I Can Call in Sherlock Holmes*

As this is posted, it’s 129 years since the publication of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the first collection of his short stories. Each of the stories had been published individually in The Strand, but this was the first compilation of them.  Many people (I am one of them) were drawn into crime fiction at least in part by these stories, and they remain influential today.

One of the interesting things about this collection is what it reveals about Holmes’ character. He’s often thought of as purely logical, dispassionate, and not attached to the people involved in his cases. But the stories suggest there’s more to his character than that.

In both The Adventure of the Speckled Band and The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Holmes takes on cases in which young women are in very dangerous situations. In the former, Helen Stoner approaches Holmes because she’s worried that the same fate that overtook her sister, Julia, will overtake her. Holmes investigates and finds that her fears were not fanciful. In the latter, Violet Hunter is considering accepting a job as a governess, and she wants Holmes’ counsel on the matter. There are some things that concern her about the position, and Holmes agrees that she has reason for that concern. She takes the job anyway, but when real trouble comes, she asks for (and gets) Holmes’ help. You might argue that these are cases of ‘rescuing a damsel in distress,’ but it’s also a demonstration of Holmes’ compassion. He is truly concerned about these women’s welfare.

Holmes shows his ability to be discreet, too. In The Boscombe Valley Mystery, he solves the murder of Charles McCarthy. It’s believed that the killer is McCarthy’s son, James, but he claims he is innocent. Holmes finds out who really killed the victim, and, equally importantly, what the motive was. Once he learns the truth, Holmes chooses not to reveal the killer’s identity unless it’s necessary to free James. It doesn’t turn out to be necessary, and we can guess that the real killer is left in peace. We also see Holmes’ discretion in The Man With the Twisted Lip. In that story, he solves the mystery of Neville St. Clair, a successful businessman who seems to have disappeared after his wife saw him at a disreputable opium den. When Holmes works out what happened to Mr. St. Claire, he finds that the man was keeping a secret. If that secret comes out, his reputation would be ruined (which to him, is far worse than a prison sentence).  Holmes and the police agree to keep St. Clair’s secret, as there is no need to reveal it. Fans of Conan Doyle’s work will know that there are several other stories, too, in which Holmes uses discretion to protect someone.

Holmes proves himself to be human, too, in this collection. He doesn’t always ‘get his man.’ For instance, in The Engineer’s Thumb, he takes the case of Victor Hatherley, who’s been injured in a bizarre incident that he recounts to Dr. Watson. It seems he was called to a private house to examine a hydraulic press that turned out to be used for counterfeit coins. When Holmes deduces where the place is and that it’s a counterfeit operation, he and the police rush to the scene, but they don’t get there in time; the counterfeiters have made their escape.

In A Scandal in Bohemia, Holmes proves himself to be human enough to be attracted to someone. In order to preserve the King of Bohemia’s reputation (so that he can marry), Holmes agrees to retrieve a compromising photograph of the king with an actress called Irene Adler. It turns out, though, that she is more than a match for Holmes, and makes her escape with the photograph in question. In a note to Holmes, she promises not to reveal the photograph unless it’s necessary to protect herself. In exchange, she leaves a photograph of herself, which Holmes keeps. He always thinks of her afterwards as the woman.

Of course, Holmes is also a brilliant detective. In The Red-Headed League, he uncovers a devious plan to rob a bank. It all starts when a pawnbroker named Jabez Wilson comes to Holmes with a strange story of being hired by a mysterious group called the Redheaded League. When the group suddenly disbands, Wilson wants to know the story behind the group. Holmes takes the case and finds out that Wilson’s pawn shop is close to a bank, and that a group of thieves has dug a tunnel from the shop to the bank. We see several of Holmes’ legendary skills at work in this story. Those skills are also on display in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. In that story, a man’s hat gives Holmes all sorts of clues about its owner, and that leads to an intriguing case of a stolen gem and a goose.

The other three stories in the collection (A Case of Identity, The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor, and The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet) also show Holmes’ skill at deduction. They also show that there’s more to his character than that. Little wonder the stories are still so influential.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sparks’ Sherlock Holmes.


12 thoughts on “I Can Call in Sherlock Holmes*

    1. Thank you, KBR. You put that really well: the same detective who espouses pure logic and reason can certainly let his emotions guide him! I rather like that about his character, actually… And I think ACD is always good for a re-read!

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  1. I haven’t read much of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels or short stories, Margot. Just A Study in Scarlet and a couple of short stories. I know I should get to more of the short stories soon. Very interesting post.

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  2. Ah, a great round-up of a great collection! Holmes was definitely what drew me to crime fiction, although Enid Blyton had some input too, and I love seeing Conan Doyle’s influence on so many of the Golden Age authors though very few of them ever come up to his standards, in my humble opinion! And I do think it’s unfair Holmes has acquired a reputation as a cold calculating machine. He may not wear his heart on his sleeve the way my lovely Watson does, but several times he shows how much he cares about his friend as well as showing kindness to various clients and criminals along the way.

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    1. Thanks, FictionFan! You’re absolutely right about ACD’s influence on Golden Age authors, and even today’s writers. Like you, Holmes drew me to crime fiction, and I’ve always liked those stories where he shows his human qualities. I think it makes him all the more interesting as a character, to be honest. As you say, he has that reputation as cold and calculating, but there is more to him than that. And you know, I’ve always liked Watson, too…

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  3. Holmes as human ties in with your previous post and my thoughts on Louise Penny’s book, The Madness of Crowds. It further reflects Conan Doyle’s passion for individual justice and his efforts to help reverse wrongful convictions or advocate for persons charged with crimes.

    The photo and opening paragraph reminded me that in Vicki Delany’s book, Elementary She Read, set in the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium located on Cape Cod, Gemma Doyle finds left on a shelf a copy of Beeton’s Christmas Annual. 1887 which contains the first Holmes story. Even the physical publications of Holmes’ stories find their way into crime fiction.

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    1. It is interesting, isn’t it, Bill, how the concept of people-as-individuals crept into this post, too. I hadn’t thought about it when I was writing the post, but you’re right. Holmes has a reputation as dispassionate, but he really does see the humanity in the people he works with. So does Watson. And that does reflect Conan Doyle’s view, I think.

      Thanks, also, for mentioning Elementary, She Read. What a great way to weave some of Holmes into a modern-dey mystery story. Delany really does write a fine book, and this is just one example of her skill. It shows, too, just how thoroughly Holmes has permeated our culture.

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  4. I read all the Holmes’ stories as a teenager and think I enjoyed them. I don’t think I’m tempted to re-read them to check though. Not enough time!

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