Four Sherlock Holmes novels were written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle between 1887 & 1914. Of course he also wrote 56 short stories featuring Holmes, but we’ll do a little something with those in the future. For now let’s examine the novels.
A Study in Scarlet
I am a sucker for origin stories, and Scarlet is the genesis of the Holmes-Watson friendship. It lays the foundation for everything we know about Sherlock Holmes…his physical features, his unique personality, his keen knowledge of certain subjects (and lack of familiarity with others), & the whole idea of deductive reasoning as it applies to crime solving specifically and assessing people & situations in general. Oh, and it also gives us the very first case that Holmes & Watson ever worked on together as well as Dr. Watson’s first foray into chronicling their adventures. That mystery involves a double murder in which the catalyst is…of course…a woman. The middle section of the story takes us back to Salt Lake City a couple of decades earlier and promotes some rather harsh ideas about the Mormon religion. We must not overlook the success of A Study in Scarlet in stimulating the public appetite for Sherlock Holmes. He is a literary icon a century later in part because Scarlet provided such a great beginning.
The Sign of the Four
Three years after A Study in Scarlet and a year before the first of the short stories was published came this little gem. The story revolves around the mysterious death of a British Army officer and the disappearance of the treasure that he had absconded with from India. There is much more exposition about Holmes’ methods, philosophy, & attitudes, and a latter section of the tale features a thrilling boat chase down the celebrated River Thames. The client who initially hires Holmes is Mary Morstan, who quickly falls for Dr. Watson and would go on to become his wife…one of them anyway. The opening & closing scenes of The Sign of the Four allude to Sherlock Holmes’ disturbing cocaine habit, one of the few controversial aspects of the canon, especially thru the prism of modern sensibilities.
The Hound of the Baskervilles
In 1893, after two novels and 24 short stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle decided to kill off Sherlock Holmes. However, the public clamored for more of the world’s greatest detective and in 1901 Doyle relented with this novel, set before Holmes’ alleged death at Reichenbach Falls in a battle with his archenemy Moriarty. It tells a tale of the mysterious death of a wealthy aristocrat in the south of England, possibly at the paws of a fabled demonic dog that is part of an old family legend. A new heir is set to inherit the family estate and all that comes with it, but strange things are afoot and the young gentleman’s life may also be in danger. Dr. Watson accompanies Sir Henry Baskerville to his new digs and Sherlock Holmes is actually MIA for a big chunk of the story, but eventually he arrives on the scene to unravel the mystery. The eight year break must have treated Doyle well because the writing here is stupendous. Hound is set in October and the author effectively fashions the mood of a dreary, dank, foreboding autumn. Doyle makes one want to stay far far away from a British moor. There are several interesting characters and the mystery is more nuanced than most other Holmes stories. Hound was so well received that Doyle went on to write 32 more short stories and an additional novel.
The Valley of Fear
The final Sherlock Holmes novel was written in 1914. Holmes & Watson are dispatched to investigate the brutal murder of an English country gentleman who turns out not to be quite so dead. As with A Study in Scarlet, a big chunk of The Valley of Fear is a flashback story that takes us back two decades when the protagonist was an alleged violent hooligan in America and part of a secret society modeled after the real life Molly Maguires. However, he was actually an agent of the famed Pinkerton Agency sent to infiltrate the society and bring them to justice. Unfortunately justice isn’t always perfect and one of the society’s more ferocious members only gets a few years in prison, thereafter chasing our hero all over the globe, ending up in England. Valley is notable for its extensive exposition about Professor Moriarty, a character that has risen to the high honor of being thought of as Holmes’ archenemy despite only being alluded to in a handful of the canon’s stories. In this instance Moriarty’s assistance is apparently sought by evildoers in hunting down the protagonist. At first it looks like the good guys have won, but by the end we learn the tragic news that the malevolent Professor has gotten the job done, much to the chagrin of Sherlock Holmes. The mystery is well-conceived, with unpredictable twists & turns that keep the pages turning, but the flashback section that is devoid of our favorite detective, his trusty sidekick, or any of the ambiance of Victorian England doesn’t feel like a Holmes story at all.
The Hound of the Baskervilles. I rather enjoy all four Holmes novels. A Study in Scarlet is a fantastic origin story. The Sign of the Four is exhilarating and well-written but a flashback sequence to another time & place sort of kills the momentum. The Valley of Fear is unpredictable & fresh, yet a flashback sequence that once again takes us out of Victorian England into another decade of the past in America where Holmes, Watson, etc. are nowhere to be found weakens the story to a degree. The Hound of the Baskervilles is a beautifully written, intricately woven mystery. It is true that most of the action takes place away from 221B Baker St. and that Holmes is absent for a chunk of the story, but Watson is ever-present and if a Holmes story must be located somewhere other than foggy old London then the lonely, dank, sinister moor on which the Baskerville estate rests is a worthy substitute. Hound is probably the most popular Sherlock Holmes story, and has been adapted many times on film. However, one cannot get the full effect any other way than by reading Conan Doyle’s beautifully evocative prose. I suggest reading Hound in the autumn just before Halloween, not only because that is the timeframe of the novel itself, but because it evokes a mood impeccably aligned with the season.