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My Dear Watson
by Asa Butcher
Issue 11
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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Penguin Books Ltd, 1994
Why should you read Sherlock Holmes? It's elementary my dear reader, for he is the foremost literary detective that walked the streets of Victorian London. He has been immortalised through films, television series, cartoons and comic strips, but reading the source material has brought a new dimension to this logical, observant, cocaine-using resident of 221B Baker Street.

The Wordsworth Classics edition contained the first two stories, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890), plus twelve stories from the original Strand Magazine that ran from July 1891 to June 1892, and another twelve that were published between December 1892 and December 1893. The book is printed in the same format as the original Strand Magazine, so the text is so small I couldn't read it in low light, and it includes the illustrations by Sidney Paget, from whom the contemporary appearance of Holmes originates.

Despite never having read any Holmes story, I was already very familiar with the character, his personality, his relationship with Dr. Watson and his ability to spot clues where others had failed. However, reading them in context and in a chronological order gave both Holmes and Watson more depth and shape, especially the latter.

The stories are written as accounts by Dr. John Watson who feels that Holmes deserves more recognition for his detective skills, although Holmes comments at one point that they are embellished. Holmes goes on to say that he is happy that the reports give prominence to incidents that appeared trivial because they allow his faculties of deduction and of logical synthesis to be highlighted even more.

The selection of 26 stories were primarily about trivial matters, with the occasional Lord or European royalty thrown into the mix, but each is unique and the majority reach a conclusion that either took me by surprise or made me laugh. For example, The Red-Headed League's "All red-headed men who are sound in body and mind, and above the age of twenty-one years, are eligible," leads to an interesting conclusion.

Forensic science is commonplace today, but seeing Holmes applying it to his methods back in the late 19th century is still interesting, probably because of the way that Watson narrates the events and his astonishment at his friend's methods comes through the text. Whether Holmes is estimating the height of a man from his stride or impressing everybody with his extensive knowledge of tobaccos, he always applies his skills in a systematic and absorbing manner.

When Watson compares Holmes to Edgar Allen Poe's Dupin in A Study in Scarlet, our detective is quick to describe Dupin as 'a very inferior fellow' and dismisses other famous detectives in just as few words. Holmes' disdain is mainly held for women, whom he believes are never to be entirely trusted, and if a woman is inexplicably ill they are said to be suffering from brain fever.

One notable statement made by Conan Doyle through the lips of Holmes was about his love of Americans in The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor and perhaps a precursor to the 'shoulder-to-shoulder' statement made by Blair a few years ago:

"It is always a joy to me to meet an American, Mr Moulton, for I am one of those who believe that the folly of a monarch and the blundering of a Minister in far gone years will not prevent our children from being some day citizens of the same world-wide country under a flag which shall be a quartering of the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes."

Naturally, Holmes' cocaine habit is the aspect of Conan Doyle's detective that has led to some censorship over the years, but the edition remained thankfully uncut and features Holmes taking out his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case and rolling up his shirtsleeve much to the disgust of his colleague Dr. Watson. "Which is it today," I asked, "morphine or cocaine?" He raised his eyes languidly from the old black-letter volume which he had opened. "It is cocaine," he said, "a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?"

Each of the stories has an intriguing title, such as The Five Orange Pips, The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter and The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet, in which he states his famous maxim for the first time: "When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." This has led to the downfall of many villains, crooks, liars and cheats, except for Holmes' most infamous nemesis, Dr Moriarty.

One aspect of the book that came as a shock to me was the final story entitled The Adventure of the Final Problem, in which Watson reports the death of Holmes. It is surprising since he comes back to life a few years later in The Hound of the Baskervilles, yet the story opens by revealing his death since Watson writes as though the event has been known for a long time, except to the blissfully unaware reader, such as me.

Overall, it was a great experience following the first 26 adventures written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It has given me a taste for more of the detective, whether in the form of Basil-The Great Mouse Detective or Star Trek's Data, and more of Doyle's writing in the form of his science fiction novel The Lost World.

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