The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

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

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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.

The Case of the Baker Street Irregular

Title: The Case of the Baker Street Irregular
Author: Robert Newman
Pages: 216
Recommended Ages: 9-14
Star Rating: ★★★★

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Imitation fiction.

The Story.

Andrew’s always wondered about his parents. They’ve both been a mystery to him – his father dead, his mother absent. And now that Aunt Agnes is dead, it seems that he’ll never discover the secret of his parentage.

He’s just arrived in London with Mr. Dennison, his tutor and guardian. The two of them have never been close, but when Andrew sees Mr. Dennison being forced into a cab driven by a mysterious broken-nosed man, he’s alarmed. His alarm turns to fright the next night when that very same cabman returns for him and chases him through the heart of London…

Why is this man determined to catch Andrew? What is the purpose of the mysterious bombings occurring in London? And can Mr. Holmes solve both of these mysteries in time to save Mr. Dennison?

Discussion.

I’ve read at least five pieces of imitation Sherlock Holmes fiction. These were written with varying degrees of stylistic accuracy ranging from exceptional to outright horrid. The Case of the Baker Street Irregular is not quite as simple to classify.

To begin with, Holmes and Watson are not themselves the main characters – Andrew and his friends, Screamer and Sam (members of Holmes’ band of Irregulars), function in that role. Holmes and Watson follow as close seconds and, in that position, do not receive the same amount of attention that Doyle gave them, and are not the fully developed characters of canon Holmes.

However, the book was saved by the fact that I could hear Basil Rathbone’s voice ringing through the clipped dialogue of Holmes. Newman may not have created the original, more philosophical Holmes of Doyle’s works, but he (purposefully or accidentally, I know not which) conjured up good old Rathbone to the pages.

Oh, and one last quirky positive for me – Andrew comes from a small city which he describes as being ‘near Penzance’. On the last page, Watson regales Holmes with the song “A Policeman’s Lot Is Not a Happy One” from the Gilbert & Sullivan musical ‘The Pirates of Penzance’. HOW FUN IS THAT?!?

One of Holmes’ clients comes to him begging him to find her daughter, whom she says her husband has taken with him to the continent. When asked why he did this, she responds that it was because she wanted to divorce him because she had discovered that he was having an affair, and he took the daughter to keep her from beginning the divorce.

‘Damn’ is used once.

Conclusion. A fun read for detective-oriented children or committed Holmes fans.

A Study in Scarlet

Title: A Study in Scarlet
Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Pages: 131
Reading Level: 12 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

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The first of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

The Story.          

Dr. John Watson, on leave from his post as doctor to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers, is in need of comfortable rooms at a reasonable price. The only practical way to achieve this combination is to find a flat mate. So, when someone mentions Sherlock Holmes, a fellow interested in chemistry, as a man also in search of rooms, Dr. Watson doesn’t waste any time. He secures Holmes and their rooms, relieved that he can now settle down.

But it isn’t as simple as that. Holmes is an unusual fellow – he keeps odd hours, receives a plethora of uninvited guests, and is mysterious about his profession. This puzzles Dr. Watson until the day that he learns that Holmes’ profession is the mysterious. Then, he is plunged into a murder mystery that involves an empty house, a woman’s wedding ring, and the word ‘RACHE’ written on a wall… in blood…

Will Holmes be able to solve this fantastic mystery and catch the elusive murderer?

Discussion.

I read the complete Sherlock Holmes back in 2009. Since then, I’ve re-read most of the short stories, some more than others. But I hadn’t re-read any of the novels. It was time.

There is something so special about re-reading the early days of the Holmes/Watson association. It’s easy to grow accustomed to the trust and collaboration between them and forget that in the earliest days, Watson wasn’t quite sure what to think of Holmes (he’s never heard of a heliocentric universe. Really!) and Holmes did not include Watson in his adventures. They were outsiders to each other. And then, slowly, the bond began to grow.

Also of interest to me was the portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in this first story. I have long been aware that his character changed over the course of the stories, but I hadn’t realized just how much. Oh, sure, he’s still the same old lover-of-the-puzzle-for-the-puzzle’s-sake Holmes, but he’s different. He’s more ambitious with his trade – he chafes at the fact that Lestrade and Gregson will reap the benefits of his deductions, whereas in later stories, he accepted and sometimes preferred the fact that the Yard detectives were credited. In the later stories he’s more moody, more inaccessible. In A Study he is boyish, susceptible to praise, and ready to laugh at a joke.

