Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Details: Originally published 1892; Pub 1971 Berkley Medallion
Verdict: The adventures of Sherlock Holmes is better than I was expecting.
Reasons for reading it: Between reading Arthur and George and watching a sweet but silly film Young Sherlock Holmes over Christmas, I was intrigued enough to get round to reading some of the original stories.
How it came into my hands: Found it in my parents' house. I'm guessing it's from one of the grandparental collections that we inherited, because I can't remember it being there when I was a kid. And it's physically small compared to most modern books so it fitted nicely in my handbag while I was travelling; actually it's really good for reading on the plane because the short stories are just nicely bite-sized, engaging without needing vast amounts of brain power.
I have to admit my expectations were quite low, partly because Sherlock Holmes has been pastiched and parodied so much , and partly because of the context; I was expecting sensationalist and formulaic Victorian hack writing. Actually the stories have real merit; if you read too many of them at once they get a bit samey, but they are nicely written taken individually. I can really see how this set off the first ever fandom and kick-started a new genre. Holmes and Watson are well characterized, which really brings the mysteries to life.
The mysteries themselves are quite fun, atmospheric and surprisingly varied. A few are genuinely creepy, too. They don't really work as puzzles, except in the sense of trying to second-guess how Conan Doyle writes. The interest is not so much in "whodunnit" (and indeed most of them aren't murders) but in how the story is going to come up with unexpected facts that fit the evidence available at the beginning. The sort of primitive forensic / scientific stuff seems fairly trivial to a modern audience, but I can see how it would have been exciting a century ago.
The odd thing about many of the stories is that nothing really happens after Holmes works out the facts of the case. I mean, sometimes he gets effusively thanked by the person who hired him as a private detective, but he doesn't bring the criminals to justice or anything, he just enjoys the satisfaction of knowing what happened. This often leads to bizarre, rather stretched comments about the criminal getting his just desserts just because of the way things work out. A lot of those I didn't find satisfying and some were downright unpleasant. There are some bizarre ideas about class and gender, but considering the epoch nothing really egregious.