Iain's Leisure Reading


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Sherlock Holmes canon   






Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes are featured in Following the Detectives, real locations in crime fiction.

I guess Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes is possibly the world's most famous detective. Just about everyone knows his address - 221B Baker Street. I remember reading lots of these stories when I was a schoolboy. At the same school there was a fellow pupil Ian Sutherland whose party trick was to answer obscure questions about Sherlock Holmes. We were never able to test him fully because he knew so much more about the subject than we did. He would ask himself obscure questions, and then answer them himself. Happy Days !

Sometimes when I research a new author, I have to admit that I have not been able to find out that much about the said author. But in the case of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, there is an embarrassment of information.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh in 1859 of an English alcoholic father, and an Irish catholic mother. A wealthy uncle ensured that Doyle had a good Jesuit education, including a spell (1875 to 1876) at at a Jesuit College in Austria. Conan Doyle later rejected the catholic faith, became an agnostic, but dabbled in spiritualist mysticism. He studied medicine at Edinburgh Uni. 1876 to 1881, and practical botany at the famous Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. About this time he also started writing short stories, and also academic articles - eg "Gelsemium as a Poison" in the BMJ in 1879. Not surprisingly, Holmes was an expert on poisons. He worked as a doctor, as a ship's surgeon, and with a friend set up a medical practice in Plymouth in 1882, before, later the same year, striking out by himself in Southsea, Portsmouth. The practice was not a success, and so Doyle took to writing fiction. In 1890 he studied ophthalmology in Vienna, and then set up a practice in ophthalmology in Wimpole Street, London.

Doyle's first work "A Study in Scarlet" got good reviews. He based Sherlock Holmes on his former university teacher Joseph Bell. Surprisingly from the start, he had a love hate relationship with his creation. He just wanted time to do more important things. He told his mother in 1891 that he was thinking of slaying Sherlock Holmes, but she begged him not to. To deflect publisher's demands for more Holmes stories he raised the price to what he thought would be discourageing levels, but they paid, and he became one of the best paid authors of his time. In 1893, in "The Final Problem" he had Holmes plunge to his death in the Reichenbach Falls, locked in a struggle with Prof Moriarty. Later he had to resurrect Holmes - only Moriarty had perished, but to fool other enemies Helomes pretended also to have perished.

Conan Doyle published lots of other books, including a series of maritime themed works, and historical novels which many critics regarded as his finest work. He was an accomplished sportsman - at football and cricket ( he took the wicket of W G Grace !) In 1885 he married Mary Louise Hawkins, a sister of one of his patients. She died of TB in 1906. He then was free to marry Jean Leckie in 1907. Jean lived until 1940. He was the father of five children, the last of which died in 1997. He wrote a note justifying the Boer war, and was knighted, he thought, as a reward. He twice stood unsuccessfully for parliament as a Liberal. He campaigned to fight miscarriages of justice.

He suported mystical subjects. After the death of his first wife, and the early death of a son,and then many other deaths in the family he sank into depression, but found solace in spititualism, and its attempts to find proof of existence beyond the grave. He was apparently convinced of the veracity of the five Cottingley Fairy photographs - decades later exposed as a hoax. In 1919 a London magician staged a phoney seance that fooled Conan Doyle. Doyle later became a friend of the American Harry Houdini, who worked to debunk mysticism. Sadly Doyle thought Houdini had supernatural powers - Houdini was unable to convince his friend that they were only illusions !

Doyle died of a heart attack in 1930.






A Study in Scarlet,     (1887)


I read this book in March, 2016.

Sherlock Holmes is probably the most famous detective in the world. I am sure I had read Sherlock Holmes stories in my childhood, but recently I came across the Complete Works in a charity shop , an omnibus costing only 2.50. What a bargain - I had to give it a go !

The stories are set out in the correct squence, and so I started at page 13, with "A Study in Scarlet" Here we meet Dr Watson a retired military surgeon whose health was ruined by a spell in Afghanistan, and who had been send home to die in England. It was the 1880's, and Watson had to survive on a daily pension of 11 shillings and six pence. He needed to find decent lodgings , and was introduced to Sherlock Holmes by a mutual friend. Together, Holmes and Watson could pool resources, and afford keep and lodgings at 221 B Baker Street, London. They had a bedroom each, and a shared lounge, and were looked after by a landlady and her maid. It turns out that Holmes is a consulting detective, and is extraordinarly gifted.

