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The Sherlock Holmes stories are probably the second most easily acquired books in the world (they’ll be first as soon as hotels start answering my calls about providing them in hotels). Every bookstore contains some version or other of the complete works, every library has multiple copies, or they’re a ctrl-T away and downloadable for free here or here (legally, they’re public domain).
So you’ve got them, that’s great. Then what? Fifty-six short stories and four novels is a daunting number, and it can be a little worrisome figuring out where to start. Chronologically? Alphabetically? Randomly, until you lose track of which one you’ve read and which one you haven’t already? Fear not, here’s a quick guide on where to start if you’re brand new to the stories:
If you… are a stickler for continuity.
Start with… A Study in Scarlet
Because… It’s the first! John Watson meets Sherlock Holmes for the first time, moves in, and keeps detailed notes about him. (“Knowledge of sensational literature? Immense.”) It would be the perfect setup for a quirky sitcom except there’s a murder in the middle of it.
But be warned… It was not, however, the first popular story. It entered with a thud when it was first published. Once you get to the middle, no, that’s not a printing error, that’s just a complete narrative switch to the killer’s backstory. In Utah. With Mormons. The Sherlock stuff is great but Doyle was clearly still finding his feet.
If you… like gothic horror.
Start with… The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot
Because… There are moors, insanity, and the creepiest tableu ever: a dead woman and two men gibbering with insanity. Shorter than Hound of the Baskervilles and less mainstream, it’s perfect for the hipster Sherlockian. Also recommended for anyone who needs a refresher course on scientific experiment ethics as an example of how it doesn’t work. Contains the exchange: “I followed you.” “I saw nobody.” “That is what you may expect to see when I follow you.”
But be warned… Nothing. This one rules.
If you… like a good chase scene
Start with… The Sign of Four
Because… Greatest chase scene ever. On a boat. Before that there are muuuuurders and a puppy and weird stuff from India. Also features John Watson behaving like a love struck-idiot when he meets his wife-to-be and agonizes over hitting on her now that they know she’s going to be wealthy.
But be warned… This is another novel and has a lot of exposition. A whole lot.
If you… need your heart warmed.
Start with… The Adventure of the Yellow Face
Because… The real “because” is a spoiler but the conclusion is adorable and surprisingly progressive.
But be warned… If you’re also looking for a good mystery or deduction, you won’t find it. The charm is in the destination, not the journey in this one.
If you… are a big romantic.
Because… “I didn’t grieve over her marriage. I was not such a selfish hound as that. I just rejoiced that good luck had come her way, and that she had not thrown herself away on a penniless sailor [me]. That’s how I loved Mary Fraser.” Swoon. Women in horrible marriages while the right men pine away adorably. Nicholas Sparks, eat your heart out.
But be warned… These loveable hunks tend to say things like “you are a white man so I can tell you my tale.”
If you… want to read about some badass ladies.
Because… There are ladies and they are awesome. Irene Adler may have beaten Sherlock Holmes but the other women have higher scores to settle and more righteous anger to vent. Which they do. With acid. And not only that, they get away with it.
But be warned… Nothing. Besides the ladies, Miverton and Illustrious Client have some of the best bad guys outside of Moriarty and Scandal forces Sherlock to be a gentleman. Illustrious Client also has Watson at his most adorably bumbling.
If you… want to feel smart.
Because… Someone has been breaking in and smashing identical busts of Napoleon. An underpaid clerk arranges for his boss to take a second job across town while he spends his days downstairs in a building behind a bank. Oh just GUESS what they’re up to. These are stories that you can figure out from the text pretty quickly using common sense and/or pattern recognition. Then you can brag to all your friends that you are just as smart as Sherlock.
But be warned… Obviously if you’re reading Doyle as a mystery writer, these stories will be a disappointment. But there are great character moments between Sherlock and Watson and fun stakeouts in the dark. Even if the mysteries are not always astonishing, the writing is so compelling and brisk that it doesn’t even matter.
So there you have it, an entry-level guide for the aspiring literary nerd. For full disclosure, this is basically a list of my favorite stories as well. What were your favorites?
Screencaps courtesy of aithine.org.