Sherlock Holmes needs no introduction, really. But I’ll give it a shot anyway.
I’ve been reading and rereading these stories basically since I learned to put letters together. Before that, family members read them to me. My earliest ambition was to be a private detective with a pipe, a deerstalker hat, and a magnifying glass. I already had the magnifying glass—a red plastic one—and have since obtained a gray tweed deerstalker and a pipe which has never known tobacco, but which sits proudly on my desk, nonetheless.
I’m a smidge taller now, and quite a lot balder, but my literary tastes haven’t changed. There’s something immeasurably comforting about settling down into an armchair in Baker Street, in company with Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson, and listening in while Holmes’s clients share details of the bizarre mysteries that plague them.
These stories have a rhythm that makes them reassuring, but an ingenuity that keeps them interesting. That’s a tough balance to strike. I know, because I’ve been trying to manage it in my most recent novels, which are meant to be funny, exciting, and refreshing to people who feel worn thin from everything that’s going on in the world.
The Holmes stories are formulaic in the best possible way, but Arthur Conan Doyle also knew precisely when to deviate from his formulas. In the collection I just finished, The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, you can feel him growing bored with his famous detective, bucking against the patterns he set for himself. Actually, it reminds me a lot of the Calvin and Hobbes strips where Bill Watterson does everything he can to break free of the step-by-step format inherent to funny papers. Just like a comic where a detailed illustration of a dinosaur takes up all the allotted space, some of these stories attempt to burst out from their own constraints.
Instead of having the client come up to Baker Street and explain their problem, as readers know is supposed to happen, some stories start in the middle, or even near the denouement. In one, The Adventure of the Dying Detective, Watson isn’t privy to any of the preceding events, and only comes in at the very end, when Holmes is lying in his sickbed, seemingly about to expire.
His Last Bow is the very final chronological Holmes story. Holmes and Watson are old men who no longer fit in the changing world, but must put their powers to work thwarting a German spy the day before WWI begins. The narrative is in third person, and mainly from the pov of the German spy. It maintains distance between the reader and the two characters who we’ve come to know so intimately. It’s heartbreaking, actually.
Two other stories never actually mention Sherlock Holmes. Instead, they refer to “an amateur detective of some renown,” who suggests solutions to public mysteries via newspaper columns. Even more formula-busting, these solutions are utterly wrong! Arthur Conan Doyle wrote both pieces during the period after he infamously attempted to kill off Holmes, but they feel almost like the work of G.K. Chesterton, who penned a transparent Father Brown tale in which a certain famous detective comes up with a hilariously overcomplicated solution to a unique problem.
I’ve often felt irritated at the way Chesterton portrayed Sherlock Holmes—just as I feel irritated with almost every Holmes rip-off not written by Arthur Conan Doyle—but after reading The Story of the Lost Special and The Story of the Man with the Watches, I don’t think Doyle would’ve minded.
It’s ironic that Arthur Conan Doyle felt Holmes was overshadowing the historical fiction he was more passionate about. After all, most of us read Holmes not so much for the mysteries as for the hansom cabs, the fog-draped streets, the cozy fireplaces, and all the other trappings of the Sherlockian world. Doyle was always writing historical fiction—it just wasn’t historical when he wrote it.
Then again, perhaps true historical fiction has more to do with realism and tone than setting. The last book I read focused on the hardships ordinary Victorians faced. Transitioning from that to a collection of stories about gallant gentlemen solving mysteries in cozy parlors felt jarring. If you ask me, bookstores should start organizing their wares by tone and authorial intention rather than setting, reader age, or story type:
Complex Books, Cheerful Books, Sick-Day Books, Melancholy Books, Books to Make You Shiver . . .
Right, then. That’s enough about content. Now about the physical object.
I still have most of the old Sherlock Holmes paperbacks I read (or that family members read to me) as a child, but they’re so battered that I keep them in Ziploc bags so they won’t fall apart. Which is sad, because I happen to believe books are meant to be read, not just looked at. That’s where these come in.
If you spend any time browsing used bookstores, you’ve probably stumbled across these Reader’s Digest leatherbound editions. The official series name is The World’s Best Reading. They’re gorgeous, but, unlike many pretty book copies, they’re also portable. I’m all for special editions with gold-edged pages and textured dustjackets, but I prefer a book that I can cradle in a hammock, or tote along in the car, or tuck under my arm when I hit the walking trails, or prop up in bed. These editions are perfect for that. They have sturdy leather covers, occasional illustrations, and clean text that doesn’t strain my eyes.
Wikipedia tells me that Reader’s Digest has been releasing this series since the 80s. Each one includes a small brochure with info about the author and printing, but, since I bought mine used, only one of them includes the pamphlet. I know of people who won’t buy these editions without it, but, again, I consider books to be carrying cases for stories, not collector’s items for shelves. (Nothing against people who enjoy book collecting as a hobby. I think I’ve spent more money on books than on any other physical object I own, excluding my car.)
Every author dreams of having their books in a leatherbound set like this—a set you might find lining the oaken shelves of an old English country estate, or piled in teetering stacks in a wizard’s tower. If memory serves, I currently own four of the six Sherlock Holmes leatherbounds that Reader’s Digest has released. I fully intend to get my hands on the rest at some point.
Hurrah for beautiful (and readable!) books!