Random House, 2001
ISBN: 0345396669
Random House’s attractive new edition of The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, part of their Modern Library series, includes the first twenty-four short stories to feature Sherlock Holmes. In the opinion of many readers, from casual fans to rabid Sherlockians, these stories are the best of the fifty-six short stories and four novels to feature Sherlock Holmes, an assessment that probably places them ahead of any other mystery fiction.
         Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance in 1887, along with his friend and biographer Dr. Watson. Over the course of more than one hundred years, Holmes has become many things to many people. He is the stereotypical Great Detective who appears in advertisements and cartoons, and an archetypal figure with Jungian overtones who brings light to the darkest corners of the human psyche. He is also, as portrayed by Basil Rathbone in the films of the 1930’s and 40’s, an unemotional reasoning machine with a gift for the occasional bon mot. This unimaginative approach is still popular today among the reams of "previously unpublished cases" which imitators of Conan Doyle produce every year. A few individuals, more perceptive than others, manage to draw out the emotional undertones of the character, making him into a profoundly human figure. They include Jeremy Brett, whose portrayal of Holmes on TV in the 80’s and 90’s will probably never be surpassed, and Laurie R. King, whose novels team Holmes with a precocious young woman who shares his talents, and succeed triumphantly.
         Most modern portrayals of Holmes, whatever form they take, are amusing failures: a few shed new light on the one character in literature who is almost universally recognized throughout the world. But there is still no substitute for the original stories. In his helpful introduction to this collection, John Berendt (author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) comments: "They are erudite, brilliant, and often enough, funny…there is no question that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sophisticated light touch has been a major reason for the enduring appeal of the Sherlock Holmes series." In the very first story in the collection, "A Scandal in Bohemia," Holmes needles Watson about gaining weight since his marriage. A few minutes later, he chides Watson for not being aware that there are seventeen steps from the ground floor of 221B Baker St. to the upper sitting room. Holmes’s continuing popularity has much to do with such quietly humorous moments, which make him more sympathetic to the reader, despite his unbelievable brilliance. These little vignettes also highlight the friendship between Holmes and Watson, who, incidentally, does not deserve the reputation for stupidity that still dogs him to this day.
         There are several undisputed classics among the twenty-four stories, including the grotesquely funny "The Red-Headed League" and "The Speckled Band," a story that is unparalleled in the hair-raising tension it induces. A mysterious bell-rope that doesn’t work, a bed that has been fixed to the floor, a sudden and terrible death by night–"The Speckled Band" is one of the most deliciously frightening short stories ever written. But there are other, lesser-known gems in the collection, such as "The Copper Beeches." In this story, a governess unwisely accepts a position at a sinister country house, where her duties include cutting her beautiful hair quite short and wearing an electric blue dress at certain times. Conan Doyle’s bizarre sense of humor is in full force in these stories, but the cases are always grounded by Holmes’s reassuring (though somewhat eccentric) presence, and Watson’s kindly helpfulness. Other notable stories include "Silver Blaze," a racing mystery that must be one of the most tightly constructed Holmes stories, and "The ‘Gloria Scott’", Holmes’s very first case as told by him to Watson. The volume concludes with "The Final Problem," the story of Holmes’s confrontation with his arch-enemy, Professor Moriarty. Readers will have to seek out other Sherlock Holmes collections to learn how the showdown in Switzerland really turned out.
         Unlike so many other popular characters of the 19th century and since, Holmes’s popularity shows no sign of ending. These well-crafted stories, with their sly humor, striking villains, and the incomparable team of Holmes and Watson, should be required reading for anyone interested in the development of the short story and the creation of a great literary figure.