So the question is, which way do I prefer him? The answer – both. I like him both ways. I like Holmes as the moody genius as well as the good-natured blood hound. As one he’s more legendary, the other more human. Both are good. Both are Holmes.

Now for the actual story, or rather stories. The first time I read A Study in Scarlet, I was irritated that nearly a half of the novel was spent explaining the motive / personal history of the murderer. It felt anti-climactic, as though Doyle was just trying to create a certain number of words rather than an actual story. This time through, since I already knew how the story ended, I didn’t feel so impatient. I still don’t think that it was the best way to write a story (interrupting an English mystery to insert a bit of American western), but it doesn’t destroy the story.

Cautions.

Holmes expresses an opinion in one scene which explicitly references Darwinism. It is incidental and does not affect the story.

The second half of the story involves a Mormon settlement – it is properly (harshly) represented.

‘Damn’ is used once, ‘darn’ twice. Variations of God’s name are used a total of three times.

Conclusion. A Study in Scarlet is the introduction to one of the most fascinating characters of literature. Read it, then read The Adventures and The Return.

Library Sale!

It had been three months since I attended the Maud Marks Library Sale. In March, the sale occurred on the same day as my sister’s studio recital. Last month, it occurred on the same day as my sister’s wedding. Both were important events that I couldn’t and didn’t want to miss.

But this month, I was delighted to return to the sale and reap all of the desirable books that had accumulated in my absence. =)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – $ .50 Yes, I know. Strictly speaking I didn’t need this book since I already have the Adventures in four different volumes. But non-strictly speaking, I had to have it.

Life and Letters of Benjamin Franklin – $ 1.00 A pretty volume with worthwhile material. I already owned Ben Franklin’s autobiography, but this includes various of his letters as well.

Little Dorrit – $ 1.00 Yay! I finally have my own copy! I read Little Dorrit back in October 2009, and it’s been one of my favorites ever since!

Ivanhoe – $ 1.00
The Age of Fable – $ 1.00
Manhattan Transfer – $ 1.00
Three volumes in the International Collector’s Library. I have never heard of Manhattan Transfer, am slightly acquainted with The Age of Fable (Thomas Bulfinch), and am super happy to have (another copy of) Ivanhoe!

The Treasury of American Short Stories – $ 1.00 Few things excite me as much as short story collections. This one, a thick volume with a dark green dust jacket, contains pieces from all of the masters.

A Morbid Taste for Bones$ .50 This is the first volume in The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael series of which I reviewed the eighteenth volume The Summer of the Danes.

Company of Cowards – $ .50 Remember Shane? Well, Company of Cowards is written by the same author and is set immediately after the War Between the States.

Alistair MacLean’s Death Train – $ .50
Alistair MacLean – $ 1.00
Partisans – $ .50
I returned to the Maud Marks Library Sale with one goal in mind – to snatch up the dozens of Alistair MacLean soft covers that I had noticed and passed up at their last sale. What did I find? Partisans, a WWII story, Alistair MacLean’s Death Train a story which was begun by MacLean before he died and finished by a friend afterward, and a big red volume titled simply ALISTAIR MACLEAN. This volume contains Where Eagles Dare, H.M.S. Ulysses, Ice Station Zebra, When Eight Bells Toll, and The Guns of Navarone. =]

A Study in Scarlet / The Sign of Four – $ .50 Strictly speaking, I DID need this set from the Holmes canon – my only copy of The Sign of Four is buried deep within my beautiful Complete Adventures.

Heart of the West – $ 1.00 A collection of short stories by O. Henry, my favorite short story author ever! It’s a Reader’s Digest edition, to boot. : )

Classical Whodunnits – $ 1.00 A collection of mysteries set in Ancient Greece and Rome. Love the dustjacket!

The Cat Who Blew the Whistle – $ .50
The Cat Who Wasn’t There – $ .50
The Cat Who Saw Stars – $ .50
The Cat Who Smelled a Rat – $ .50
The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal – $ .50
The Cat Who Tailed a Thief – $ .50
The Cat Who Came to Breakfast – $ .50
The Cat Who Had 14 Tales – $ .50
I’ve read one book by Lilian Jackson Braun, author of The Cat Who series. It was a collection of local legends – tall tales, mostly. So I don’t know that much about her. But these whimsical mysteries looked fun, and hey – they’ve got CATS in them!