Nowdays, Holmes infallable powers of deduction are just beyond credence, but go with the flow, don't be too critical, and it all works surprisingly well.

We meet two Scotland Yard detectives, Gregson and Lestrade. They are rivals, both keen to consult Holmes, but both determined to keep all the glory to themselves. Dr Watson thinks this unfair, keeps notes, and is determined to make sure that the public get to hear of the genius that is Sherlock Holmes.

We start with the deaths of two Americans in London - Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson - killed by Jefferson Hope, also an American. It is Holmes who captures Jefferson with his incredible powers of deduction.

The story then switches to tell us about John Ferrier, the guide of an ill fated party of pioneers. They fail to find water in the barren lands as they head west, and all but Ferrier and a very young girl, Lucy are dead. John tells Lucy how hopeless their case is - we will be dead within hours. Lucy brightens up - why that is wonderful, I will meet my mother at Heavens door, and she will be waiting to greet me with a drink, and my favourite biscuits. This is the finest Victorian melodrama, as Lucy cuddles down at peace in John Ferrier' lap. Not a dry eye in the place. I don't mean to mock, its a good story indicative of the times.

Happily John Ferrier and Lucy do not die, but are saved by a wagon train band of Mormons, thousands strong, heading towards their promised land. They will save John and Lucy if John converts to become a morman - which of course he does. John and Lucy recover their strength, John proves to be a good guide and hard worker, and when they get to Utah, John is given land, and he resolves to bring up Lucy as his own. John observes all the Mormon practices, but will not take multiple wives. This is criticised, but nothing is done about it, yet ! Time passes, Lucy grows to beautiful womanhood, and by chance meets a young Jefferson Hope, who is not a morman. Soon they fall in love. And then the sons of two morman leaders call on John - they are Drebber and Stangerson, and each wants to add Lucy to their collection of wives. John resolves to flee with Lucy, and sends word to Jefferson of their plight.

And so the story unfolds, and I won't say any more to spoil it.

Queen Victoria lived from 1837 to 1901, and this was a time of get up and go attitudes, the empire, public works, new railway stations and grand new hotels, but also a time of great change in Victorian London. The old handsome cabs, candles, deference was making way for electric lights, the motor car, the gramaphone, etc. London, a world city is about to change - and old London is as much a star as Sherlock Holmes in these tales. Enjoy it while you can!

I liked the story on lots of levels. It was a good moral tale with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I liked Sherlock Holmes, and honest Dr Watson. And I really liked the social history. So I am sure I am going to enjoy these stories.






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The Sign of the Four,     (1890)


I read this book in May, 2016.

This is the second Sherlock Holmes story, book two in the Complete Stories that I am reading. It's quite a short story of only 77 pages - but it took me quite a while to read it, which is not a good sign. I wasn't really gripped by this tale, although it was interesting enough, and well told, but just a little dated. Of course a story published in 1890, 126 years ago as I write this, is bound to be of it's time (old fashioned). It's set in a London of fogs, handsome cabs, where most households have servants, but where extreme poverty makes life a mysery for so many. The writing style is also archaic - but it was interesting as social history.

We were introduced to Holmes and Dr Watson in book one. Now we learn more of Holmes's character, of his melancholy, of his love of cocaine, and of his strange views of the female of our species. He holds that they are not to be trusted as they are guided by emotion not reason ! The book opens with Holmes without an interesting case to occupy his formidable mind - and so resorting to cocaine. Watson lives rather in awe of Holmes, but eventually he must speak up, and caution Holmes about the danger of cocaine, and what it might do to his brain. Holmes ignores this advice. Happily an interesting case turns up to occupy the mind of the great detective, and the cocaine is set aside, but only until the end of the book.

