The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Title: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Pages: 317
Recommended Ages: 12 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★★

Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!

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All hail, Holmes!

The Stories.

A Scandal in Bohemia. The King of Bohemia has come to Holmes in great distress. Unless Holmes is able to recover a compromising portrait from one, Irene Adler, not only will the King’s marriage be jeopardized, but all of Europe will suffer from the repercussions. Will Mr. Holmes take the case?

The Red-Headed League. Mr. Jabez Wilson is in some distress. He was accepted into the League of Red-Headed men and appointed a job in the club – with a tidy remuneration – only to receive word this morning that the club has been dissolved without a trace. What is this league all about, anyway?

A Case of Identity. Miss Mary Sutherland is entirely confused. Against her domineering step-father’s will she has become engaged to marry a Mr. Hosmer Angel. But on the morning on which they were to be married, Mr. Angel disappeared and has not been seen since. Where can he have got to?

The Boscombe Valley Mystery. A man, Charles McCarthy, has been found lying in a pool of his own blood. The obvious suspect – indeed the man the police have arrested – is McCarthy’s own son, James, who was engaged in a savage argument just minutes before McCarthy was killed. But Miss Turner, who has known James since he was a boy, is convinced that he could never commit murder. So Holmes is called in to sift the clues, to weigh the facts, to name the murderer…

The Five Orange Pips. John Openshaw is scared. Scared out of his wits. And the horror of it is, he doesn’t know exactly what he scared of. All he knows is that it exacts death – mysterious death – of its victims. See, his uncle died shortly after receiving an envelope containing five orange pips. The experience was repeated with his father. And now, he has received five orange pips of his own…

The Man With the Twisted Lip. Several days ago, Neville St Clair disappeared. His wife is frantic to find him and is certain that she saw him in the upper story of a shady business. But when she entered there, fully expecting to see him and demand an explanation from him, he wasn’t there. Instead, an old, decrepit beggar greeted her. Has St Clair been murdered? Or is he still alive?

The Blue Carbuncle. ‘Tis Christmas – the season of happiness and goodwill. But it’s also the season of mystery and robbery. For a shabby hat and goose have thrust upon Mr. Holmes – complimentary of a squirmish in which the owner of both took to his heels – and a priceless blue carbuncle has been stole from the Hotel Cosmopolitan. Will Holmes be able to draw any connection between the two?

The Speckled Band. Two years ago, Julia Stoner stumbled out of her bedroom and collapsed upon the floor writhing in pain. The only words she managed to utter before dying were these – “the speckled band!” All of her doors and windows had been locked from the inside at the time that she was seized, and the only clue to her mysterious death was her previous mention her hearing whistles in the night. Imagine then, her twin sister, Helen’s, horror when, after being moved to Julia’s now vacant room so that repairs may be done in her own room, she hears whistles in the night. What does it mean, Mr. Holmes?

The Engineer’s Thumb. It is not often that Watson is able to bring an interesting case to Holmes’ attention. But in this instance, the case is not only interesting, it is unforgettable! It involves a mysterious mansion, a gang of very clever forgers, and an engineer with a missing thumb…

The Noble Bachelor. Holmes never bothers to read the society papers. But this case comes straight out of society gossip. It seems that Lord Robert St. Simon has been deserted – jilted – by his wife just hours after their wedding ceremony was completed. She has completely disappeared! Can Mr. Holmes track her down?

The Beryl Coronet. Mr. Alexander Holder of the banking firm, Holder & Stevenson, is distraught. He was entrusted by an illustrious client with the invaluable beryl coronet as security for a loan. But several of the gems have been stolen from the coronet while in Mr. Holder’s possession – and the only suspect is his own son!

The Copper Beeches. A young lady, Miss Violet Hunter, wants to consult Mr. Holmes on a very important matter. She wants to know if she should accept a position as governess at the Copper Beeches. Although Holmes is initially disdainful – considering such a problem to be below him – he changes his mind when he hears what is troubling her. It seems that amongst her employer’s requirements are that she would cut her beautiful hair quite short and occasionally wear a dress of electric blue. Holmes foresees danger in Miss Hunter’s future!

Discussion.

I love Holmes. I love his world. I love his art. I love his cold calculation, his indefatigable spirit, and his mysterious languid spells. I love his sometimes snobbish but ever companionable relationship with Watson. And, of course, I love 221b Baker Street.

It was so good getting back into the Holmes canon. I’ve watched so many adaptions of his character in the past few years that I’d somehow lost sight of the real Holmes. Because every adaption only presents a facet of the true Holmes – the full complexity of his character somehow eludes the screen.

