Since spending one New Year’s Eve reading Sherlock Holmes into the New Year, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has joined Charles Dickens as seasonal reading for me. I began re-reading the complete Sherlock Holmes in December 2020, and while I haven’t gotten to reading more of it this December, I am reviewing the first collection of short stories for this New Year’s Eve: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
I won’t go in depth on all of the stories, but this set of twelve adventures begins with the story that introduces for the first and only time the larger than life character of Irene Adler, and I have something to say about it. “A Scandal in Bohemia” is, interestingly, the one significant failure of Holmes, as well as its antagonist being the most extraordinary female of Holmes’ acquaintance, earning her the appellation of “The Woman”. Doyle’s Irene Adler, written in the decade just before the beginning of the twentieth century, shows the ingenuity, boldness, and integrity that earns her esteem in Holmes’ eyes. Not only that, but her genuine love for her husband being the thing that ensures the scandalous letters will not come to light is not portrayed as a weakness, but rather the thing that effects this gracious concession on her part, while she retains the position of power. A far cry from one of the more recent and supposedly “progressive” portrayals of Irene Adler as a woman whose genuine love is her weakness, leading her to be beaten (intellectually) and then nearly killed (physically) because she lacks the power or smarts to keep herself safe, and must in the end be rescued by a man. Not naming any names, but you know who you are. Also, there is so much genuine humour and good-nature cropping up in Doyle’s battle of wits between Holmes and Irene, from her completely seeing through his clerical disguise after a brawl on the street, to him getting dragged in another disguise as a witness to her wedding. And then Holmes ultimately telling the very stuffy, royal man who engaged his services in the first place that he never deserved Irene because he’s a nincompoop whose only claim to worth is a title (in much more scathing but socially appropriate terms, of course)… well, it’s just a real treat and makes me even madder that these characters have been so often misinterpreted and misrepresented.
Other of the most notable stories are “The Red-Headed League,” which is just a good heist story in reverse, “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” containing some of the most vivid descriptions of opium dens, and “The Speckled Band,” combining the commonplace of an overbearing step-parent with exotic animals.
“The Boscombe Valley Mystery” and “The Five Orange Pips” both tell of how criminal pasts can cross oceans to claim their dues and haunt the families of those involved.
“A Case of Identity” and “The Noble Bachelor,” like “A Scandal in Bohemia” though not as compelling in my opinion, deal with double-crossing and deceit too often attendant on entering the state of matrimony in the nineteenth century.
“The Engineer’s Thumb” and “The Copper Beeches” are basically both cautionary tales about how a job offer that seems too good to be true is probably a front for murder, counterfeiting, unlawful confinement, robbery, blackmail, or all of the above. (Come to think of it, “The Red-Headed League” could fit into this category, too.)
“The Beryl Coronet” and “The Blue Carbuncle” both feature a definitely snowy atmosphere, which makes them the most Christmassy of the tales, though the latter actually takes place at Christmas time and has a Christmas goose as a prominent feature. Basically, they are all worth a read, for who knows which story will hold a gem of incredible value for you in its unassuming gullet?