The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Not naturally the first place to turn to for starting to read Holmes books, but with this quality it could be thought of as the best.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: November 2013
Publisher: BBC Books
ISBN: 9781849907606

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I'm still not sure which is cheekier of the BBC – either riffing on the Conan Doyle originals for their own modern takes on Sherlock Holmes, or producing new editions of the original stories and novels with their young stars on the front, purely to tie a few sales down of what is now out of copyright. Certainly I think the latter is the greater crime, given the results on screen, for the number of young people picking up these classics for the first time on the basis of the TV and finding something quite against the grain of what they've ever read outside of school must be quite large. Still, anything to forcefeed classics to a new audience…

And, however archaic the language and however dated the contents of the stories, I don't think reading them could be called anything like anathema. Watson's writing here is amongst his best, even if he regularly indulges in old-fashioned casting – too many rural, guilty-seeming people sound quite ugly, with too many likeable people handsome. Phrenology was always just around the corner. But he's quotably poetic at times here, especially waiting outside a cabin in 'Black Peter' for whatever may befall him. Certainly, by the time Conan Doyle was getting fed up you can see a dropping off in writing standards, as witnessed by him/Watson/Holmes quantifying absolutes like 'unique', as he grew to do.

The unique that we get here is a definite and most enjoyable kind, however. (I nearly said 'singular', a very Watsonian word.) It starts with 'The Empty House,' a title with multiple meanings for a tale that brings us news of what really happened at the waterfall to leave Holmes absent, and likewise entertains us with a locked-room murder investigation undertaken by Watson and an aged bookseller. The unexpected continues with 'The Norwood Builder' – that and 'The Priory School' have brilliant conceits in playing with the form. But elsewhere we don't get what we might assume – 'The Dancing Men' is not about Morris dancing, for sure, and 'The Solitary Cyclist' is not exactly solitary.

Certainly the collection that followed this was shorter, quicker, and less satisfactory. Here we're even more than ever engaged with the sleuthing, with the crime and the path to the truth both being more convoluted. Nothing highlights that more than 'The Golden Pince-Nez', where some of the relevant clues are so ridiculously easy you kick yourself for not twigging on to them, some of Holmes' activities are far too clever for the reader, and some of the plotting is – well, in this case, a little fantastical. I'm not sure how much of 'The Six Napoleons' is guessable, as I knew the plot of that one, but it's still of interest. Some of the events of 'The Abbey Grange' are easily worked out, but again that's only some, and the fun is still present.

Indeed, as the quick introduction says, Conan Doyle must have been having fun here. Here is Holmes creating, not solving, what's almost a locked door murder mystery, and letting killers go. With the subtle smile presented with the end of 'The Second Stain' we get the best pay-off we can want, as Conan Doyle proves that we are at best on a level with Watson, and still never able to lose the surprises or delights that being in the company of Holmes was to offer. Of course, the writer himself did that, but that's another story. These thirteen here are top of the class stuff, and show the breadth of the genius involved. It's all the evidence you need to see why people have loved and adored these stories for generations – and clearly the BBC are now culpable in that too.

I must thank them for my review copy.

The latter collection, mentioned above, is His Last Bow.

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