This particular collection of short stories – one of five – is, I think, the happiest of them all. It occurs before Conan Doyle kills Holmes, and presumably while he still likes him. Holmes isn’t quite as light-hearted as he was in A Study in Scarlet, but neither is he so brooding as in the later stories (His Last Bow, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes). And the stories themselves are fine.

I don’t mean fine as in ‘okay’. I mean fine as one means ‘fine china’. These stories are finely crafted and populated with believable characters. One thing that I love about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes canon is that it proves that a mystery need not be based around a murder to be intensely fascinating. Of the twelve mysteries contained in The Adventures, only three deal directly with murder.

In fact, the whole book is remarkably clean. Really the only story of the lot which parents need be concerned with is the first, which concerns the indiscretions of a king. But even here, the word mistress is used only once – the relationship is referred to as an ‘entanglement’, not an affair. It is, considering the topic itself, clean.

Various forms of God’s name are used a total of eighteen times, most in serious situations which could be considered forms of prayer.

Conclusion. Excellent! Buy it – read it.

Cards on the Table

Title: Cards on the Table
Author: Agatha Christie
Pages: 213
Reading Level: 14 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!

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The little Belgian with the mustachios returns.

The Story.

An interesting man, Monsieur Shaitana. A man most enamored of himself – a man who derives an obsessive delight from his bizarre collections. He is an eccentric – not a benevolent one, but a dangerous one. A scheming one…

His newest collection, he informs Monsieur Poirot, is a collection of murderers. He now has four of them who frequent his home for parties and dinners. They are not professing murderers, no, no nothing so obvious as that. But he, Shaitana, great perceiver of the sins of others, he can tell. And he has an idea for a little game.

He invites Monsieur Poirot and three other detective friends – Ariadne Oliver, Colonel Race, and Superintendent Battle – to join him for a dinner. His four murderers – Dr. Roberts, Mrs. Larrimer, Major Despard, and Miss Meredith – will be there as well. Together they can enjoy an exciting evening together.

All eight guests duly arrive at Shaitana’s mansion. As they visit over dinner, it is hard to imagine that half of the guests are murderers. But it is not until the guests are divided to play bridge that the real adventure of the night begins. Because when the games are over, Monsieur Shaitana is found – murdered.

All of Shaitana’s pet murderers – and no one else – were present in the room from the moment that Shaitana seated himself near the fire to the time that his corpse was discovered. But which of these murderers has returned to the game of murder?

Discussion.        

As Christie herself says in the Foreword to Cards on the Table, it is easy to approach a mystery novel from the perspective that the ‘least likely’ person to have committed the murder is probably the murderer. I admit to having operated that way myself – Who is the author trying to keep in the background of this scene? Who hasn’t been mentioned in a while? So-and-so hasn’t appeared for several scenes. I bet SHE’S the murderer!

But Cards on the Table rebelled against such a simplistic reading. It is a story which boasts four suspects – suspects who have each murdered before, who each had opportunity to commit the murder, and who each had a desperate motive for killing the victim. The solution of this case lies, not in the discovery of clues, but in the background and psychology of each of the suspects. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so uncertain when trying to pin down the murderer. But Poirot managed to. Magnificent little man!

I really enjoyed meeting Mrs. Oliver. She’s hilarious. She is reputed to be a tongue-in-cheek portrait of Christie herself, and I can easily believe it. I have included a quote from Mrs. Oliver later in my review, which I am sure is straight from the heart from Christie. Now, Mrs. Oliver is an interesting character. She is reputed to be a “hot-headed” feminist, and she does occasionally vociferate upon the superiorities of women. But her character – a combination of down-to-earth bluntness and dunder-headed oblivion – almost mocked at her position. While she occasionally blunders upon an important piece of evidence or a freakishly accurate character assessment, she usually is far wide on her predictions.

The question of justifiable murder pops up several times in this story. Mr. Shaitana, the early victim of the story, calls murder “an art” and says that he believes that a “really successful murderer” should be celebrated. Monsieur Poirot, although agreeing that there are some people who deserve to be murdered, nevertheless, disapproves of all murder because of the effect that it has on the murderer. He believes that it is dangerous for a man to “exercise the right of private judgment” in the punishment of a crime because then one has “usurped the functions of le bon Dieu.” [pg. 134]

Quotes.

What I love about Poirot is that although he is a proud little man of great brain, he behaves and speaks exactly like a child on some occasions.

