For some reason I seem to be avoiding a post about my latest Sherlock Holmes read, albeit subconsciously. Really, I liked it! But I thought, with R.I.P. VII starting tomorrow I’d better finally post today lest it be mistaken for an R.I.P. read, when I actually completed this selection of short stories earlier this summer.
This is the first set of Holmes short stories I’ve read, and although many seem to prefer the shorter tales to the novels, I find myself unconvinced. I think there are two reasons: 1) they’re so short there’s just not enough of Holmes and Watson and 2) I’m pretty sure my dad read some of the stories to my brother and me when we were little—and it took away a bit of the excitement when I knew what was coming. True too in some instances, I knew enough of the conventions of mysteries that I could anticipate what was coming, but that’s not quite the same as knowing in advance that the bank’s going to be robbed when a bank hasn’t even been mentioned yet. I believe the received wisdom is that a well-written story—short or long—can be read again and again even though the ending may already be known, even if it is in fact a mystery. I confess myself dubious of this assertion when it comes to a mystery in short story format. There is so much that must be included—the introduction of wronged party, the statement of the mystery at hand, and the final explanation and resolution—and in such a short space, that there is little room for anything but the mystery itself, and thus my gripe that we don’t see enough of Holmes and Watson. Perhaps I am wrong, and in the hands of a master of the short story a mystery could be created that rewards many readings. In Doyle’s hands, however, the pattern seems to overwhelm the story.
Perhaps this is why one of my favorite of the stories included in this collection is “The Man With the Twisted Lip.” Here we are introduced to the mystery mid-stride, when Watson stumbles across Holmes in the middle of an opium den, in pursuit of information. The investigation underway, we follow along with Holmes. And I find this much more fun than the standard recitation of Watson’s bewilderment. I am spoiled here too by the recent BBC TV adaptation—set in contemporary London, I find that Sherlock gives us a preferable Watson, one who is intelligent, just not in the sphere of Holmes. Doyle’s original seems at times downright dim-witted. Has he not been around Holmes long enough to begin to understand his methods? In the TV series too, we have better opportunity to see the relationship between the character—there is a clear strengthening in the Holmes-Watson friendship over the course of two seasons—which again, I miss in the short stories.
Despite my disappointments, I found the stories perfect for dipping in and out of in spare moments. Some stories contained the element of adventure I enjoyed so much in The Sign of Four. And I should say I didn’t always know the ending! I am still looking forward to the later stories/novels (The Hound of the Baskervilles especially).The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are the earliest stories, so perhaps Doyle develops as a writer sufficiently that I will enjoy the later stories better, or maybe (fingers crossed), they’ll just be a tad longer. After all, my biggest complaint really boils down to “there’s not enough!”