Sherlock Holmes: Three of His Key Adventures
Best Holmes Story
Which of those below is your favorite Sherlock Holmes story?
by Christopher Peruzzi
Sherlockians will always argue what cases of Sherlock Holmes stand out the most.
This is understandable. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a character so rich that he's endured for over a century. In that time, the great detective's novels and short stories have become legend.
But let's be honest, certain stories stand out from the rest and are considered required reading. While I will not comment on all of Holmes' adventures, I want to highlight some of the more memorable ones and give new readers some crib notes.
You never know when you'll hear one of his lines quoted or butchered. The new BBC Sherlock series has made and paraphrased many of his more well known lines - such as when he remarked about the topics of politics and astronomy cluttering his hard drive.
This is similar to his line in A Study in Scarlet:
"I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
Let's start with the first and one of the best short stories...
A Scandal in Bohemia
She is always the woman. Watson begins this adventure.
This is one of the really pivotal stories that define a well-known and very misunderstood side of Holmes.
There are many who believe Holmes to be a misogynist. In reality, he is not. He can be said that he is suspicious of women’s motives and has some minor difficulties deducing them. However, if there were any case that could show that Holmes could be swayed by a woman, it is “A Scandal in Bohemia”.
The is how the story begins.
Holmes and Watson are found reading a note and are deducing the qualities of the author. It is evident that the writer is a male by the handwriting. The language, although written in English, is syntactically cruel which would indicate that the author is primarily German. The grade of the paper is peculiar and once held to a candle shows a foreign letter mark which could only be produced in Bohemia. The paper is well made and very expensive. As they are putting the letter away they see their guest is about to arrive. He comes in a carriage drawn by two horses indicating, if nothing else, that there will be money in this case.
The guest is wearing a mask but is dressed in an unusual military garb. Holmes correctly deduces the man’s identity as the King of Bohemia. The king is being blackmailed by the American adventuress, Irene Adler (from Hoboken, New Jersey). She is in possession of a picture of a photograph with her and the king. She believes that she’s been a wronged woman and is looking to destroy the king’s upcoming marriage in a scandal.
This story stands out as it is one of the first times Holmes is foiled in one of his stratagems. Irene Adler proves herself to be resourceful enough to recognize Holmes’ scheme and was able to escape with the photograph and with an admission that Holmes is far superior antagonist for her to stay.
While Holmes has disguised himself twice in this story he is outwitted in the same method as he used against Adler – by allowing her to drop her guard in a moment of weakness. She manages to disguise herself as a man and manages to hear Holmes explain to Watson how he has figured out Adler’s hiding place.
This story will always be known as the time a woman got the better of Holmes and how much he admired her for it.
The Red Headed League
I love this story because it’s one of the more amusing ones.
Holmes’ client is a red headed man named Jabez Wilson. He owns a pawn shop in downtown London across from the Royal Bank. One day, his assistant, Spalding tells him about an opening for the Red Headed League. It is an exclusive club for people who have red hair.
Now, Wilson has a head of bright red hair and is taken to apply for a position for the League. He is accepted on the condition that for two hours between a set few hours, he must not leave the building and must copy the Encyclopedia Britannica word for word. For this he would be paid a nominal fee.
Wilson does his task for a few weeks. Then one day he comes to the League headquarters to find that it was disbanded. When he looks for the owner, he is lead to a manufacturer of artificial kneecaps.
He sees Holmes because he’s upset.
In this adventure, we see Holmes truly in the process of his meditative deductive reasoning skills where he’s using both his logic and imagination to solve the crime. He sits in his chair and contemplates his “three pipe problem” – a problem that will require him the contemplation time to smoke three pipes – and then celebrate by listening to a violin concerto.
If I were to recommend any random story for a beginning fan, it would be this one. You don’t have to know much about Holmes other than he’s a detective and these are the skills he used to solve the crime.
The Man with the Twisted Lip
I like this one because from a writer’s perspective, it’s a true sample of Holmes’ axiom of “once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Holmes and Watson are called in for a case, by the wife of Neville St. Claire – a well to do gentleman – who’s gone missing. Mrs. St. Claire, while in town, thought she’d seen her husband on the second floor of an opium den, she goes to the front door and is denied entrance by the landlord saying that there is no one upstairs. She came back with the police who go upstairs to find nothing but a beggar in the room named Hugh Boone.
When the police question the land lord to ask why he was lying, he says he was not – Mr. Boone is a beggar and doesn’t count. Upon further inspection, St. Claire’s clothes are found as well as a bunch of building blocks he’d promised for his child.
In this case we learn a bit more about Holmes’ experimentation with drugs. On occasion he uses opium to blend in on a case. Opium, by the way, was a legal substance at the time.
There is also much to be said about English society at this time and what Watson thinks of drug use.
It’s a good story and every adaptation I’ve seen of it always turns out well. I’m just surprised that the character of Hugh Boone isn’t used more in other non-canon stories.
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The Sherlock Holmes Canon like any adventure serial is an exercise in building a cast of characters. Unlike most book series, there are very few characters that make multiple appearances.
The ones that do are part of the regular cast like - Mrs. Hudson, Inspector Lestrade, Inspector Bradstreet, and Inspector Gregson. The officers that Holmes usually works with he terms "the best picks of a bad lot."
Much like the character of Hercule Poirot and modern day comic books, these characters grow and slowly become part of our culture and collective consciousness.
In these three stories, we learn not only more about our cast of characters but also how well Doyle constructs a well done, yet simplistic mystery.
© 2012 Christopher Peruzzi