Updated: Aug 28, 2020
Many a night have I sat next to Holmes and Dr. Watson in a hansom rattling through London fog on our way to a mysterious meeting, lay in wait for a villain, or to Scotland Yard to enlighten Detectives Gregson and Lestrade. I was only a few feet away from Dr. Watson when we first witnessed the demonic Hound of the Baskervilles and was aboard the police boat racing down the Thames chasing the Aurora trying to carry Jonathan Small and Tonga to safety. My sophomore year in college I was introduced to Holmes and Dr. Watson and we have been intimate friends ever since. It has always struck me about some of the inclusions in these stories written in the late 19th century in Britain. Doyle explores many topics including the evil of the K.K.K and its reach in Europe, the Mormon Angels of Death in Utah, and yes, even the Free Masons.
The four novels and fifty six short stories that make up the Holmes canon will always be in my home library, on my Kindle, and in Audible. What I can I say, I truly love these stories and they are my go to when I want to read and cannot find something new. For those of you that have not been properly introduced, let me give you a short summary before we get started.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were written about by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle between 1886 and 1927. Doyle did not invent the detective story, that honor goes to Edgar Allen Poe, but through his creation of Holmes and Watson, he was single handedly responsible for creating the public interest in the detective and mystery genre. It has been claimed that the original stories have been translated into more languages than any other work save the Bible. The first Holmes movie was made in 1900 and since then, he has appeared in more movies than any other fictional character in the history of cinema. And we can thank the cinema for delivering the phrase, "Elementary, my dear Watson," as you will not find it anywhere in the novels or stories.
A word of caution to those who have not tried these amazing stories. These are not like the recent movies or television series, they are better. You will notice some inconsistencies in continuity though, such Dr. Watson's original telling of his wounding in Afghanistan being in his shoulder and later being explained as a wound to his leg, or the confusion over how many wives Dr. Watson had.
In the Agatha Christie 1963 novel Clocks, she pays honor to Doyle with, "It is the author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that I salute. These tales of Sherlock Holmes ae in reality far-fetched or full of fallacies and most artificially contrived. But the art of the writing, ah, that is entirely different. The pleasure of the language, the creation above all of that magnificent character Dr. Watson. Ah, that was indeed a triumph."
If you have not tried the Sherlock Holmes novels or short stories, you should give the first novel a try, A Study in Scarlett and follow it up with The Sign of Four. After those, you will be ready to dive into the wonder of the fifty-six short stories. So let's get this underway and talk about five of my favorite Holmes short stories. I will try to not give away many spoilers, but that may be hard to do.
The Musgrave Ritual
The 17th short story and published as part of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. As Holmes was an untidy lodger, he decides to clear up his stacks of papers, notes, and objects from recent cases. When he opens his large metal box to store them, he discovers objects from his first case and relates the tale to Watson. What emerges is a clever story involving a nobleman, Reginald Musgrave, and the bizarre circumstances at his home, the Manor House of Hurlstone. This mystery involves a missing well-educated and bit of a Don Juan butler, Brunton, an ancient family ritual, and the ravings of a mad house maid, Rachel Howells. Holmes makes short work of this problem and discovers an over two centuries old connection to a king of England. However, they never discover the whereabouts of Rachel Howells. I wonder, did she throw herself in the pond to drown or did she scurry away in the night and start a new life elsewhere?
The Speckled Band
The 8th shorty story and was published as part of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. A young woman, Helen Stoner, appears in a state of terror at 221B Baker Street. She tells of the two-years-prior death of her twin sister, Julia, who she believes died of terror and fear. She lives with her step-father, Dr. Grimesby Roylott, in Surry of Stoke Moran. Her mother died many years earlier and now she is left alone with Dr. Roylott, was a disgraced physician that served in India with the Royal Bengal Artillery. Helen's bedroom was damaged in recent construction attempts and now is forced to stay in the very bedroom Julia died in two years earlier. She describes the gypsies who roam free on Stoke Moran as well as the exotic animals Dr. Roylott keeps, a cheetah and a baboon. After Helen departs, Dr. Roylott himself appears and threatens Holmes to not interfere with his matters. Dr. Roylott's violent outbursts and intelligence make him a cunning adversary. Holmes and Watson take up the case and lay in wait all night to wrap up this mystery. Will they act in time and will they discover the meaning of Julia's dying words, "It was the speckled band?"