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution – $ .50 I thought long and hard about this book. I have a rule – buy anything Holmes – which I stick to with a vengeance. That encompasses imitation stories. But this story, this ‘bestseller’ outlines a collaboration between Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud. Hmm. I know I’ll probably dislike it, but I bought The Seven-Per-Cent Solution anyway, because I couldn’t bear the thought of there being a Holmes story that I hadn’t read. At least once I read it, I can berate it. : D

Witnesses to War – $ .50 This is the only children’s book that I purchased at this sale. :O It tells the story of eight different children who experienced Nazi persecution during WWII, including Anne Frank.

The Postman Always Rings Twice & Double Indemnity – $ 1.00 Never heard of James M. Cain before, but this is a beautiful (and un-pass-uppable) edition of two of his mystery novels.

Total Spent = $ 18.00

Total Value = $ 93.63 (eight of the hardcovers don’t have original prices on them!)

Next Sale = ?????

Great Detective Stories

Title: Great Detective Stories
Author: Various
Pages: 124
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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Mysteries! Yay!

The Stories.

The Boscombe Valley Mystery – Arthur Conan Doyle. A man, one Charles McCarthy, has been found murdered at Boscombe Pool. All of the circumstantial evidence points towards his son, James McCarthy, which whom he had a violent quarrel just minutes before being murdered. But the son denies the charge. Can Sherlock Holmes ferret out the truth with his deductive powers?

Mr. Bovey’s Unexpected Will – L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace. Mr. Bovey has left a singular will. It seems that there are three claimants to his estate – Mr. Wimbourne, Mr. Graham, and Mr. Tyndall – and the will states that whichever amongst these three men’s body weight is nearest to the weight of Mr. Bovey’s fortune shall inherit the lot. It’s a queer proceeding, but Miss Florence Cusack, the most acute lady detective in the whole of London, is there to see that proceedings are fair!

A Bracelet at Bruges – Arnold Bennett. Kitty Sartorius’ beautiful little gold and diamond bracelet has been lost – accidentally dropped into the river by Madame Lawrence, Kitty’s friend and a maker of Belguan lace. Kitty immediately calls the police and they agree to drag the river first thing in the morning. But after a thorough search, no bracelet appears. Where could it possibly be?

Who Stole the Black Diamonds? – Baroness Orczy. The magnificent Black Diamonds have been stolen from their owners – stolen out of a house which was swarming with dinner guests at the only time that they could possibly have been stolen. So who stole them? And how was the theft accomplished so that no one saw the thief?

The Blue Sequin – R. Austin Freeman. Edith Grant is dead. She was violently struck on board a train while traveling from London to Worthing. The only person who had opportunity – or motive – to kill her is Harold Stopford, an artist, who disembarked from the train only minutes before Miss Grant was found dead. But Harold’s brother, Edward, is determined that Harold is not guilty, so he calls in Mr. Thorndyke to see if he can free Harold from these ghastly accusations…

Discussion.

Great Detective Stories was a remarkably clean book. Out of the five stories, only two of them concerned a murder, and these were non-violent.

Obviously, I knew the outcome of The Boscombe Valley Mystery, but I enjoyed refreshing myself as to the details of the case. Also, I was delighted to find this little nugget.

“We have got to the deductions and the inferences,” said Lestrade, winking at me. “I find it hard enough to tackle facts, Holmes, without flying away after theories and fancies.”

“You are right,” said Holmes demurely; “you do find it very hard to tackle the facts.” [pg. 21]

I had read Who Stole the Black Diamonds? from Baroness Orczy’s collection of short stories The Old Man in the Corner. However, it has been such a time since I read it, that I didn’t remember the outcome, although I remembered it being extraordinary.

The Blue Sequin seemed very familiar to me as I read it, and, looking back on my archives, I find that I did read it in June of 2011. It was probably my least favorite of the lot – I felt a little cheated by its conclusion – but I enjoyed Dr. Thorndyke’s shenanigans.

