Last August I set out on a project to read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes cannon, from the first book to the last. It was my intentions to read and review a book each month. Following that schedule, I should’ve finished this project in April, but I encountered a couple hiccups along the way, a few missed months. But I never dropped the project, and now, nearly a year later, I’m ready to review the final book, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes.
Published in 1927, only three years before Doyle’s death, The Case Book collects together the last twelve stories of the canon. These stories first appeared in The Strand, Doyle’s periodical of choice for most his writing career, from 1921 to 1927. By the time he published The Case Book (or Case-Book in England), Doyle had been writing Sherlock Holmes stories for forty-one years. Though he wrote several other novels, stories, and nonfiction works–most notably the Professor Challenger series–we remember him best as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Would he appreciate this?
Doyle’s attitude about his fame detective had always been ambivalent. At times hostile. Several times during his career, he had tried to put Holmes aside for good. But the public craved fresh stories, and Doyle kept having ideas that he knew worked best as Sherlock Holmes stories. As such, he could never stop writing Holmes stories, until the end of his life. But part of the writer’s quest is the quest for immortality, to be remembered passed one’s life, and I suspect if Doyle could see how Sherlock Holmes still inspires, amazes, and entertains us now–almost ninety years after the final work–he would feel proud.
The Case Book is not the finest work; in fact, it is the weakest book in the canon. “The Creeping Man,” the third story in the collection, is the worst Sherlock Holmes story Doyle penned. After reading it, I wrote in my journal, “The worst story!” One way of thinking of it is Sherlock Holmes meets a mad scientist. It feels like a fusion between a Sherlock Holmes detective novel and a Professor Challenger science-fiction, but the science in the science-fiction is not very scientific, so the story falls flat. It’s hard to believe that Doyle, a man of science, would pen such dribbled, and there are some who argue that it’s a forgery. I do not know enough about this accusation to judge its credibility, but I do know that when Doyle collected these stories into The Case Book, he included “The Creeping Man” as his.
The ideas of my friend Watson, though limited, are exceedingly pertinacious. For a long time he has worried me to write an experience of my own. Perhaps I have rather invited this persecution, since I have often had occasion to point out to him how superficial are his own accounts and to accuse him of pandering to popular tastes instead of confining himself rigidly to fact and figures. ‘Try it yourself, Holmes!’ he has retorted, and I am compelled to admit that, having taken my pen in my hand, I do begin to realize that the matter must be presented in such a way as may interest the reader.
Other stories in the collection are also weak. Doyle’s writing had always been uneven. Some of his novels suffer structure and pacing problems, and every short story collection contained one or two stories that I felt were lazy. The Case Book suffer most from these problems. The stories are not as well thought out, and they are neither as exciting or as mysterious as we expect from Sherlock Holmes. In one story, “The Veiled Lodger,” Holmes does nothing but sit in a room and listen to a faceless woman, the veiled lodger of the title, describe a murder gone bad. This is forgivable because it is the second to the last Holmes story Doyle wrote. It is also the shortest. And the story the woman tells is interesting. But it is hardly what I wanted from a mystery.
But mixed in with these weak stores are some of the more interesting short stories Doyle wrote. In two stories, “The Blanched Soldier” and “The Lion Mane,” Holmes, not Watson, acts as his own narrator. Though not exciting stories, it’s interesting to hear Holmes describe the events himself. “The Illustrious Client,” the sixth story in the collect, is its high point. In truth, this is one of the finest Sherlock Holmes stories I’ve read in this project. It is dramatic and violent, and it introduces some of the more interesting characters in the canon. A prostitute named Kitty Winter plays a unique role in the canon. Women are often Holmes clients, and they are often his advisory, but they are rarely his ally. Winter is an exception. Next to Irene Adler, she’s the most interesting woman in Doyle’s canon.
‘Well, perhaps you have,’ said Holmes. ‘I’ll give you one. This case is quite sufficiently complicated to start with, without the further difficulty of false information.’
‘Meaning that I lied.’
‘Well, I was trying to express it as delicately as I could, but if you insist upon the the word I will not contradict you.’
I write these reviews for social and publicity reasons. I hope in reading them, you learn more about what books I read or what movies I watch, to help guide your own decisions. For most of my life, reading competed against movies and television for entertainment time, but these days, it also competes against computer games, internet browsing, social media, YouTube, and other web-based services. We have so many different options for watching television or movies that were never dreamt about in my youth. Entertainment time is getting crowded, both in the macro environment of our society as a whole and in the micro environment of my own life. Though for entertainment value, I don’t think we should judge one medium superior to the others. But we gain more than entertainment from reading good fiction. We also gain more from watching quality movies and, these days, compelling television series. Fiction adds dimensions to our lives that the other forms of entertainment lack.
Because of that, along with the social and publicity reasons, I write these reviews for a personal reason. In keeping this blog, I remind myself of the importance of storytelling to both society and to myself. I force myself not only to read more but also to pay closer attention to what I’m reading and to analyze it–the characters, the plot, the themes, etc. Since storytelling also comes to us via film and television series, the same considerations apply. Writing this blog is an important part of my development as a fiction writer and as a critic. Before reading all of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, I didn’t realize this. I discovered it in the context of reading these novels and short stories. For that reason, this project was well worth the journey.
And it was a journey that began with the novel A Study in Scarlet and ended with The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes. It was a journey that carried me through four novels and fifty-six short stories. Any writer’s canon is destined to have its better stories and its worst stories, and Doyle’s canon is no different. Of the novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles is the best Doyle has to offer. In mood, setting, plot, characters, and villains, it is the most quintessential Holmes mystery. Of the short stories collections, none stands superior to the others, and all are worth reading. Though Case Book is the weakest collection, there are diamonds in the coal bin. It is worth reading for the two stories where Holmes acts as his own narrator, and it’s worth reading to mine those diamonds.