Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection – Review

Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection. Amazon.com. 15 March 2015. E-book.

It has been a long time since I read any collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. This one is billed as complete. It does include a few stories that are often overlooked such as the two Holmes stories narrated by Sherlock Holmes himself rather than Watson. Since there are over 50 stories in this collection, it would serve no purpose by reviewing them all, but this collection is fun.

Like someone’s favorite TV show, there are a few episodes in which it appears that a very similar plot has been recycled. Doyle seemed to like backstories with complicated family relationships. People from foreign countries (i.e., not England) seem to have a penchant for crime. Still, Holmes’ aplomb and cool temperament while on a case are very entertaining. Watson always seems dazzled, even when he contributes a lot to the solving of a crime.

Not all the stories investigate crimes. There are other mysteries occasionally. For example, in “A Case of Identity,” Holmes is hired to try to make sense of an affair of the heart. No actual crime was committed, but there is certainly questionable behavior.

Some stories I remembered from previous readings years ago, but most were somewhat new to me. As with many mysteries, part of the enjoyment is trying to figure out the mystery before the sleuth reveals the solution. In “A Case of Identity,” for example, I did figure out the motive for the unusual circumstances, but the actual method was still something of a surprise. And in so many of the stories, as in true life crimes and mysteries, money is a motivator.

I had read The Hound of the Baskervilles at least twice in the past, and I did have a vague recollection of the plot, but it was still fun to read. That story had a little bit of everything, and probably deservedly is considered Doyle’s best. It is a page-turner with a number of surprises and terrors. I remembered some things about the hound and about the Baskerville family, but there is a fascinating supporting cast such as Selden, the escaped criminal; the Baskerville’s housekeeper; the local entomologist and his sister; the country doctor whom Watson naturally takes to; the shepherd boy who spies on Watson; the missing boot—the plot truly does thicken.

There are four novels or novellas in the Holmes corpus. Three are well known. Besides The Hound of the Baskervilles, there is A Study in Scarlet, and The Sign of the Four. A Study in Scarlet was the first Holmes story, where Watson meets Holmes and shares an apartment with him until Watson’s wedding.

As a kid, I recall enjoying The Sign of the Four, probably because of its exotic Indian characters and backstory. The woman who becomes Mrs. Watson is Holmes’ client in this one. Re-reading it made me think of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone which also involves a theft of Indian jewels.

The fourth novel I do not recall ever reading before. The Valley of Fear may have been the best mystery, but it had a weakness. The main mystery is solved in about the first third of the book. It was a very clever story. The murder victim and his widow had come to England from America. He apparently was involved in some criminal activity in Chicago and the West, but had gone straight and was trying to start a new life in England.

About half of the novel after the mystery is solved tells a discursive story about the victim in America before he left for Europe. It adds little to the story and almost seems purposeless. The backstory in A Study in Scarlet is similar in that it tells of the three main characters in that story when they all live in the American West before coming to England. That is tenser and quite entertaining. It reminded me very much of Zane Grey’s The Riders of the Purple Sage with its Mormon vigilantes. It also relates more directly to the mystery Holmes is trying to solve.

The ultimate purpose of the rambling backstory, without giving away too much, is to introduce the reader to Professor James Moriarty. There is not much more than a mention of him in this story, but Holmes expresses his belief that the Napoleon of Crime who is behind most organized crime in England is the professor.

Moriarty is really only a living character on the pages of one story, namely, “The Final Problem.” The Valley of Fear was apparently written to lead us to Holmes’ “death” in Switzerland. Four other stories mention Moriarty in passing, but always with the understanding that he is dead. Holmes returns in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” so that tale tells the Reichenbach Falls story from the detective’s point of view. Three other later stories mention Moriarty briefly.

In other words, Moriarty is perhaps the most powerful criminal he encountered, but Moriarty does not figure in too many stories. He is no Brainiac or Joker.

“The Five Orange Pips” also has a victim who came from America to straighten out his life. In his case, he belonged to the Ku Klux Klan and wanted to break free.

Holmes also comes across as a rather kindhearted. If he was working on a case apart from the police, he frequently let the perpetrator of the crime go. This was not always true, but he seems easily persuaded that the criminal has learned his or her lesson and will not be a repeat offender. In some cases—Irene Adler, for example—it is easier to simply let them leave the country, so at least they will no longer be bothering any Englishmen.

“Silver Blaze” was worth re-reading. I did recall the basic details about the stolen horse, but I had forgotten there was a murder and some other unusual goings-on. “Silver Blaze” has the line which has become a cliché in recent years about “The curious incident of the dog”:

“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.

This collection claims to be complete with 57 stories. Other collections have 56, apparently there are some questions about the provenance of one. It also claims to be unabridged.

I recall being skeptical in the seventies when the Seven Percent Solution came out as a novel and then as a film. In the seventies the hippie drug culture was still something new, and here was a claim that the very brainy Sherlock Holmes used cocaine recreationally. I just figured it was from someone trying to cash in on hippies.

My experience with Holmes stories had been mostly from a collection entitled The Boys’ Sherlock Holmes. Some of those stories I realize now had been edited to pare down some of the chitchat but also to get rid of the drug references. My understanding is that some American versions were also abridged by American publishers.

This collection does contain several stories which describe Holmes’ use of cocaine. Watson expresses his concern over this in a friendly bedside manner. There is also a sense that Holmes may be manic or bipolar. When he is not on a case, he gets depressed easily; however, that could also be caused by mere idleness.

Because this is a Kindle edition, there is one thing lacking in this collection. None of the drawings which contribute to the stories are included. I seem to recall a drawing in “The Sign of the Four” of the letter the Four signed in one edition I read. The most glaring omission is the dancing men in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men.” These were simple stick figures used in a secret code. The original had the various messages using the code drawn in the text. Perhaps a reader could solve the mystery with Holmes. In this edition there is simply a blank spot where the pictures should go.

As is often the case with low-cost and public domain e-books, there are a handful of typographical errors, nothing major. The only one that puzzled me was in The Hound of the Baskervilles when Holmes referred to a “bogie hound.” An Englishman would have recognized immediately that it should have been “bogle hound.” A bogle in England is a ghost, goblin, or scarecrow. It is a very precise word in this instance.

I found one thing a bit curious myself. Three times in all the stories do we see Watson’s first name. Twice it is John. Once it is James. We are told in the Wikipedia entry at the back of the book that Doyle had a friend named Dr. James Watson. Perhaps in “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Doyle was thinking of him. He is John in the subtitle of a collection and in “The Problem of Thor Bridge”—an effective story in which this reader confesses that he missed a couple of significant clues.

Still, have fun. Relax. Be amazed. Sherlock is guaranteed to entertain and get his readers to think.

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