The story starts off gently when Mrs Hudson, Holmes's housekeeper, shows Miss Mary Morstan into the Holmes / Watson parlour. Mary is a blond, young lady, small, dainty, well gloved, and dressed in the most perfect taste. Dr Watson describes Miss Morstan in great detail - she has clearly made a great impression on the good doctor. For the past few years, Mary has been sent a valuable diamond on each birthday from an unknown benefactor, and now that she and the benefactor are to meet for the first time, she wants two gentlemen to accompany her for safety. She has been warned not to contact the police - any sign of them, and the benefactor will not show up. The story then really takes off - it's a story set originally in the India of the Indian mutiny, and involves a fabulous treasure stolen by a gang of four, who in turn are cheated out of the treasure by a Major John Shalto and eventually the treasure passes down to the major's two sons - the two Shalto brothers, Thaddeus and Bartholomew. Thaddeus wants to do the right thing and give Miss Morstan her share - a share inherited from her father, a partner of the Major John Shalto. The mystery deepens when Bartholomew is discovered dead in a locked room - poisoned by a dart from a blow pipe, and the treasure has gone.

Throughout Mary Morstan behaves with great bravery and dignity, and Dr Watson falls deeply in love with this woman that he hardly knows. But he cannot tell Mary of his feelings for her firstly because she is in great distress, and Watson would be taking advantage of a defenceless woman. And then he cannot say anything because Mary stands to inherit a vast fortune, puting her beyond the reach of a somewhat impoverished Dr Watson.

It all builds to a fair climax, and at the end, Watson is free to tell Mary of his feelings, and Holmes to return to his cocaine pipe. As with book one, there is a story within a story again - that of the origin of the treasure - and I thought that that was almost the best part of the book.

Overall I preferred book one, but this story was interesting enough, and I will read on.






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The Hound of the Baskervilles,     (1901-1902)


I read this book in October, 2016.

This is the third Sherlock Holmes story, book three in the Complete Stories that I am reading. It's definitely the best story to date - a great story, well written, where the action takes place in London, but mostly on Dartmoor, in Devon. We know the area well.

This is a very famous story - I am sure I must have read it when I was a schoolboy, and probably seen one or some of the many films of the story. That said though, I had mostly forgotten the detail, and on reading it I was struck by how fresh the story was, what a puzzle it presented to Sherlock Holmes (and his readers), and apart from a few archaic expressions, the story nor the writing did not appear too dated. Also, apart from the final chapter -the Retrospection - we are spared the gigantic jumping to always correct conclusions by the observant Holmes.

The story opens in London, when a Dr Mortimer calls upon Holmes for advice. He is executor and friend of the late Sir Charles Baskerville, who has just died in horrible circumstances - perhaps frightened to death by a fearful hound "of the devil". He tells Holmes and Watson of the story behind the curse of the Baskervilles. All of that line are now dead, apart from the new Sir Henry Baskerville, whom Mortimer is to meet in London. The question is should he take Sir Henry back to Baskerville Hall on Dartmoor, and probably into terrible danger, or should he do all he can to tell Sir Henry never to come to Devon. Dr Mortimer is a man of science, but he fears he may be up against supernatural forces. Holmes concentrates on the problem, and recognises that here is a great puzzle, worthy of his talents. He sends Watson down to Devon with Sir Henry, telling him never to let Sir Henry out of his site. However this becomes easier said than done when Sir Henry meets and woos a Miss Stapleton, "sister" of one of his neighbours.

Mostly I read on, anxious to find out what happened next, and what was the rational explanation for all the strange events unfolding on Dartmoor, terrifying the natives, and testing Watson and Sir Henry. I worked out / guessed the identity of the strange man on the Tors, or perhaps it was just a fragment of the story that had re-emerged from my memory. That is the problem with reading such a well known story. All in all though, that did not spoil the story for me. The tale is famous and well loved story because it deserves to be.

As an aside, it is strange that although Sir Arthur Conan Doye believed in the supernatural, and spiritulism, his famous creation Sherlock Holmes certainly did not. There are all sorts of clues as to the true nature of the Hound of the Baskervilles. I did not get it at the time, but the theft of Sir Henry's boots, first his new ones, and then his old ones, was one such clue.

All in all, a good tale that has stood the test of time. I look forward to reading the next in the series.






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The Valley of Fear,     (1914-1915)


I read this book in April, 2017.

I have just realised that I am reading these stories in the order as presented in my omnibus edition of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. I guess I had better stick to this, but usually I far prefer to read a series in the order in which the various books were written. This usually allows us to better follow the personal life of the hero / heroine.

I'm not sure if I have read "Valley of Fear" before. If I have it was many, many years ago. This is the problem with reading something so famous as Sherlock Holmes - when you think you are slightly ahead of the author and are not greatly surprised at some of the plot twists, is this just because you have a distant memory of reading it all before ?

