Wednesday, November 28, 2012

New to You: SHERLOCK HOLMES Short Stories by Arthur Conan Doyle

scandal in bohemia

I wasn't going to write reviews for these short stories, but then the second season of BBC's Sherlock started, and I thought, why not? For those of you who don't watch the show, each episode of the second season of Sherlock was based on the three most popular Sherlock Holmes mysteries: A Scandal in Bohemia, The Hounds of Baskerville, and The Final Problem.

As I've said before in my review of The Sherlockian (Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Books), I'm not a big fan of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and it all started with The Hounds of Baskerville. We had to read it in sixth grade English and I was SUPER excited because 1. I'm a dork that way; and 2. I loved mysteries as a kid. And Sherlock is supposed to be the greatest mystery solver of all time, right? So imagine my disappointment when I was kind of bored with the book. There were no interesting female characters, and Sherlock himself was an arrogant ass. I'm aware that that's the entire point of Sherlock, and it wouldn't even have bothered me too much if he'd had one or two redeeming qualities, but he didn't. So I decided 'twas not for me and moved on with my life.

Fast forward a decade or *cough* two, and I've gradually warmed up to Sherlock Holmes. In other people's work--not Arthur Conan Doyle's. Him I'm still prejudiced against. But A Scandal in Bohemia was one of the selections in a Librivox short mystery collection I downloaded, and I thought it wouldn't hurt to give it a try.

A Scandal in Bohemia is famous for marking the appearance of Irene Adler, the only person to have ever bested Sherlock Holmes. The King of Bohemia comes to Holmes asking for help in the return of a set of letters, which detail his affair with Irene, to whom he was engaged but dumped in favor of marrying a princess. Holmes, naturally, has a plan, but Irene Adler is one step ahead of him.

I wasn't expecting much from A Scandal in Bohemia or Irene Adler--I anticipated Conan Doyle would either make her a vamp or a victim, and how much can one build of a character in a single short story anyway? However, I was pleasantly surprised. Holmes starts off being his know-it-all self, but then Irene shows up and things get a helluva lot more interesting. Conan Doyle did a good job of making Irene a believable, feminine character who is admired for her intelligence, not her boobage, and who has her own motivations in the story. She's not just there for the guys to lust after. I loved the end where the King of Bohemia declares, "What a woman!" and in response Sherlock says something to effect of, "Well, you're an idiot and you never deserved her anyway." Aw.

A Scandal in Bohemia definitely challenged my notions about Conan Doyle's writing being chauvinistic, and I now completely understand why the fascination with Adler's character persists. This was a great story!

final problem

The Final Problem is famous as the story where Conan Doyle killed off his most beloved character. I decided to read--well, listen to--it after seeing the last episode of Sherlock, "The Reichenbach Fall." Again, as with Scandal in Bohemia, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this short story.

The Final Problem opens with Watson in his medical office. He hasn't seen a lot of Sherlock since he got married, and this gives him the sadness. As if conjured by his thoughts, Sherlock shows up, acting even stranger than usual. It turns out the net is finally closing around his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty; and after receiving a visit from Moriarty at 221 Baker Street, Sherlock has decided he should leave the country until the master criminal is safely behind bars. Of course, Watson's game for an adventure, and soon they're setting out for Switzerland.

This was a very well-written story. Watson--or Conan Doyle, rather--sets us up for Sherlock's death from the first page--and it's a good thing, too, because otherwise his death would be too hard to take. Then we're taken on a fun cat-and-mouse chase through Europe, until the story's tragic conclusion.

I have, on occasion, accused Conan Doyle's writing of being emotionless, but that wasn't the case in The Final Problem. Not that it's sentimental or histrionic--far from it. But I felt so sorry for poor Watson at the end and it was very sad, even knowing that Sherlock isn't "really" dead. I can appreciate Watson's value as a relatable character in this series--we've all had friends we've lost, either permanently or just drifted away from, and The Final Problem resonates with that common experience. For that reason I think this story is one that's accessible to people who people who aren't fans of mysteries or Sherlock Holmes.

What I wonder is, did Conan Doyle plan on bringing Sherlock back at some point? I know the popular opinion is that he hated Sherlock and was happy to be rid of him, but the way he killed the guy off does leave open the possibility of Sherlock's (and Moriarty's, for that matter) return. Maybe the final problem isn't defeating Moriarty, but finding out what happened to Sherlock.

empty house

Ten years after killing Sherlock, Conan Doyle brought him back in The Empty House. It's a bit of mystery--har har--why he did so, but everyone is happy he did; and after the double whammy of The Reichenbach Falls and The Final Problem, I needed a pick-me-up.

Watson is carrying on, when one day Sherlock appears in his office. Watson faints. When he comes to, he's like, "Sherlock, is it really you?" etc. etc. I'm sure you can fill in the conversation for yourselves. Point is, for the last few years, Sherlock has been wandering around Europe, with the assistance of his brother, doing odd jobs and pretending to be dead. But he's been a little bored lately; and since England is the only place where interesting mysteries happen, Sherlock has decided to return.

I honestly could not tell you anything about the mystery in this story, but does it really matter? The point is, Sherlock's back! And he's wearing disguises! And Watson still can't recognize him when he's in a disguise. Seriously, I can't even see Sherlock and I'm still like, HELLOOO, WATSON, THAT'S OBVIOUSLY SHERLOCK IN DISGUISE. And he's tricksing people with his smarts and making wax casts of himself and going, "See what I just did there? No? Sorry, I forgot how slow you are."

The Empty House was not as good as A Scandal in Bohemia and The Final Problem. It seriously felt phoned-in. And Watson seemed to accept Sherlock's return way too easily. After the fainting spell, he's pretty laissez-faire about the whole thing. If one of my friends whom I thought was dead suddenly showed up at my house and was all, "Sorry I didn't write," I'd be PISSED. I'd want to either hug them or punch them in the face, and possibly both. Watson just shrugs it off and goes back to business as usual, as if he finds out dead people are actually alive on a semi-annual basis.

Anyway, The Empty House was okay. I don't think Conan Doyle was as psyched about bringing Sherlock back as he was about killing him off, but maybe it says something that after ten years, it feels like the detective never left.

For the most part, these stories have really improved my opinion of Conan Doyle's mysteries and writing. I'm NOT going to reread The Hounds of Baskerville, but I might consent to read more Holmes mysteries in the future. Do you have any favorites?

Originally published on Project Gutenberg Project.


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