I can still remember the first time I read something featuring Sherlock Holmes. It was The Hound of the Baskervilles; a small hardback copy which had actually come free with one of the newspapers courtesy of my dad. At this time I was still fairly young and the majority of Arthur Conan Doyle’s words might have gone over my head. Even so, the increasing mystery of a deadly dog was enough to excite my canine loving self into devouring the book in a flash. Since then I’ve shared the similar literary passion of many other book lovers by being completely immersed in the world of Holmes and Watson. The books offer me a sense of nostalgia, a place of comfort in which I can retreat into the world of crimes and logic amidst the Victorian backdrop I enjoy so much.
Although I love Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing and his iconic detective, I was painfully aware that I still hadn’t actually read many of the vast short stories available to us. Of course the short stories formed an essential part of the contextual fandom first surrounding Holmes. Appearing in magazines, these short stories were always a condensed but thrilling study of a case which Holmes has undertaken. Like the novels they left the audience craving more, and came with the added benefit of being easier and quicker for the author to write. Even if he did eventually tire of his detective and try to kill him off, these stories are written with great care and skill and it’s amazing to be able to return time and time again to some of our favourite characters.
Today I’m going to be talking about two selections of short stories which form part of the Penguin English Library collection; The Adventures of the Six Napoleons and Other Cases and The Adventures of the Engineer’s Thumb and Other Cases. Whilst these two separate collections feature many classic stories, they are different in the fact that they do not follow the chronological order which Holmes first wrote and collated them into.
One of the things I really liked about this fresh take was that it really showcased the diversity and sheer range of cases within these stories. This is quite different to some of the more prominent novels, as these tend to typically feature the crime of murder and involve Holmes bringing a killer to justice. Whilst there are certainly cases of murder in here and plenty of it, there is also a plethora of other types of problems just waiting to be solved. These also include times where there seems to be no apparent crime having been committed, with just a strange set of circumstances which see intriguing to Holmes mind. Likewise, many of the cases are actually linked to personal and private affairs as opposed to clear cut crimes. Not only does this show the range of skills which are at Holmes disposal, they also keep the readers continually engaged, a testament which can be backed up by the sheer longevity of these characters.
I also think that the great variety of cases within these short stories offers up more ways to look and examine Holmes as a detective. No matter the type of case or mystery we are able to see the similar effects they each have on Holmes. It brings to the front how effected Holmes can become by a puzzle which is just crying out to be solved. It gives Holmes character vibrancy, showing his passion for logical thinking throughout every story. Similarly it draws attention to the fact that many people are unaware of, or forget, that Holmes is not opposed to the use of drugs such as cocaine, and he actually find this one of the only ways to get through the a mundane life without a case of interest. Solving these crimes aren’t purely motivated by money, although this might be an added bonus. Holmes does it because he needs to. He does it to add colour to his life and to invigorate himself once more. Holmes even prefers smaller crimes, as he states that ‘the larger crimes are apt to be the simpler, for the bigger the crime, the more obvious, as a rule, is the motive. In these cases . . . there is nothing which presents any feature of interest’ (p. 3). As we can see through these stories, Holmes thrives on his skills and his logic being put fully to the test.
It’s easy to see that the sheer amount of short stories we are presented with in these two books also gives us a much closer look at the iconic duo that are Holmes and Watson. I definitely felt that these short stories gave an added depth to their relationship, allowing us to see some of the smaller moments between them, as well as the allowing each of their characters to bounce off the other. In these two characters Doyle has formed the basis for the making of any good double act, and getting to take a close look into the interactions and exchanged between the two was brilliant.
As always, one of the greatest things to come out of these stories in the same way as the novel was the feeling they inspire in the reader. Although a master at detection, Holmes does it in such a way that you can’t help but feel inspired, and indeed capable of doing the same thing. The importance is placed very heavily on the small detail and observances Holmes makes, and the deductions which are formed because of this. At first his methods seem incredible, throwing Watson into a state of disbelief, yet once explained they seem to mostly make perfect sense and be the logical explanation. When Watson declares that Holmes is able to see that which is invisible to his own self, Holmes replies that it is ‘Not invisible, but unnoticed . . . You did not know where to look, and so you missed all that was important’ (p. 12). Like Watson we being to feel that perhaps we can also learn to be as thorough as Holmes is, and it certainly open your eyes to a more practical way of looking at the world.
Something which I think is much more prominent in the short stories than any of novels is the relationship which Holmes engages in with the police, especially Lastrade. At times this is quite honestly hilarious, as the pair enter quite frequently into what modern day readers would identify as a bit of ‘banter’. There is as edge to the pair, a fine line between friends and rivals, sarcasm and humour. Holmes is more than happy to help them out on a case, often giving them the solution and allowing them to take the credit, yet on the other hand Holmes often ignores the law and doesn’t turn the criminal in, always making it clear that he in no way works for the police. Watching this interchange between the two is always amusing to watch, and it was great to be able to examine their interactions more minutely.
Through this relationship with the police it’s easy to see that Holmes is by no means eager to publically take the credit for what he has accomplished. Even so he does have a high opinion of his own work and is extremely confident in his abilities above others. One of the scenes which I think gives quite an accurate insight into his character is when someone thanks Holmes for saving his honour. Holmes replies with the simple, ‘Well, my own was at stake you know’. For Holmes it is ‘hateful . . . to fail in a case’ (p. 137), and he is very open about his need to thrive in his detective skills. Some may see this as a bit over confident or indeed believe that Holmes has a bit of an ego, but personally I think it proves once again how vital his work is to his very being. Without it he cannot function, hence the need to resort to drugs to stimulate his mind in other ways. For Holmes, the case is everything, even if at first glance it seems like an easily solved one.
I honestly loved these cases and with such a diverse range in these stories it’s easy to find something for everyone. For anyone who has only ever dipped their toes into the novels featuring the iconic Sherlock Holmes, I couldn’t recommend this type of format enough.
Publisher: Penguin English Library