The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

casebook-of-sherlock-holmesMy love of Sherlock Holmes started when I was in junior high school and my oldest brother would take me to a little bookstore, “Call Me Ishmael,” in Saugatuck, Michigan. My brother could spend hours in that place, so one time I picked up “The Return of Sherlock Holmes,” settled down in a chair, and was quickly lost in Victorian England. I ended up reading all 56 short stories and 4 novels about Sherlock Holmes quickly, and I returned to them many times over the next 35 years.
One I have not read for many years is the final collection of short stories, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. Now I know why — this is a forgettable collection of Holmesian lore. It is not without some good stories. “The Problem of Thor Bridge,” written in 1922, shows Holmes showing that brilliance we are used to seeing.  He solves a mystery of how one woman dies and in the process, saves the life of another woman about to die for a crime she did not commit. Apparently, the story is based on a real-life investigation which is very similar to the story. I don’t want to spoil any endings for new readers, but the recreation of the crime by Holmes is excellent.

 

the_adventure_of_the_creeping_man

“The Adventure of the Creeping Man”

That this is followed by “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” written a year later, only adds to the question of what was Doyle thinking? I’ve never bought into this story where an older man takes some monkey serum so he can be virile and ready for the young woman he wants to marry. This 19th century Viagra makes him act like a monkey and suddenly gives him the strength and ability to scale walls (pretty virile for a 61-year-old). Turns out that there was a Russian doctor working on such an item around when Doyle wrote this, so he may have read about it. Some commentators see this as more science fiction, but I see it as a Holmes story gone wrong.

 

But at least it is a story! “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” is nothing more than one woman telling Holmes of a crime committed several years early. No mystery to be solved — just her chatting away. “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” is a little better, but the mystery solved is no great mystery. “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” shows Holmes solving the mystery of a — wait for it — murderous jellyfish? Talk about a letdown.

But there is hope when we read stories such as “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.” While not the best narrative, Doyle does create a modern-day criminal who is more sociopath than gentlemen criminal. Baron Gruner is downright scary. And, “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” shows Holmes doing some great sleuthing, although how he gets caught by a rival sleuth seems very un-Holmesian.

 

conan-doyle-stampIt is not appropriate to pass by all the stories without noting just how much a man of his times Holmes appears to be in “The Adventure of the Three Gables.” Unfortunately, that time was overtly racist and Watson’s stereotypic descriptions of an African man a Holmes’ stereotypic categorization of African’s is all too clear and too ugly in this story. It is not the only story in which this appears and women are not treated with too much respect unless they outsmart him (e.g. Irene Adler).

I’m not alone in my disappointment with these final stories. Holmesian scholars think some are so bad (and two are actually written by Holmes himself) that Watson is not the true author. [Note: many Holmes scholars treat Holmes and Watson as real people and see Doyle as someone helping out — they are not serious about it, but they usually talk in that vein and have a good time with it].

So, in the end, this is not the Holmes volume I’m sending you to read first. I still love my Sherlock Holmes stories and I think “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” reads like a “best of” collection because the stories are so strong. So start there and end with the Casebook — you’ll be more forgiving by that time.

Note on the title: “Case-book” is the British spelling, “Case Book” is the American version, and “Casebook” is just another spelling by publishers. My first version was “Casebook,” so I stuck with that.

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The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime

ImageWhat an unusual idea. Perhaps in the midst of new Sherlock Holmes interest, Penguin decided to put out this unusual  volume entitled, “The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime: Forgotten Cops and Private Eyes From the Time of Sherlock Holmes.” It ended up in my mail after reviewing a collection of Holmes-inspired stories. It is a collection of stories with characters I was not familiar with, by authors, of whom just a few had some name recognition for me.

It is more scholarly work than one for the general reader. It is edited, and edited well, by Michael Sims, who has written a range of books, including ones touching on the offbeat works found in this collection. His introductions to the stories set strong contexts for both the stories and the authors. Most of authors are males, but several women represent their own characters in breaking new ground.
A common theme in many of these stories is a woman, forced by circumstances, to enter into a male-dominated profession. Quite often, the fact that they are women, or wealthy, or educated, allow them into situations in which a male detective could not make progress. In other words, many of the authors set up situations which allow their characters to enter into an non-female world with an excuse most readers could grant. Once in that world, their success comes from their own wits. It would have been nearly unheard of to actually have women working in these roles, so their appearance in fiction precedes their appearance in reality. As Sims notes in his introduction, “Whatever the progressive sensibilities of the author, the creation of a female detective instantly provided a number of narrative possibilities that were unavailable to male heroes.”
The range of stories also show the development of the detective story. Some show little real investigative work at all; instead, simple clarity allows a case to unfold. Others show the detectives doing the hard work of examining crime scenes or following a suspect, even to an underground cavern.
I say the work is more scholarly than a general read in that Sims includes stories which are justifiably forgotten, except by those wanting to know what was the publishing culture at that time. Mary Wilkin’s “The Long Arm,” has all the elements of a suspenseful plot, but the suspense is mainly missing and we wait patiently while she solves nothing — it is a visiting male detective who does most of the work outside of the story. However, these stories are balance by some excellent entries, including two by Anna Katherine Green.
This anthology will be enjoyed those with interests in the detective story, or women in literature, but it is not aimed at the general reader looking for just another good mystery.

