Bringing together Sherlock Holmes, the master of science detection, and John H Watson, the great detective's faithful chronicler, this novel not only establishes the magic of the Holmes myth but also provides the reader with a dramatic adventure yarn which ranges from the foggy, gas-lit streets of London to the burning plains of Utah.
I was fairly entertained for the beginning of the first book that mostly focuses on showing us Holmes's quirky character. As the mystery starts, though, the parts of Holmes's personality that actually made him interesting quickly take a back seat to Holmes simply being calm, collected, and right 100% of the time.
I'm not in a great place to judge the mysteries, but I can say I was expecting something that lets the reader try and make their own guesses a little more, or at least shows what the characters are guessing so you can watch them figure it out. Instead, particularly with the first story, Holmes often seemed to find or figure out clues and then withhold them from the reader just to make his explanation in the end more climactic and his character more amazing. The Sign of Four was a little better about this since Holmes was a little more troubled by some things, the mystery was generally more interesting, and it didn't have the problem of being half taken up by the criminal's back story.
Somewhat ridiculously, the main thing that kept flashing through my mind when I read these was that the character House from TV is really very nicely done. I knew he was based somewhat off Holmes, and indeed, it's like they took all the fun things about Holmes and made him more real by admitting the sorts of things that make him quirky and interesting could also make him a bit dysfunctional and irritating in real society. Plus he's also WRONG sometimes.
I do think that there must be a way to do a fun, light version of this sort of character like the original novels seem to try to do. Some characters really can to a certain extent just get by on charm and don't have to be realistically flawed. But...I don't see Holmes that way in these first two stories. I'll likely be trying The Hound of the Baskervilles since I already own it and I hear it's supposed to be the best. Perhaps the character will have become more fleshed out and his portrayal more even by then.
I did rather start in the middle with "The Hound of the Baskervilles" primaily because this was the one Sherlock Holmes I already had in my TBR pile when I discovered the wonderful BBC series. Then I decided to go back to the beginning, hence my reason for picking up this omnibus of the first two Holmes.
I did enjoy these. I find Watson to be pretty darn funny and found myself laughing out loud more than once at his anecdotes. I also had to laugh a bit at some of the language...but that's something I won't get into. My only complaint would be about the long winded criminal explanations of the "why" of the crime which I found to be rather tedious. I guess I enjoy the character studies more than the mysteries themselves but, of course, this is certainly a personal preference.
Overall, I think I'm going to like reading more and already have picked up "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" which I am looking forward to.
The Collector's Library has bound the first two novels (1887, 1890) together in a small finely-crafted volume. Call me a book snob, but there's something satisfying about reading a cloth-bound gilt-edged book with a ribbon to mark your place. I'll be keeping an eye out for the remaining volumes in this series (I have already started with The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.)
*A Study in Scarlet*
Here is where the whole mythology begins.
Dr. Watson, assistant surgeon during the war in India, returned to London wounded from Jezail bullet. An old friend met him in a bar and heard that he is looking for some reasonable lodging. This friend connects Watson with his soon-to-be roommate: Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is introduced as a very careful man who considers everything very logically and methodologically. Watson is intrigued.
Within a few chapters we find a dead body, incompetent detectives, and the word RACHE (a literary precursor to redrum?) written on the wall in scarlet.
The book is divided into two halves, with the second beginning on a different continent in an earlier era. A dehydrated man and child are about to die on the Sierra Blanco when they are saved by a wagon train of Mormons making their way to their promised land. It was painful to read the way that the Brit, Doyle, painted the majestic Sierra region of the United States:
"They all preserve, however, the common characteristics of barrenness, inhospitality and misery. There are no inhabitants of this land of despair" (93).
The novel reaches a satisfying conclusion when the two stories are brought together. The villain is caught and a full explanation of his actions are recorded. A Study in Scarlet not only introduced the world to one of the most popular amateur detectives of all time, it takes the reader across continents on an exciting mystery.
*The Sign of the Four*
The second Sherlock Holmes novel reminds the reader immediately of the distance between Nineteenth Century England and Twenty-First Century North America. Here's the first paragraph:
"Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sign of satisfaction" (171).
Aside from the disdain of Dr. Watson, this habit (a seven percent solution of cocaine) was apparently an acceptable way to pass the time. Holmes found it difficult to live without a mental challenge—some mystery to be engaged in—so he passed the time with recreational drugs.
Fortunately, a mystery appeared forthwith. Holmes' brilliant powers of deduction are put to the test with a dead body, a peg-legged villain, and small poison blow-darts. The mystery ends with a climax that would be at home in any modern action film.
These two early Sherlock Holmes novels not only provide the reader with good mystery stories, they open a window into the pre-CSI world of Nineteenth Century England.