The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

For many years I thought I was more of a fan of Sherlock Holmes as a cultural phenomenon  than of the original stories.  I suspect that was because I first read some of the tales when I was too young to appreciate much about them.  When the BBC rebooted Holmes yet again the Radio Times produced some cheap Penguin editions and I have been (very slowly) re-acquainting myself with the real thing.  I was surprised by how much I enjoy the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

This volume is later stories, after Conan Doyle gave in to pressure to resurrect Holmes after Reichenbach Falls: The Empty House, The Norwood Builder, The Dancing Men, The Solitary Cyclist, The Priory School and Black Peter.

All are really clever mysteries, well told .  If you’re not a complete nerd, that’s enough of a recommendation right there.  If, like me, you are fascinated by all sorts of cultural nuances, this collection throws up some snippets to make you think.  For instance, where a murder occurs in the course of a kidnapping that was commissioned by a third party, Holmes remarks how the party who commissioned the kidnapping is morally but not legally culpable.  I wasn’t sure that that was even an idea that was current at the time.

One that bothers me more is Watson as narrator tells us that Holmes doesn’t care about wealth and rank and will turn down less interesting cases from the rich and famous in favour of more challenging cases for ordinary people.  It is also common knowledge that the outcomes of Holmes stories sometimes are of a moral and practical justice rather than strictly legal.  So I’m left scratching my head about the one where a Duke’s (illegitimate) son is allowed to escape to Australia rather than answer for his crimes.  Either Holmes is saying that it’s OK because of who the culprit is; or else going to Australia is considered a fate worse than prison/hanging.  Either option is problematic to 21st century sensibilities.  It’s easy to say they didn’t think that way in late Victorian times, but I’m not entirely convinced.

In short, if you are at all interested in crime fiction or in a cultural phenomenon that has taken on a life of its own, you should really read these.  If you haven’t read them since you were a teenager, they do repay a re-read.

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