The 13th short story and published in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes and Watson aboard a train are hurling down the tracks to toward Dartmoor. They discuss the strange facts at King's Pyland the training stables of Colonel Ross. His prize horse, Silver Blaze, the favorite to win the Wessex cup, is missing. The favorite's disappearance is confounded by the tragedy of the murdered trainer, John Straker. Inspector Gregory and Colonel Ross have asked Holmes to investigate the matter. Then there is the drugged stable boy, Ned Hunter and the appearance of a stylish young bookie, Fitzroy Simpson. When it is discovered that Simpson's scarf is clenched in the dead hands of Straker, his fate seems sealed. After only a day of investigating Holmes heads back to London and advises Colonel Ross that his horse will race on Thursday. Where did Holmes discover Silver Blaze and who murdered John Straker?
The Red-Headed League
The 2nd shorty story and published in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The striking singular story of Jabez Wilson, a pawn-broker, a Free Mason, a confirmed bachelor and the possessor of fiery red hair. He relates to Holmes how he was selected as a pensioner to the Red-Headed League. The league was purported to be started in America by Ezekiah Hopkins of Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He was a wealthy industrialist who left his fortune to provide for the needs of red-headed men and to perpetuate their spread. However, one day when Mr. Wilson appeared for his nominal duties, he discovered that the League had been dissolved. What does it mean? Is there something nefarious planned or is this just an odd mystery for Holmes to crack?
The Norwood Builder
The 25th short story and published in The Return of Sherlock Holmes. The young Mr. John Hector McFarlane showed up at Baker Street wild-eyed, frantic, and disheveled. He tells them that he fears he is being pursued by the police and they are seeking his arrest. He hands them the morning paper which details the fire at Deep Dene House and the murder of Mr. Jonas Oldacre. Mr. McFarlane tells Holmes that he just met Mr. Oldacre the day before. Apparently Mr. Oldacre was a former friend of his mother and father and had no children of his own so made Mr. McFarlane his heir to his fortune. He asked Mr. McFarlane to come to his house that evening and go over his papers and trusts. After dinner, Mr. McFarlane leaves, forgets his walking stick, and finds rooms for the night. In the morning he discovers the gruesome death and murder. Shortly, Detective Lestrade appears to arrest Mr. McFarlane. Was there a mysterious stranger on the road that night who committed this foul crime? As Lestrade shows by the evidence, there is no other culprit than McFarlane. The testimony of Mr. Oldacre's maid states that there was no one there besides McFarlane. Is Holmes wrong about McFarlane's innocence? If not McFarlane who could it be? Will the villain get away with his crime?
Friendship Defined I hope you will try these stories and discover the amazing abilities of Holmes, his agents, his showmanship, art of disguise, his brother Mycroft and his often distant and emotionless approach. While Holmes is indeed the detective, it is Dr. John Watson who grounds these stories and remains the Holmes' constant linchpin to reality. Holmes even notes that he is nothing without his companion as noted in A Scandal in Bohemia, when Holmes cries, "I am lost without my Boswell."
We learn so much of the character of Dr. Watson and his loyalty to Holmes and their bond born through mystery and danger. Their friendship is the true gift of these stories. Through Watson's marriage and his wife's death, their friendship remains. Even though Holmes tested their bond in The Dying Detective and in The Empty House when Holmes reveals himself after his suspected death two years prior in assumed plunge over Reichenbach Falls. This connection endures even into their respective retirements when they are called upon to protect England from Mr. Von Bork and a ring of German spies just prior to World War I. Holmes profoundly stated in His Last Bow, "Good old Watson. You are the fixed point in a changing age." For me, this applies to these stories as a whole. No matter what is happening in my life or my world, these are a fixed point.
When I open these stories, it is indeed 1890, I am at 221B Baker Street and a client has just burst through the door with a tale of fear and uncertainty. I watch Holmes slip his revolver in his pocket and nod to Watson to do the same as we rush down the stairs, hail a hansom and chase after one of the most dangerous scoundrels in all of Europe! Yes, the game is afoot and here it always will be!