Sammy's Reviews > The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
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Mar 22, 11

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bookshelves: mystery
Read from March 17 to 23, 2011

Well, I've now read the nine books in the Sherlock Holmes canon, and what a ride! After the initial two disappointing novels came three very good short story collections, a great novel, a better-than-average novel and a slightly-better-than-average short story collection. To finish off the series, "The Case-Book" is... well, not that great. On the one hand, Conan Doyle's prose skills have developed considerably from the early days of A Study in Scarlet and his handling of both atmosphere and the Holmes/Watson relationship is rivalled perhaps only by that series peak, The Hound of the Baskervilles. However, there's not really a lot to recommend here. In truth, it's 2 stars for a non-Holmes fan, and 2-and-a-half if you know and love the guy already.

The bad:

One of the most frustrating elements of this book (admittedly a collection of individually-published short stories) are how often similar character tropes pop up. There are three - maybe four - fiery foreign ladies whose ethnicity is a key part of the solution.

The Adventure of the Creeping Man - the biggest letdown in the canon. This story features the single most arresting, chilling images that Holmes and Watson ever encounter, but is ruined by a gobsmackingly bad denouement.

The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone - adapted from a play, this story not only relies on previously unheard-of architectural features at Baker Street, but fails to capture the reader's interest or render the characters particularly realistically.

The Illustrious Client - can barely even remember it. Moving on.

The thoroughly average

Intriguingly, many of the stories herein are structured less as 'whodunnits' and more as 'howdunnits'. Very few of the stories (indeed, only really two) feature more than one suspect. Some stories never even attempt to hide the perpetrator, the question is instead "what is going on?". This is not unprecedented in the canon by any means, but is highly concentrated here.

Thor Bridge - while it has a clever denouement and some good characterisation, it is another story that doesn't stick in the mind.

The Three Gables - this story is noted most for the questionable racial stereotype character who opens the piece. Personally, I'd argue he has at least two dimensions, and he is a bad guy who happens to be black rather than any kind of argument being made, but it's still a bit edgy, I'll concede. The story itself is quite readable, but no great secret or particularly intriguing characters jump out at us. (Indeed, the story has mild echoes of other stories in the canon.)

The unsatisfying

The Lion's Mane - one of two stories in this volume to be narrated by Holmes (and not to feature Watson at all), the tone of voice is delightful, and the atmosphere electric. However - as with the much earlier story The Five Orange Pips - it is ultimately unsatisfying. This ISN'T Conan Doyle's fault for once; but as with that story, most modern readers will pick up the solution the minute the clues arrive, as it is no longer something mysterious...

The odd

Perhaps most interesting is to see how public sensibilities changed over the years. The early works could only hint at impropreity, while the crimes in this and the previous collection are far more wide-ranging. Bodies - when they appear, which is actually quite rare here - are often brutally destroyed; people having affairs are clearly now having sexual ones; alcohol is far more prevalent. A window into a world.

The Veiled Lodger is a strange, haunting little piece. It is one of the better stories in the collection, although a bizarre addition. It isn't really a mystery at all, but a retelling of a "cold case", with a dark and brooding central figure who has spent years following Holmes' career. Unsettling, but also un-Holmesian.

The Sussex Vampire - atmospheric and ripe for adaptation, yes. Silly? Even more so. Along with one of our many fiery Latin women, the solution hearkens back to the exotica and melodrama of the early Holmes novels. While the true villain of the piece is deftly handled, the vampirism is a tad overdone.

The ... satisfactory?

One shouldn't assume this book is a 'write-off', it's just that even the four most typical Holmes stories, as outlined below, are somewhat lacking.

Shoscombe Old Place and The Blanched Soldier - have some intriguing set pieces, but aren't particularly memorable (aside from the latter being written by Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself).

The Retired Colourman - the most Holmesian story in the collection, but - as mentioned before - lacks suspects. However, it is also possibly the best story in the collection as it features some lovely secondary characters.

The Three Garridebs - well-plotted but, aside from lacking in suspects, is basically a shot-for-shot remake of an early (and very memorable) Holmes short story.

I apologise for the length, but this sums up both the story and the collection: Conan Doyle had tired of Holmes to an extent, and what we get here are stories that focus on the complexity of how the crime was done, rather than making the surrounding elements - suspects, primarily - a mystery. As a result, we generally get a puzzle followed by a chase. Not always unsatisfying, but never as captivating as the earlier works.

In closing, if you're new to the wonderful world of Holmes, there are many other better ideas. Read The Hound of the Baskervilles and any of the other, earlier short story collections - Adventures, Memoirs or The Return. If you like those, read The Valley of Fear, His Last Bow and (to know how it all began)A Study in Scarlet. If ALL of those suit you, then come crawling to this one. (Don't bother with The Sign of Four as no good can come from that.)
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Reading Progress

03/16/2011 "Opens with a forgettable story adapted from a play - hopefully things pick up."
03/16/2011 page 70
24.0% "Yikes! "Thor Bridge" was okay (good characterisation, at least) but the other two stories thus far have been godawful. Hope this doesn't continue..."
03/17/2011 page 115
40.0% ""The Sussex Vampire" was atmospheric, and certainly ripe for adaptation, but mostly silliness. (Featuring yet another fiery Latin woman, the third already in this volume!). "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs" was the first traditional Holmes story in the volume, although it was basically an exact remake of an earlier story."
03/20/2011 page 177
61.0% "Interestingly, "The Illustrious Client", "The Three Gables" AND "The Blanched Soldier" are even less 'whodunnits' or 'howdunnits' than ever! Instead, the villain is (deliberately) obvious and we've entered a realm of chase stories that feature Holmes. (Although "The Blanched Soldier" has the delightful conceit of being told by a post-retired Holmes himself)."
03/21/2011 page 177
61.0% ""The Lion's Mane" was an enjoyable enough story somewhat ruined (like "The Five Orange Pips") by the answer being so obvious to modern-day readers, but delightful for Holmes' narration. "The Retired Colourman" was one of the few Holmes-ian stories in the collection but - as is typical of this volume - lacks suspects."
03/21/2011 page 259
89.0% ""The Veiled Lodger" - the penultimate Holmes story as I reach the end of my journeys! - was an odd little thing. A "cold case" with a dark, brooding central figure who has spent years following Holmes' creature. A fascinating little story, although definitely also a bizarre addition to the canon."
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