The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

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I have been re-reading the mysteries penned by Arthur Conan Doyle and have arrived at The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. This is probably the most-read book featuring Holmes and the 12 stories featured here are probably the most adapted too. These first appeared in the Strand Magazine between 1891 and 1892.

What continues to amaze me about Doyle is how his primary characters and the settings of more than a century ago continue to cast a spell on me. There is a fantastic mix of stories here, spread across the entire bromance timeline of Holmes and Watson. Some are from their early days and some are after Watson married and moved out of Holmes’ apartment.

Many of the yarns here catch you just by their intriguing premise. You are reeled in and await the reveal to discover the why. For example, in The Adventure of the Red-Headed League, a man is paid to just to go sit at a desk every day because of his red hair! Or similarly, in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, a woman is given a well paid job as governess just because she looks like someone else.

Though Holmes always gets to the bottom of a mystery, he is not always successful in saving his clients. There are a few of such unsuccessful cases here, the best of which is The Five Orange Pips where every character who receives orange pips in a letter dies soon after in an accident. Readers of A Study in Scarlet will be in familiar territory here since the story rewinds back to the USA and the Ku Klux Klan.

The most chilling story in this collection and the one which could have been a novella by itself is undoubtedly The Adventure of the Speckled Band. The setting is grim and dark and the deathly danger reminds one strongly of The Hound of the Baskervilles. There is no way anyone can not be up biting nails and turning each page with dread on this one.

Not all stories touch the high bar though, a few are plain whodunits of the variety that appeared in magazines of that era. However, for me this book was a great trip down memory lane. The stories are short and polishing off a couple of mysteries every night before bedtime turned out to be a great treat. There is simply quite nothing like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and if you have never read a Holmes mystery, this is the one to try!

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 0241952905

The mind of Holmes:

It is hard to come away from an intelligent book without some notes. Here are a few excerpts that show how Holmes uses an analytical bent of mind in his life and in his cases. It was also a pleasant surprise to note how well organized Holmes is with his data too.

“I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

“Kindly look her up in my index, Doctor,” murmured Holmes without opening his eyes. For many years he had adopted a system of docketing all paragraphs concerning men and things, so that it was difficult to name a subject or a person on which he could not at once furnish information. In this case I found her biography sandwiched in between that of a Hebrew rabbi and that of a staff-commander who had written a monograph upon the deep-sea fishes.

“It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.” He curled himself up in his chair, with his thin knees drawn up to his hawk-like nose, and there he sat with his eyes closed and his black clay pipe thrusting out like the bill of some strange bird. I had come to the conclusion that he had dropped asleep, and indeed was nodding myself, when he suddenly sprang out of his chair with the gesture of a man who has made up his mind and put his pipe down upon the mantelpiece.

“Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing,” answered Holmes thoughtfully. “It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.”

Sherlock Holmes closed his eyes and placed his elbows upon the arms of his chair, with his finger-tips together. “The ideal reasoner,” he remarked, “would, when he had once been shown a single fact in all its bearings, deduce from it not only all the chain of events which led up to it but also all the results which would follow from it. As Cuvier could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents should be able to accurately state all the other ones, both before and after. We have not yet grasped the results which the reason alone can attain to. Problems may be solved in the study which have baffled all those who have sought a solution by the aid of their senses. To carry the art, however, to its highest pitch, it is necessary that the reasoner should be able to utilise all the facts which have come to his knowledge; and this in itself implies, as you will readily see, a possession of all knowledge, which, even in these days of free education and encyclopaedias, is a somewhat rare accomplishment. It is not so impossible, however, that a man should possess all knowledge which is likely to be useful to him in his work, and this I have endeavoured in my case to do.”

Holmes grinned at the last item. “Well,” he said, “I say now, as I said then, that a man should keep his little brain-attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it.”

As to Holmes, I observed that he sat frequently for half an hour on end, with knitted brows and an abstracted air, but he swept the matter away with a wave of his hand when I mentioned it. “Data! data! data!” he cried impatiently. “I can’t make bricks without clay.”

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The Valley of Fear

The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Valley of Fear is the fourth and last Sherlock Holmes novel, one that I had not read before. Arthur Conan Doyle sets up a satisfying and familiar murder for Holmes to solve in the first half. The owner of a moated mansion has been blown to bits by a shotgun. The bridge over the moat around the house was drawn up and closed during the grisly act. Who is the murderer? Why did he murder and how did he escape unnoticed? A thrilling tale unravels as Holmes and Watson find the threads leading to the crook.

The second half of the book though is a tad disappointing. Even after the murderer is caught, Doyle pursues with his back-story. That follows an arc familiar from A Study in Scarlet: going back to a time when America was being explored. In the dark coal mining valley of Vermissa are a secret brotherhood who threaten and kill people to extract money. This murder emerges from a long vengeance from there that follows through across the pond to England. Doyle is an excellent storyteller, but it would have been nice to have a longer mystery without all the back-story.

Rating: 3/4

ISBN: 0241952972

The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles

It is no secret that The Hound of the Baskervilles, the third Sherlock Holmes novel is the best of the lot. Compared to the first two, which are essentially long short-stories, Arthur Conan Doyle sets the stage here for a village of multiple characters and a creepy tale. I had the most thrilling bedtime chills this week reading this novel before sleep. It totally reminded me of childhood nights spent with Famous Five, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys and the like.

Dr. Watson takes center stage in this novel. Holmes sends him to the mysterious moor where an ancient curse of a ghostly hound has been killing off the Baskerville family. It is upto Watson to protect the last of the Baskervilles from certain death by this dog. Through the observations of Watson we get to see the characters of this distant village and thus begins the calculations in our mind as to which of them could be the killer and how this hound is being unleashed. Needless to say that Holmes appears before the end to wrap up the mystery. The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the surest ways to have exciting bedtime reading for a couple of nights.

