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Review: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I only discovered Sherlock Holmes last year, although I always wanted to read the stories.  I love Victorian literature and classic mysteries, so Sherlock Holmes is a perfect fit.  Maybe I was inspired by the movie with Robert Downey Jr, which I thought was pretty weak – I wanted to see what Sherlock Holmes was really about.  I also watched some of the vastly better British series with Benedict Cumberbatch (who has one of the coolest British names I think I’ve ever heard).

But nothing beats reading the original, and Holmes is the archetype that so many of today’s mystery-solvers are based on.  I expected a stuffy pipe smoker with a funny hat and that’s not what you get at all (although he does wear the hat with the ear flaps at times).  Holmes is brilliant and not terribly likeable, but always intriguing.  Sometimes he lets you follow along with what he’s doing, and other times he leaves you behind completely and you only find out what’s happened at the end.  He seems to be only happy when he’s working on a case; it’s like his mind needs a challenge at all times.

It was interesting, having just read a book about Asperger’s Syndrome, to see so many of the traits of Asperger’s in Sherlock Holmes.  He has almost no interpersonal skills and his attention to detail rises to an entirely different level from everyone else’s.  In a 2009 article in the New York Times, Dr. Lisa Sanders writes:

He does have symptoms. He appears oblivious to the rhythms and courtesies of normal social intercourse — he doesn’t converse so much as lecture. His interests and knowledge are deep but narrow. He is strangely “coldblooded,” and perhaps as a consequence, he is also alone in the world. He has no friends other than the extremely tolerant Watson; a brother, even stranger and more isolated than he, is his only family. Was Arthur Conan Doyle presenting some sort of genetically transmitted personality disorder or mental illness he’d observed, or was Sherlock Holmes merely an interesting character created from scratch?

Of course no one knew of Asperger’s in the late 1800’s, and other experts have “diagnosed” Holmes with manic depression or bipolar disorder from his wild mood swings, from depression to near-euphoria when solving a crime.  And then there’s the drug use.  Whatever Sir Conan Doyle intended, Holmes is a fascinating character.

I read The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen challenge, which includes the final short story in the collection, “The Final Problem”, which is all about arch-villain James Moriarty.  But I couldn’t see reading a single short story when I could read the whole book.  And I’m glad I did.

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is made up of eleven short stories: “Silver Blaze”, “The Yellow Face”, “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk”, “The ‘Gloria Scott’”, “The Musgrave Ritual”, “The Reigate Puzzle”, “The Crooked Man”,” The Resident Patient”, “The Greek Interpreter”, “The Naval Treaty”, and “The Final Problem.”

Each story is a short but fun read, and what makes the book so inventive is that each is completely different.  One of my favorites was “The Yellow Face”, which Watson explains is an illustration of how Sherlock Holmes sometimes doesn’t get it right.  In this story, Holmes is asked by a distraught man to determine why his wife is sneaking to the house next door in the middle of the night.  “The Gloria Scott” involves an uprising on a ship that is deporting criminals to Australia.  “The Crooked Man” involves a man who is murdered, or has a stroke, while fighting with his wife in a locked room.   “The Naval Treaty” involves the theft of a secret treaty between England and Italy.

As Watson makes clear, Holmes investigates all types of cases, some of international importance and some that are purely domestic.  In some cases he gets it wrong (although rarely) and it some cases he does very little.  In others, like “The Resident Patient”, he determines from clues like smoking cigar butts and a screwdriver, that a man who has appeared to have hanged himself was in fact murdered.

There is perhaps less of Holmes’ personality in these stories, compared to Study in Scarlet or The Hound of the Baskervilles, but each is entertaining and original.  One thing I particularly liked was the wide range of settings and characters.  Each story starts out in Watson’s parlor but as the events are recounted, the settings range from the Boer war to the high seas.  Doyle is so descriptive, you really feel you’re seeing the people and streets of London through Watson and Holmes’ eyes.

“The Final Problem” is very different from the other stories.  It is in “The Final Problem” that Holmes meets his match. In this story, rather than someone coming to Holmes to solve a problem, Holmes has decided of his own accord to hunt down a criminal.  He drops in on Watson looking pale and frightened, which is out of character; Holmes usually seems impervious to danger.  He tells Watson of his pursuit of Professor Moriarty, who is brilliant but “A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers.”

Holmes goes on to explain that “For years past I have continually been conscious of some power behind the malefactor, some deep organizing power which forever stands in the way of the law, and throws its shield over the wrong-doer.  Again and again in cases of the most varying sorts – forgery cases, robberies, murders – I have felt the presence of this force, and I have deduced its action in many of those undiscovered crimes in which I have not been personally consulted… He is the Napoleon of crime.  He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. “

Holmes dedicates himself to stopping Moriarty; but unfortunately Moriarty is hot on his trail and has no attention of being captured.  There’s a moral element to this story that is missing in the others.  Typically, Holmes doesn’t pick and choose his cases based on the severity of the crime or the need to right a wrong.  He solves crimes because people ask him to, because he’s genius at it, and because he enjoys it.  In this story, Holmes says he’s willing to die if it means ridding London of its greatest evil.

You’ll have to read the rest to find out what happens, and then you’ll probably do what I did and jump right to the next book to keep reading.  Enjoy!

3 thoughts on “Review: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. I’d never heard of the Asberger’s theory for Sherlock Holmes before. Thinking about it, it does make sense though. I can’t say it bothers me either way, to be fair – at least he’s not a real person that struggled with it!

    Congratulations on crossing Moriarty off your challenge list! I’ve read this before, but I do need to reread it for the challenge this year. I think I’ll be rereading The Return of Sherlock Holmes too, because I can’t bear to read this one without following it immediately with his return! 😀

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