Saturday, January 15, 2011

Review: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Volume 1

Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Genre: Fiction/Mystery
Pages: 752
Warnings: Racism, Sexism, Murder
Rating: 4/5

A delight to read! I suppose there are a reason some books become classics, and after reading it I can certainly see why the adventures of  Sherlock Holmes are one such thing.

Each short story is formulated in pretty much the same way, and with similar levels of quality. It's nice knowing going from one short story to another you can except them to all be equally good, which is why most people read  books by the same author. However since the stories are so short, the best advice I can offer is not to read one right after another, since they get very predictable. In fact, the reminded me of a TV series, which makes sense as the stories were originally published in a periodical magazine.

It was entertaining to be following Holme's train of thought, and try to guess what is happening. For that reason, I preferred his longer stories ("The Hounds of Baskerville", "The Sign of Four" and "A Study of Scarlet"), because these stories where more than simple whodunits.

"The Hounds of Baskerville", unsurprisingly, is my favorite. "A Study in Scarlet" is the first of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's early Sherlock Holmes stories, and it's clear he doesn't have the pacing perfect yet. I was pretty confused when we jumped to Utah after the first part, and I was seriously concerned Doyle was never going to explain the motives of our killer. "The Sign of Four" seemed a pretty specific story to give Watson a wife, and the obvious premise make the whole story a little cheap, as well as the rather. However "The Hounds of Baskerville" happened after several of the shorter stories (a personal favorite of those being "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League"), and Doyle appears to have matured a bit as a writer by that point (published in 1902, with "A Study in Scarlet" being published in 1887) and the story required the reader to know next to nothing outside the context of the story.

The only hitch was when stories required current political context, because as I am not deeply aware of the politics of 1880's London, I have no idea about some of the assumptions characters make about royalty. Amusingly enough, I didn't have as much trouble with "The Five Orange Pips", because as an American I already knew about the KKK. However this was a problem that Doyle phased out during his early works, and most stories after that explained any 'outside' knowledge that was required. 

I have the sneaking suspicion that Doyle married off Watson in his second novel because Watson and Holmes are clearly one of the cutest bromances ever. Know that I'm not trying to denigrate the series by associating it with the immature antics of two men who clearly never grew their asses up (ex: Pineapple Express), but I'm trying to convey that Watson and Holmes were obviously very close, good friends. It's a really wonderful friendship, and it was a delight to read about two men who loved each other so dearly. I think Watson was married off to make so there was no suspicion of sexual tension between the two main characters, which is probably the result of the homophobic times, but doesn't make them any less good friends. 

Regarding other social contexts that made me squeamish about reading, Doyle's characters are probably less racist and sexist that most people in their time period. Holmes hates women and says they are incapable of keeping a secret (while only some men are) clearly evidencing some solid sexism, and Watson decides to ignore these displays of sexism, meaning he doesn't agree, but he likes his friend too much to disagree about women being less trustworthy. There is a lot of casual racism in the way non-white characters are portrayed, but they're rarely every characters. A notable exception is the description of a South American native in "The Sign of Four", which is pretty awful, and I don't wish to repeat here. More often than not characters who are not white males are actually mentioned in the story, which is frankly a relief. If this is not something you can tolerate, I understand, and I encourage you not to read these stories.

However, if you can look past some of these things, I think this series is worth a read, and as public domain, it's certainly easy to find on the internet, and free. Wikipedia has links to the original book "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes", and several short stories here. In addition, Project Gutenberg provides public domain stories here.

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