“We all make mistakes, Monsieur Poirot.”

“Some of us,” said Poirot with a certain coldness possibly due to the pronoun the other had used, “make less than others.”

Despard looked at him, smiled slightly and said:

“Don’t you ever have a failure, Monsieur Poirot?”

“The last time was twenty-eight years ago,” said Poirot with dignity. “And even then, there were circumstances – but no matter.” [pg. 106]

: ) Quite. Others are less impressed with Poirot’s skills. This after Poirot summons Anne to an interview.

“I don’t see why he wants to see me.” Anne was obstinate.

“To put one over on the official police, of course,” said Rhoda impatiently. “They make out that Scotland Yard are all boots and brainlessness.”

“Do you think this man Poirot is clever?”

“He doesn’t look a Sherlock,” said Rhoda. “I expect he has been quite good in his day. He’s gaga now, of course. He must be at least sixty. [pg. 160]

When Superintendent Battle points out a few inaccuracies in Mrs. Oliver’s latest novel, Mrs. Oliver responds thus.

“As a matter of fact I don’t care two pins about accuracy. Who is accurate? Nobody nowadays. If a reporter writes that a beautiful girl of twenty-two dies by turning on the gas after looking out over the sea and kissing her favourite Labrador, Bob, goodbye, does anybody make a fuss because the girl was twenty-six, the room faced inland, and the dog was a Sealyham terrier called Bonnie? If a journalist can do that sort of thing I don’t see that it matters if I mix up police ranks and say a revolver when I mean an automatic and a dictograph when I mean a phonograph, and use a poison that just allows you to gasp one dying sentence and no more. What really matters is plenty of bodies! If the thing’s getting a little dull, some more blood cheers it up. Somebody is going to tell something – and then they’re killed first! That always goes down well. It comes in all my books – camouflaged different ways of course. And people like untraceable poisons, and idiotic police inspectors and girls tied up in cellars with sewer gas or water pouring in (such a troublesome way of killing anyone really) and a hero who can dispose of anything from three to seven villains singlehanded. I’ve written thirty-two books by now – and of course they’re all exactly the same really, as Monsieur Poirot seems to have noticed – but nobody else has; and I only regret one thing, making my detective a Finn. I don’t really know anything about Finns and I’m always getting letters from Finland pointing out something impossible that he’s said or done. They seem to read detective stories a good deal in Finland. I suppose it’s the long winters with no daylight. In Bulgaria and Roumania they don’t seem to read at all. I’d have done better to have made him a Bulgar.” [pg. 55-56]

Cautions.

Mild innuendo – several of the previous murders committed by the suspects were related to romantic situations, but nothing along those lines happens within the story.

‘Damn’ is used seven times, ‘hell’ twice. Several versions of God’s name are used a total of four times.

Conclusion. Fun, fun, fun, and (I thought) cleaner than most of Christie’s stories.

Six Against the Yard

Title: Six Against the Yard
Author: Various
Pages: 218
Reading Level: 14 & up
Star Rating: ★★★

Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!

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So, the tagline for this book is ‘Who Better to Commit the Perfect Murders than the World’s Greatest Mystery Writers?’ but from the description on the back, I couldn’t tell if these stories were written by the ‘world’s greatest mystery writers’, or were about them. I bought it anyway. Turns out they were by. ; )

Before I dive into the stories I ought to explain the concept behind the book. The idea was for six great detective writers – Margery Allingham, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts, Father Ronald Knox, Dorothy Sayers, and Russell Thorndike – to write mysteries which they considered to record the perfect murder.  These mysteries would then be turned over to Scotland Yard’s Superintendent Cornish who would try to prove why and how the murderer could be captured. An intriguing idea…

The Stories.

So there are six stories in this collection.

It Didn’t Work Out – by Margery Allingham. Polly Oliver never was a top-liner in the show business, at least not like her friend Louie Lester, who the crowds adore. But Polly isn’t jealous of Louie; on the contrary, she considers Louie to be her best friend. That’s why she is horrified when Louie marries a conceited little peacock who does nothing but mooch off of her fame and borrow her wealth. But Polly will not just stand by and watch this horrid little man ruin Louie’s life. She will stop him – even if it means murder…

The Fallen Idol – by Father Ronald Knox. It is the night of a grand celebration. Enrique Gamba the most powerful man in the Magnolian Commonwealth and the idol of his people has just erected a statue of himself so that he may be celebrated in stone as well as in person. After a glorious speech, he retires to his bedroom. He is never again seen alive.