Mr. Bovey’s Unexpected Will and A Bracelet at Bruges were new to me. I enjoyed them, even though they had more levity and felt more light-hearted than Holmes’ and Thorndyke’s cases.

Cautions.

In A Bracelet at Bruges, characters consult a planchette to determine if the bracelet will be recovered. Its response was accurate.

‘Good God’, ‘Lord’ and ‘heavens’ are each used once.

Conclusion. Exciting, clean stories, Great Detective Stories reacquainted me with old friends and introduced me to new ones.

The World of Mystery Fiction

Title: The World of Mystery Fiction
Author: Various
Pages: 441
Recommended Ages: 14 & up
Star Rating: ★★★

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I was super-excited when I found The World of Mystery Fiction at a Goodwill. I grew up reading children’s mystery series and started in on Sherlock Holmes when I was thirteen. Of late my expeditions into classic detective fiction have expanded to greater realms – Sayers, Christie, Chesterton, etc. – and my enjoyment has been amply multiplied.

The World of Mystery Fiction, then, was a treasure indeed when I found it. For it is exactly what it calls itself – a world. And it introduces its readers to a world – a world of mysteries and their architects.

The World of Mystery Fiction begins with one of the earliest stories in the detective genre – Victims of My Craft, written in the early eighteen hundreds by Francois Eugene Vidocq, and moves forward from there. It includes stories by Dickens, Poe, Doyle, Chesterton and others as it moves into the 20th century. Commenting on the stylistic progressions and differences between each epoch of mystery writing, The World of Mystery Fiction winds its way through murders and puzzles, each written by a master of crime, and ends with the most modern detective writers, such as Agatha Christie and Jorge Luis Borges.

Cautions.

The World of Mystery Fiction deals with many murders. They are described at various lengths; some barely at all, while others are replete with gory details. The relationships between the murderer and victim often lent to the horror of the crime – for example, one man murders his nephew because the boy makes him nervous. This story is told in the first person. Another story, The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe, also told in the first person, includes the pointless murder and dismemberment of an old man by an insane murderer.  Another story – Murders in the Rue Morgue, also by Poe, outlines the gruesome murder of two defenseless women. Not pretty.

Others among the collection were brilliant. Of course, Holmes was there (though not in what I consider to be his best cases), and Poirot made an appearance. But the highlight of The World of Mystery Fiction for me was being introduced to Jacques Futrelle’s detective, ‘The Thinking Machine’. He appears in a story called The Problem of Cell 13 in which he lays a bet that he can escape from any prison cell simply by applying his brain to the situation. In a hilarious adventure, the bet is taken and he completely befuddles his jailor with his shenanigans. If you ever get the chance to, read it.

As far as romance goes… It’s the typical stuff. It’s actually a little less than what usually happens in classic literature. There are a few references to mistresses, one to seduction. In a brief bio, it is said of Poe that “he became involved in a number of more or less unhappy love affairs”. That sort of thing.

This is the worst (and only) scene of a romantic sort. It occurs at the end of an Alice-in-Wonderland themed mystery and is when the detective is explaining the case to a young woman.

“She regarded him for so long and in such silence and with such supple twisting of her boyish figure that he stirred uncomfortably. “And what, if I may ask,” he said lightly, “brings that positively lewd expression to your Peter Pannish face? You must be feeling –“

“As Alice would say,” she said softly, leaning a little toward him, “curiouser and curiouser.” [pg. 290]

There were several cultural observations/religious statements that I disagreed with, but nothing that older students couldn’t take in stride.

A woman tries to kill a man by making a wax figurine of him and sticking it with needles. The man does die, but it is proven that she was not involved in his death.

God’s name is used in vain thirteen times, while ‘Mon Dieu’ was used twice and ‘by Jove’ once. ‘Damn’ is used eleven times, ‘hell’ four, and ‘what the devil’ two.  The word ‘ass’ is used six times to refer to stupid people.

Conclusion. From reading the above cautions, you may wonder why I am still giving The World of Mystery Fiction three stars. Although the cautions are serious, they occupy less than a quarter of the book, and as such, are not pervasive. I consider The World of Mystery Fiction to be excellent as a cursory introduction to the history, development, and style of detective fiction, but I would recommend it only to fellow fanatics who are willing to wade through a little mud, not to those who are just looking for a good mystery to enjoy.