can get every one of Doyle's classics absolutely free on Project Gutenberg--and free is good.


  1. My favorite Sherlock Holmes story is "Hound of the Baskervilles". Have you read it yet? I love your review. I do enjoy the Sherlock Holmes books, but I also find Holmes immensely annoying. In the new BBC series, Holmes supposedly has Aspergers, which I think explains a lot.

    1. Thanks, Teressa! Yeah, I read The Hound of the Baskervilles a while back and really enjoyed it. It's a great story.

      I'd heard about the BBC series, but I didn't know they'd cast Holmes as having Asperger's. What a great twist on an old classic! Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Oh and do you want in on the tour? Stephen can probably fit you in on the end of it? If not then the next one totally.

    1. Hells yeah I want in on the tour! I'll hit up you and Steve on the FB group tonight after the little guy is in bed. Thanks!

  3. Hi Jonathan. I really enjoy your reviews. I love the series. I haven't read all of it, yet. BTW. After reading this, I've got a mental pic of a Def Leppard cover band trying to vote in an Iraqi election ...whilst perusing “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”. :) Bah-dah-bing...bah-dah-boom. Too good!

    1. Thank you so much, Scarlett. I'm just glad someone enjoys my corny jokes. ;)

  4. One of my favorite characters, all time! I know he isn't too convincing as a real human being, but I don't mind that, I tend to think of him as a superhero.

    Loved your analysis of Doyle's writings :) following you now!

    please do visit me at my book blog, and if you like it, please do follow!

    1. Thanks, Amrit. Yeah, Holmes isn't terribly believable, but in this case, he's probably more endearing because he's so much larger than life.

      Thanks for the follow, and consider yourself followed back!

  5. Free is very good! I might have to try this. I've never seen the movie or read anything Sherlock Holmes so I never had interest in it, but after reading this I'm kind of intrigued. Holmes sounds like House (from the t.v. show House lol). They both solve mysteries the same way it seems.

    Thanks for stopping by today! To answer the question you left on my blog:
    Book Expo of America (BEA) is an event that's going on this week in NYC for authors, bloggers, librarians, etc. to meet, network, give out ARCs, etc. I feel like it's a lot of YA blogs that go so maybe that's why you didn't hear of it sooner. A lot of us couldn't go so they do ArmchairBEA (all online). They have a list of topics to post about and then you can link up on their site. Then we all visit each other's blogs and learn more about each other and network. Yesterday was introductions and today's Giveaway/Best of 2012 day! It's a great way to meet more bloggers since there are so many out there now.

    1. You can always download one of the short story collections and try a story or two to see if you like it. That way there's not a huge time investment.

      And BEA sounds absolutely fantabulous! Now I wish I had enough time off and money to go up there and roll around in all those glorious books.

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