Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Illustrations by Richard Lebenson
Afterword by Fred Strebeigh
© 1987, The Reader's Digest Association.
Lately I've been wanting to read a good mystery, but put down a police novel after realizing I'm rather tired of books that begin with dead bodies. I wanted a mystery with some class, with some dignity -- a gentleman's mystery, like Isaac Asimov's Black Widow puzzlers. Finding no one who could recommend such a work, I decided to examine the most legendary detective in literature: Sherlock Holmes. This handsome volume of twelve stories met my taste exactly, and I am licking my chops at the prospect of having fifty more such stories to read in other volumes.
There are few people in the industrialized world who would not recognize the name Sherlock Holmes, I imagine. His profile -- a deerstalker hat and pipe -- are cultural icons, as his saying, "Elementary, my dear Watson..." Holmes is is a brilliant and ruthlessly logical detective residing in Victorian London, whose clientele ranges from the dregs of society to kings. Regardless of social status or wealth, all who come to Holmes see him as their last possible hope. He only asks that his cases present him with a challenge, and he masters each with his impressive powers of observation, taking in every fact and producing bewilderingly accurate analysis based on that. Twelve of those stories are chronicled here by Holmes' lone friend and companion, Dr. Watson: "A Scandal in Bohemia", "The Red-Headed League", "A Case of Identity", "The Boscombe Valley Mystery", "The Five Orange Pis", "The Man with the Twisted Lip", "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle", "The Adventure of the Speckled Band", "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb", "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor", "The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet", and "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches".
I fell for Doyle's style of writing immediately; there's such elegance to his prose that I found myself reading aloud simply for the pleasure of it. The stories, too, offered much variety: although there are a few corpses scattered here and there, these aren't death-mysteries. Some of them do not even involve legal crimes. Although a friend told me that Doyle wrote these stories in such a way as to invite the reader to solve them before Holmes, I scarcely think this possible: while the detective's feats of logic are easy enough to follow in retrospect, and readers versed in literary tropes may guess at solutions, Holmes' concrete evidence is often information the readers are not privy to, or can't possibly grasp the significance of. This doesn't in any way detract from the pleasure of following Holmes' footsteps, and the stories are more varied than most modern police-detective mysteries I've read.
The book itself is well-done: the sepia-toned illustrations complement each piece nicely, the font is simple and stylish, and the book ends with a piece from Smithsonian on the widespread cultish following Holmes has. That following is part of the reason why I thought of Doyle's detective when I itched for a mystery: Isaac Asimov was a devoted Sherlockian, mentioning him in his Widowers stories and writing an essay analyzing Holmes' skills as a chemist.
When I return to the library this week, my first stop will be fiction -- D for "Doyle"!