Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes Complete

I don’t read that many detectives or mysteries and one might not be surprised that I prefer those of great renown like Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle. What I like most of them is that despite the mystery centered plot their works give a vivid and recognizable picture of the then contemporary times in which they stories were written. While Agatha Christie’s novels mainly take place in the Interbellum and shortly after, all of Doyle’s mysteries take place before the first world war, in a time when modern technology was only at its breakthrough.

In the case of Arthur Conan Doyle I am of course talking about his stories about Sherlock Holmes, one of the most famous detectives ever created. Doyle wrote 4 novels and 56 short stories about him. As the works are more short of nature it is more appropriate to review these not separately but as a whole. I should also add that most of the so-called novels are of a relatively short nature, barely reaching a hundred pages, depending on the edition.

I own a very nice edition called Sherlock Holmes Complete (1985), divided into two large volumes. I bought it a long time ago and this is the third time, I think, I have read it. The stories are ordered in a chronological order. This is of relatively minor importance as Doyle has been very sloppy with his time references in most of his stories, except for three moments. The first two are of course related to the beginning and the end of what are in essence memoirs written by Doctor Watson, the ever present sidekick of Sherlock Holmes. The one other moment is caused by a break that Doyle took in his writing of Sherlock Holmes, being tired of the character. Doyle presented Holmes in a realistic fashion, no matter how fantastical the mysteries might seem. Just as the stories showed a development of Holmes over time, showing the beginning and the end of his career, he needed to give Holmes a break as well, as Doyle didn’t know if he would return to writing more stories.

I should not elaborate too much on these details. As I wrote before the stories depict an almost nostalgic view of late Victorian England. Of course it had its flaws but these were part of it. Every class of society had its peculiarities and so the stories were very recognizable. One could compare it the writings of Dickens although Doyle did not waste time on elaborate descriptions and introspections. It is actually rather surprising that Doyle wrote the stories in a very clean and sober way while his main character Sherlock Holmes was always looking for details. Doyle wrote for money and had to publish regularly. The plot thus was everything and he did not waste words where they weren’t essential. The reader will only find bare descriptions of characters or locations. Doyle gives the characteristics necessary and the reader will have to imagine it. And this works quite well.

The stories themselves are often not that complicated. Doyle simply creates puzzling situations because one has a limited view where misinterpretation plays an important role. Most of his novels are actually no better. Much of the story actually contains a separate narrative telling a more complex background of how current events came to be. The actually mystery was solved rather quickly. That doesn’t take away the fact that these stories inside the mystery are quite engaging.

One thing that I should address is that the Sherlock Holmes stories are in most cases actually more mystery than detective stories. The police may be involved most of the time, but often no actual crime is committed or apprehension of the supposed criminal does not happen. It is a detective because it is the occupation of Sherlock Holmes, but the stories themselves are of a different nature than what the common description of a detective contains.

The stories contain a wide variation of topics. What marks them is the great creativity which Doyle showed in writing so many original stories, keeping his approach and interest strong.

It is hard to say anything about the characters. Few exist which do not know them. Holmes and Watson were a pair that has been copied many times since in different but recognizable variations: the eccentric hyper-intelligent detective and his down-to-earth good-hearted common man companion. Of course I have seen many adaptations of the characters but in the end they are only adaptations. When reading their tales a different picture was created in my head which was much stronger and vivid than any of those adaptations. Making these two central characters that hard to approach I consider a great feat.

As I had done before during my previous readings of these works I enjoyed the stories intensely. It was hard to reach the end, knowing that it will take 5 to 10 years before most plots have become hazy enough for me so that I can enjoy them to the full extent again.

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