But how could the murder have been done? There were guards on duty everywhere! And how did the mysterious fire break out in Gamba’s chapel? Could it have been started by the murderer?

The Policeman Only Taps Once – by Anthony Berkely. The only reason Eddie married the old woman is because he is short of cash and, being hunted by policemen on both sides of the Atlantic, he can think of no quicker way to collect funds than to marry some rich old corker. Imagine Eddie’s horror when he discovers that the ugly woman he married has no money after all! Still, if she had not been such a pesky old bird, he might not have decided to do her in…

Strange Death of Major Scallion – by Russell Thorndike. Major Scallion must die. His disgusting, hedonistic life style has caused an unquenchable hatred to arise in the man that Scallion has been blackmailing for years. And not only will Scallion die, he will die a horrible death, a death at the hands of his most disgusting indulgences…

Blood Sacrifice – by Dorothy Sayers. Playwright John Scales hates Garrick Drury, the main actor in his new play, with as much passion as he can muster. Not only has the man destroyed Scales’ play by changing its cynical theme to a sentimental one, but he has the gall to think that Scales should be grateful to him for it. Still, Scales would have never dreamed of murdering Drury – not until an unexpected but perfect opportunity is offered up to him…

The Parcel – by Freeman Wills Crofts. For three years, Henry Blunt has blackmailed Stewart Haslar for a crime committed in his youth. At first, when the demands were small, Haslar was able to cope with them. But now, as the demands escalate, he is afraid that he will no longer be able to meet Blunt’s demands – and, even worse, that his wife will discover his conduct. So Haslar decides that it is time to do away with Blunt.

But how can he do it in such a way that he is completely free from suspicion? What is the perfect murder?

Praises.

I loved the concept of this collection – first-rate detective novelists going head-to-head with a genuine inspector from Scotland Yard. I enjoyed the mysteries- I thought parts of them were ingenious – but I found Superintendent Cornish’s ruminations to be far more interesting. This paragraph was an especial favorite of mine.

There are certain sentimental people who always feel sorry for the convicted murderer- so much so that they have no pity to spare for his, or her, victim. There are others who, while horrified by certain murders, find excuses for others. But there is no excuse – there can be no excuse for murder. Human life is sacred, unless it has been forfeited to the law and is taken, after due legal process, for the protection of society. But no private individual can be allowed to assume the functions of judge and executioner. That way lies anarchy. [pg. 37]

I was a little annoyed by the fact that the Superintendent refused to admit that any of these crimes may have been committed and gotten away with. But I suppose he felt it his job to reassure the public of the Yard’s abilities. ;)

I also found this statement from ‘actor’ Garrick Drury to be insightful.

“When all’s said and done,” he remarked, “the box-office is the real test. I don’t say that in a commercial spirit. I’d always be ready to put on a play I believed in – as an artist – even if I lost money by it. But when the box-office is happy, it means the public is happy. The box-office is the pulse of the public. Get that and you know you’ve got the heart of the audience.” [pg. 157] (emphasis mine)

Discussion.

As is obvious from the above synopses, several of these stories was told in the first person – from the perspective of the murderer. Now, this made the stories very interesting, I’ll grant you. But they also presented a moral dilemma.

It is the natural tendency of a reader to identify with the protagonist – to glory with him in his triumphs, to experience despair in his failures. When the protagonist is a murderer, this can be dangerous, because it encourages the reader to think along the same lines as the murderer – “This man is a blackmailer – he doesn’t deserve to live!” I admit that I fell into this trap several times myself. I would catch myself agreeing with the murderer about how much the victim deserved what was coming to him (often the victim was a vicious, evil man). Usually the man did deserve punishment, but by judgment of a jury, not a private affair.

As a collection of murder mysteries, Six Against the Yard naturally dealt with some violence. But only one out of the six murders – Strange Death of Major Scallion – went too far with its descriptions. And that one went way too far. It was so disgusting that I do not feel equal to outlining its particulars. Sufficient to say, I found it appalling and gross. Yuck.

The very first story involved an unhappy marriage situation in which the husband treated the wife with cruelty. The murderer tries to separate the two out of pity for the wife, but when she refuses to leave, kills the husband instead.

In one story *SPOILER* a man marries a woman for her money and then plots to kill her. In the end, she discovers his plan and kills him instead.

In a different story, a man hits a woman who has been taunting him. She admires him for his pluck to hit her. (?!?)

Conclusion. I loved the concept behind this book, but would have been better pleased had it been differently executed.