I’ve loved mysteries almost as long as I’ve known how to read. I devoured Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden stories as a youngster, and graduated to Rex Stout in high school. Reading more about that author’s creation, Nero Wolfe, I learned that Stout loved the Sherlock Holmes canon, and left clues that perhaps Nero should be seen as the illegitimate child of Sherlock and Irene Adler. That intrigued me, but not enough to prompt me to pick up any Holmes stories.
Of course, it’s impossible to be a sentient being on Planet Earth in the 21st century and not be familiar with the basic facts of the Holmes-verse. From 221B Baker Street to “Elementary, my dear Watson!” to the detective’s obsession with detail, his fondness for cocaine, his Calabash pipe and his deerstalker cap are well known even to those of us who have never read a single Conan Doyle text. I decided late last year that it was high time I made a point of becoming acquainted with this seminal detective, and found The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes available as a free e-book download.
I didn’t realize until the last story in the collection that this wasn’t the best book to start with. For one thing, it falls more or less in the middle of the Holmes canon, and therefore assumes that the reader is well-acquainted with the backstory of Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. John Watson. Fortunately, as I mentioned above, it’s pretty impossible not to have gleaned enough Holmesian knowledge to be able to follow the stories easily. More problematic was the fact that the book ends with “The Final Problem,” which is the famous story in which Holmes meets his tragic end at Reichenbach Falls. Of course, we know now that it was not the end of Sherlock Holmes, and Conan Doyle went on to write quite a few more novels and especially short stories before finally hanging up his cape and deerstalker for good.
The most striking element of these stories, to me, was their relative lightweightness, if that’s a word. Yes, yes, Sherlock pays obsessive attention to detail, and numerous examples of his detecting based on observations that have completely escaped the notice of the police are scattered throughout the stories. But in many of the stories, the solution is arrived at rather too tidily for my more modern sensibilities. (I guess I like to see my detectives sweat a little.) In other stories, the ending is wrapped up rather over-neatly, with Watson reporting that the villain escaped to Europe or some such.
I’m not sorry I read The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and I’ll go back to the well and start at the beginning this time with A Study in Scarlet. But I am a bit surprised at myself for not falling immediately in love with one of the most beloved literary characters of all time.