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 0241952875

The Sign of Four

After a break of a few years, I’m a library member again. I’m back in my old familiar world, looking up call numbers of books, scanning the spines of books with my head askew and discovering all sorts of unknown authors and topics. The fact about libraries is that new and popular books are heavily in demand. What remains available to a person who visits on weekends are the classics. The shelves heave with the weight of multiple editions of Sherlock Holmes and Jeeves. And that is how I found myself reading the second book in the Sherlock Holmes series: The Sign of Four.

The characters of Holmes and Dr. Watson and their 221B Baker Street home is well established by now. When the book starts off, Holmes is in a bit of rut, due to the absence of good investigative cases. He is getting himself high on morphine or cocaine, as his habit is to calm his hyper-active mind. After a few interesting dialogues on logic and human nature between the duo, we are finally thrown a case. And to my pleasant surprise, the case is heavily tied to India!

I will not spoil the plot for you, but it is, as always, quite interesting. There is a long Indian backstory that runs right through the heart of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, the British holding off the mutineers in the Agra castle, a treasure stolen from a Raja, an Englishman and three sepoys (two Punjabis and a Muslim) shipped off to the prison in Andamans and finally a cannibal from the Andaman islands. India is everywhere in this novel: the main murder takes place at a bungalow called Pondicherry Lodge and the gems that everyone’s after is called the Agra treasure.

While the Indian connection and the appearance of many Indian-origin words kept me interested, the novel by itself is just okay. The main problem for me is that I get to see Holmes’ brilliant mind in action only a couple of times in the book. Instead, I would like to see a lot more of his intriguing explanations or small puzzles for him to solve all through the book while he is on a big case. A Sign of Four is a good read and that’s about it.

Rating: 3/4

A Study in Scarlet

Sherlock Holmes is one of my favorite fictional characters. I read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes pretty early on and have watched countless adaptations of his stories in Hindi and English on TV. What I had not read was the four novels of Sherlock Holmes. A Study in Scarlet, the first novel on Sherlock Holmes is a fantastic read. That it can deliver this kind of experience to me, despite so much exposure to Holmes in media, is nothing short of astounding.

A Study in Scarlet is where it all begins. The story, as always, is narrated by Dr. Watson. He has returned to London physically injured and mentally traumatized from the British war in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Looking for a roommate to split the rent, he is introduced to Holmes, who seems to have no higher education degree, but spends his time in the London University labs playing with chemicals and in morgues dissecting bodies. The two discuss their living styles and eccentricities, find them agreeable, discover a flat at 221B Baker Street and move in. Watson is jobless, living off his war pension and is pretty soon hooked by Holmes’ method of deduction. They are soon drawn into a strange crime where a dead body is found in an empty house and there is no bloodshed. This is a classic Holmes setup and the ensuing investigative ride is just as juicy as you can expect.

The book takes a surprising detour in the second half. Describing the back story of the murderer, it takes the reader to America in the 1800s. After their founder Joseph Smith is assassinated, the Mormons led by Brigham Young move from Illinois and settle down in Utah. They practice polygamy, work hard and develop Salt Lake City. However, Young turns out to be a tyrant with the religion’s rules and deals with offenders with an iron fist. One such act breaks apart a love and that links back to the murder in London. I think this half of the book might baffle many readers, however I found it interesting to read such a detailed slice of Mormon history.

A Study in Scarlet is a must-read for any Holmes fan. And if you are not one, its a great way to get introduced. Arthur Conan Doyle bakes a fantastic pair of characters in Holmes and Watson. The writing is exquisite, full of historical events, scientific details and intrigue. This is a novel that should be read and enjoyed.

Rating: 4/4

Sherlock (Season 1)

Rating: 3/4 (A good modern reinvention of the legendary Sherlock Holmes.)

There have been countless attempts on the big and small screen to either faithfully recreate or creatively reinvent the legendary Sherlock Holmes. The new Sherlock TV series on BBC tries to create a modern avatar of the detective. Benedict Cumberbatch plays an intelligent smart-ass Sherlock Holmes, while Martin Freeman plays a wise Dr. Watson. Season 1 features 3 movie-length (1.5 hour each) episodes.

A Study in Pink is the opening episode, which as you may guess is inspired by the original A Study in Scarlet. In this case, Sherlock investigates a series of suicides, all of whom have died taking a pill. Dr. Watson returning from the war in Afghanistan becomes Sherlock’s flatmate at 221B Baker Street and is drawn into the case to become Sherlock’s partner. In the climactic scene of the episode, Sherlock’s arch-nemesis Moriarty is introduced.

Sherlock’s second case The Blind Banker deals with a spray painted coded message at a bank and a banker who has killed himself. This case leads him to discover a smuggling ring that is communicating by using derelict Chinese symbols for communication. In the third and final case The Great Game, Sherlock is taunted and played around by his nemesis Moriarty. The latter sets up Sherlock on a chase to solve crime puzzles within a deadline, and threatens to kill citizens if he fails. The episode ends in a standoff between Sherlock and Moriarty.

Cumberbatch totally gets into the skin of a new Holmes, while Martin Freeman gives us a very comforting Dr. Watson. Put together, this pair is like fireworks. Each of the cases has been beautifully written. The pace and dialogues are a bit too fast for my taste. The cinematography is lovely, as is the smooth incorporation of modern technology into Sherlock’s repertoire. Each episode is the length of a movie and really does feel like a made-for-TV movie. The story telling is good and there is no way one can pull away once a case has gotten started. I loved A Study in Pink, the other two episodes were merely good. Sherlock is a good modern reinvention of Sherlock Holmes and I will be watching if more seasons are produced.