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I love reading classics. It all started as a teenager when I was perusing our family library, as I was wont to do on occasion, and there on our shelf was a copy of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. It had a green embossed cover with gold lettering. It felt cool. I felt cool holding it. I wondered if it was as good as its cover and read the first paragraph. I was instantly drawn in. I finished the book in record time, for me, and my mind was blown. I never saw any of the plot twists coming. Most of the books I had read until then seemed weak in comparison. I had had my first taste of book caviar, and I liked it.
I'm sorry to say not all classics have lived up to Dickens’s high bar, Little Women—terrible, Robinson Crusoe—terrible, Austen-dull, dull, dull, until the last fifty pages. They are caviar of a different flavor apparently. However, many, many have; including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes adventures.
The mysteries are fascinating, surprising, and due to Sherlock’s taste, always peculiar. Sherlock is more machine than man, so Doyle created his antithesis in John. Through him we can see Sherlock’s odd personality and exploits from a man with whom it is far easier to identify. John’s point of view is somewhat limited as Sherlock does much that we know nothing about because John is not present. It keeps the writing fresh though. After the first two mysteries, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four, I thought I was detecting a formula. Clearly so did Doyle, because the formula I thought I was seeing was never present again. Sometimes, there was a long backstory after the capture of the villain, sometimes it unfolds naturally, ending with the villain's capture or escape. Sometimes the villain wasn’t really a villain but someone seeking justice and Sherlock, bound by the puzzle but not the law, would let him go... Sometimes Sherlock is gone for weeks or months at a time, then he shows up in one of his disguises scares John out of his tweed, and then fills John in on his adventures. Sometimes the mysteries involve nobles and sometimes small folk too. The mystery just has to have stumped the Scotland Yard, which apparently isn’t too difficult, and have an element of weird to it.
For a nineteenth century man, Doyle writes women incredibly well. He neither exalts them or marginalizes them. Sometimes women have central roles (e.g. Irene Adler—the only person to outwit Sherlock), and sometimes not, but what is evident is that there is a respect for women that comes through in his writing. The writing is very readable, there’s no Shakespearean double and triple meanings and it does not employ archaic words and phrases. However, there are a few English forms of speech that made me chuckle more than once; “The ejaculation had been drawn from my companion by the fact that our door had been suddenly dashed open…” *Snigger.*
Reading an omnibus of this magnitude (1700 pages) was challenging at times. Many of the mysteries are a mere thirty-fifty pages long, some are over a couple hundred, but always it took a little time to become interested, then things get exciting and you learn bits and pieces of the mysteries, then it’s over. And again, and again, and again. I would put it down, read something else for a while, then pick it up again. It was oddly comforting to know that these stories were waiting for me.
A couple disappointments: Professor Moriarty was somewhat anti-climatic. Sherlock deals with him without the presence of his chronicler John, so, we only see Sherlock as a man worn thin and ragged in his quest to capture him as he recounts his adventures. It stinks that we’re not there when it’s happening. Of course there is the famous, is-Sherlock-dead scene, but then he’s back to reveal how he faked his death to throw of Moriarty's cronies.
Also, the Baskerville Hounds story was truly lame. John kept exalting it as the greatest mystery EVER, but the villain and his designs were mundane and not terribly surprising or great. Modern retellings have actually improved this story…
I leave you with one of my favorite character descriptions:
“His face was lean and haggard, and the brown parchment-like skin was drawn tightly over the projecting bones; his long, brown hair and beard were all flecked and dashed with white; his eyes were sunken in his head, and burned with an unnatural lustre; while the hand which grasped his rifle was hardly more fleshy than that of a skeleton. As he stood, he leaned upon his weapon for support; and yet his tall figure and the massive framework of his bones suggested a wiry and vigorous constitution. His gaunt face however, and his clothes, which hung so baggily over his shrivelled limbs, proclaimed what it was that gave him that senile and decrepit appearance. The man was dying—dying from hunger and from thirst... “ A Study in Scarlet
And that, my friends, is how a master does it.
If you don't have the patience for the full omnibus, here are a few of the best:
- A Study in Scarlet - A masterpiece.
- The Sign of the Four
- The Red-Headed League
- The Boscombe Valley Mystery
- The Five Orange Pips
- The Man With the Twisted Lip
- The Adventure of the Speckled Band
- The Musgrave Ritual
- The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton - My favorite. John and Sherlock go rogue in this one and the ending is, oh-so-satisfying.