This is a story where we meet Holmes' arch enemy, the evil genius Professor Moriarty. I thought it was quite a good story, but once again there is a back story within the story, set in America, and so for a lot of the book Sherlock Holmes does not feature at all. I felt just a little cheated.

The story opens in London when Sherlock manages to decipher a message sent to him by a mysterious spy Porlock close to Moriarty. Someone called Douglas in a place called Birlstone is in great danger. But at the same time inspector Alex McDonald of Scotland Yard calls on Holmes for assistance in a very strange case where an American John Douglas has been cruelly killed - his face blown away by a double barrelled shotgun. As an aside, when a murder victim is badly burned or shot in the face this is as often as not a trick - the murdered victim may not be the person we think it is. Anyway, "John/ Jack Douglas" seemed safe in a remote manor house protected by a moat and a drawbridge, but nevertheless someone got into the house and did the deed. Douglas's wife (his second wife) seems surprisingly calm, and is consoled by a family friend a Mr Barker. Apparently Jack Douglas had been suspicious of Mr Barker's friendship with his wife. There are now three detectives trying to solve the puzzle as to what really happened - Alex MacDonald, the local detective Mr White Mason ,and of course, Sherlock Holmes. It is Holmes who solves the puzzle, but then we switch to the back story to learn how Jack Douglas came to end up in England. We follow the story of an apparently corrupt union official McMurdo working for a very corrupt union gangmaster in a coal mining valley in California. McMurdo courts the beautiful Ettie - and to cut a long story short, Ettie and McMurdo are the first Mr and Mrs Douglas. Was McMurdo really a murdering union thug, or someone else ?

We have almost lost track of the Moriarty connection when all is revealed at the end of the book - Douglas really is dead, Moriarty has achieved what he set out to do, no matter how long it took. I thought this bit was not at all convincing - if Moriarty sought revenge, why did Douglas survive apparently safely for ten years until some fellows were released from jail. Surely Moriarty would have got at Andrews in some other way, and faster ?

Overall though, I thought it was a good story - especially when Sherlock Holmes was around. But I am sure there are better Sherlock Holmes stories.






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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,     (1891-1892)


I read this book in June, 2017.

This is book five in the series about that most famous of detectives of Baker Street, London - Sherlock Holmes. It's a collection of 12 short stories, each about 20 pages long

I particularly liked :-

A Scandal in Bohemia where Sherlock Homes comes up against the remarkable Irene Adler who has a compromising picture of herself with her former lover, the King of Bohemia. The king employs Holmes to get the photo back, and Holmes uses an old trick to get Irene Adler to reveal where she has hidden the photo. But Irene is a worthy match, and the ending is not as planned by Holmes, winning Irene "the lady" his respect and and admiration.

The Red Headed League is a nice story where red headed Jebez Wilson is tricked into leaving his business for 4 hours each day to be overpaid to copy out an encyclopedia. I worked out the plot when we were told about a neighbouring bank.

I liked The Boscombe Valley Mystery where Sherlock Holmes was called in by the girlfriend of James McCarthy to help prove that James did not kill his father, although everything pointed that way. Holmes identifies the murderer (as good as), but the police (Lestrade) can't be bothered and so Sherlock can do what he considers to be the right thing.

I liked the variety of these 12 stories. In The Man with the Twisted Lip we have a story about a missing man, feared murdered, until Holmes solves the case with soap and water. And in The Blue Carbuncle we have a tale of a lost goose and a felt hat. Eventually Holmes restores a precious stone to its rightful owner.

All in all, I enjoyed reading these 12 assorted stories, and was impressed to Holmes's cold logic. But that said, I much prefer a proper full story to 12 little ones. Sadly the rest of the Sherlock stories also seem to be short stories. I should mention that the order I am following is as per the omnibus book.

The above stories seem to cover the period 1882 to 1890. Within this period Dr Watson gets married, and moves away from Baker Street, but still calls round to see his friend, and chronicle his adventures. Dr Watson's wife is very understanding, but she does have a lot of resepct for Sherlock Holmes.

Finally, although I enjoy playing the game of trying to solve the mystery before Dr Watson, (and sometimes I seem remarkably good at this), I am never sure if I really am working it out from the clues, or if I am just half remembering the plot from some previous reading, perhaps even from my school days. I'm afraid I have no way of telling.






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