Keepsakes and Other Stories

KeepsakesJon Hassler is a deceptively simple writer. One can read his stories as quaint tales of a forgotten time, but just as you settle in he quietly drops in a plot twist or unexpected story. His novel, Staggerford, is an excellent introduction to his uncanny ability to create character driven stories with plot driven diversions.

The book, Keepsakes and Other Stories, shows his range of interests and writing talents. The book itself is interested, being published in 1999 by the Afton Historical Society Press, a non-profit publisher focusing on work centered in Minnesota, where all these stories take place. It was Hassler’s first collection of short stories, and contains works he wrote prior to his breakthrough as a novelist in 1977 (with Staggerford). The book is beautifully laid out with small illustrations in the opening paragraphs, and generous space for the text — not a cheap, trade book with words tucked into the fold.

The seven tales, although early in his career, point to themes developed in his novels. There are the rural Minnesota settings, the realistic, yet positive role of the Catholic Church (Hassler was a devout Catholic), and when you least expect it, some cold-blooded murder. The murder comes from “Yesterday’s Garbage,” the strongest story in the collection. Here we meet a garbage collector, and his wife who likes to read letters left in the garbage, as they find themselves in possession of some unusual knowledge. If you’ve been lulled into complacency by Hassler’s other stories in the collection, his truly horrendous description of a murder in this story will have you rethinking the author’s take on life. He later turned this story into part of his play, The Staggerford Murders.

But Hassler is equally captivating his description of a forgotten rural time. His stories are no “Thomas Kinkade” paintings with words. Instead, Hassler shows the simple rural life of 50 years ago contains people who are like many of us, but also includes those whose simple life offer a generous view of humanity. The title story, “Keepsakes,” along with its companion “Resident Priest,” paint that glow of rural warmth, but goes deeper as the simple veneer of people break away to reveal complex individuals.

Spending time with Hassler in all these stories, you realize he too is far more complex than any single story will show. I would still point a first time reader to Staggerford for an introduction, but fans should definitely find their way to this collection.

A Study in Sherlock

A Study in SherlockArticle first published as a book review on Blogcritics.

Sherlock Holmes fans are a bit like Jane Austen fans. While holding a great reverence for the original works, they are always open to a bit of playing with characters, or storylines, or just about anything related to their favorite author. While Doyle left behind 56 short stories and 4 novels about Holmes, all told it is an easy collection to read, as is Austen. Thus, perhaps, the longing for just a bit more.

Laurie King and Leslie Klinger take a decidedly different approach to the Holmesian legacy with A Study in Sherlock, which is subtitled “Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon.” Inspired is the important word in this collection of stories edited by King and Klinger.  The 17 stories ranges from plays on canonized stories such as “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” retold as a ruse on Holmes in “The Men with the Twisted Lips,” to a graphic novel, a twitter interview, and straight up mystery stories.
The authors include many legendary names from the mystery world, including S.J. Rozan, Laura Lippman, Jan Burke, and Thomas Perry. Colin Cotterill provides the graphic novel, which tells of his adventures in attempting to write a story inspired by Holmes since he has never read nor intends to read any of this stories. Neil Gaiman makes an appearance with one of the strongest stories in the collection, “The Case of Death and Honey.” While best know for his own graphic novels and other writings, Gaiman is a life-long fan of Holmes and a member of the selective Baker Street Irregulars.
In the end, the most enjoyable stories are those which take Holmes methods and apply them in other situations. The opening story, Alan Bradley’s “You’d Better Go in Disguise,” involves Holmes himself and captures his spirit, although the setting is different as walk into the midst of a story. Lionel Chetwynd’s “The Shadow Not Cast” gives us a Holmesian like soldier called on by the police when they are out of options. The story mirrors the at times complex plots which unfolded from Doyle’s pen, although in a completely modern setting.
The overall impact of the collection is one which clearly enjoys playing in the Holmesian world, while not mocking the original source. Readers will also be introduced to several great writers and are certain to leave the work heading off in search of more writings by the authors of some of the stories. Reading begetting read — the sure sign of a good book.