Published originally between July, 1891 and June, 1892 in The Strand magazine as serials, these stories were gathered together into one volume shortly after the last was published. It is this version, in a form recorded in the early 1990s for BBC radio, that I listened to. The stories are listed below with a brief commentary on each.
While I recommend the Holmes stories, particularly for any writer who aspires to write detective fiction themselves, I cannot recommend this particular audiobook version at all. It would not have been so bad were it not for the whining violins which periodically inject themselves and for the ridiculous "acting" if one can call it that, by the lead. The reading is a full-cast one, with a guy named Clive Merrison, who is amusingly a welsh actor playing the quintessentially English Sherlock Holmes, and Michael Williams who, until he died in 2001, was married to actor Judi Dench, playing Watson.
The problem with these two is that Merrison is way-the-hell over the top, cackling like a mad scientist at times, and his voice is brassy and jarring, whereas William's voice is understated and quiet, so I'm constantly adjusting the volume when listening to one or the other. I thought (more than once) of just giving up and returning this to the library, but it served my purpose to stay with it and see it through, to refresh my memory on some of these stories and on Doyle's writing style in particular, about which I'll have a few comments.
The recording quality is shamefully poor for the BBC. It sounds loud and brassy in parts, and awfully tinny in others, especially when we're forced to listen to an obnoxiously maudlin violin screeching at random intervals. The sound effects were more irritating than illuminating. There were also changes made to the stories in the name of "dramatization' which were overly melodramatic and quite frankly annoying. If you went to listen to this I recommend finding one where it's read, not acted, and avoid this particular edition like the plague.
- A Scandal in Bohemia
The most remarkable thing about the Sherlock Holmes stories is how John Hamish Watson always seems to be conveniently arriving at 221B Baker Street just in time for Holmes's next adventure! Watson is supposed to be a doctor, but he never practices because he's always putting off his patients in order to take-off with Holmes. In short, he's a truly lousy and unreliable doctor, and it's rather surprising that he even has a practice. In this adventure, he shows up on spec and happens upon the beginning of the Irene Adler case.
The curious thing about Holmes, given his reputation, is how little of his famed 'brilliant observational deduction' he engages in, and how little of that is relevant to the case. Most of the deductive work for which he's famous is done at the beginning of the story, where Holmes first meets whichever person it is who will launch him on his case. In this particular example, he sets his sights on the "King of Bohemia," and it's fairly easy to see how he figures out who the guy is. This early display of 'brilliance' typifies the Holmes stories, leaving the rest of the story to simple detective work, with precious few flashes of the vaunted deductive excellence that are typically associated with Holmes in popular culture.
The king has a problem with Irene Adler, an American opera singer and actor, and ex-lover of his. Doyle introduces quite a few American characters in his stories, and seems to be rather an aficionado of the country. At one point, in one of these stories, Doyle has Holmes spout some absurd nonsense about the US and Britain reuniting, which felt to me like it was a clueless Doyle speaking through his character.
Adler has a compromising photograph of herself and the King, and she will not give it up. The King's agents have been unable to discover where she keeps it hidden. At 5½ by 4 inches, it's claimed to be too large for her to keep on her person (and evidently they don't consider that she might have cut it down a little), but it simply isn't the case that it's "too large." An eight by ten, yeah, but five by four? No! This is merely a contrivance of Doyle's to have the photo hidden in a fixed location somewhere, and therefore readily accessible for Holmes to discover.
If Adler were really as smart as she's popularly claimed, she would carry it with her just to thwart those who did think it not portable! Then I don't subscribe to this fiction that Adler was Holmes's match - that she was a brilliant tactician who outsmarted "the great detective." Yes, she did outsmart him, but to claim that the way she did it was genius is the same thing as saying that most women are idiots. She acted only in her highly-motivated self-interest, employing nothing more than commonsense in the process. There was no genius or brilliance involved. it was no great feat or her to disguise herself with make-up (having been an actress) and follow Holmes.
If Holmes were smarter he would have asked Adler why she wanted to keep the photo, but neither he nor the king seem to have considered for a minute that Adler had a reason other than blackmailing the king or spoiling his impending marriage. Holmes did not deduce this - he found it out purely by accident whilst spying on Adler. Prior to this, Holmes had simply taken the king's word for it that Adler is in love with him, so there's a heck of a lot of blind gullibility going on here which is hardly a hallmark of brilliance on the part of Holmes.
- The Red-headed League
It would be hard to write some of the Holmes stories today because so many of them revolve around quirks and foibles of yesteryear, such as this one. One can imagine there would be a redheaded league a hundred years ago, and even more so that it was a fake one, but it's a lot harder to see that flying today.
In this adventure, a red-headed man visits Holmes about this 'occupation' he was hired for, purely because of his red hair. His job was to transcribe the Encyclopædia Britannica, for which he's paid handsomely, but after two months went by, the 'work' evaporated. When he showed up for it as usual one morning, he was told there was no more job!
Holmes is intrigued and investigates, and it turns out that the purpose of the job was simply to get the man away from his pawnbroker business so that thieves could use his basement to tunnel through to a nearby bank and rob it. There really was no great deduction going on here once you realized that the mystery was not the job, but why someone would want the red-headed Mr Wilson out of his shop for so long.
- A Case of Identity
This is another story wherein the perp probably wouldn't get away with it today, since people are less trusting and less gullible in broad, general terms, educated no doubt by the plethora of detective stories which flood the market today in print and via video media.
In the story, Mary Sutherland is engaged to someone with the oddball name of Hosmer Angel. Where Doyle came up with these names is a mystery worth a Sherlock Holmes style exploration in my opinion, but this character is actually Mary's stepfather in disguise, and he's trying to make her so miserable over a ruined engagement caused by his last minute 'disappearance' that she will never look at another man again and in this way, he can keep his sticky fingers on her inheritance, which she would get were she to marry. Curiously, Holmes fails his client when he fails to tell her the truth about what happened, meaning the stepfather will get away with his plan. It's neither a very good nor a satisfactory story.
- The Boscombe Valley Mystery
This one involves Inspector Lestrade who essentially fulfills the role of clown. The police are routinely and rather insultingly rendered as idiots in the Holmes stories. The crime here is the murder of Charles McCarthy and the "open and shut case' against his son, James. Of course, Holmes proves this wrong. I found this story boring and rather lacking in the brilliance these stories are supposed to exhibit.
- The Five Orange Pips
This story is nonsensical from the beginning to the end. The five pips from an orange are purportedly a warning from the Ku Klux Klan, but Doyle proves himself profoundly ignorant of this petty, amateur racist movement which never has had a large following and which was dead as a dodo when Doyle wrote this story. The KKK name comes not from the sound of cocking a rifle as Doyle writes, but from the Greek word for circle: kyklos, with the alliterative "Klan" added for effect.
It makes no sense whatsoever for them to send the warning, and especially not of a pathetic five orange pips. Why did they not simply visit the man who had the damning written evidence and demand it from him, or kill him and burn his home to the ground if they were that desperate? The whole story is absurd and is essentially nothing more than a variation on the Irene Adler story.
- The Man with the Twisted Lip
This one is equally stupid. A man who falls into debt discovers that he can make more money begging on the street than he can by actually working, so he kits himself out with an ugly disguise which rather than disguise him draws more attention to him such that he's very well known to the police. Hardly much of a disguise if we deem a disguise to mean something to prevent him being noticed. despite the police attention, no one has ever noticed his disguise!
One day his wife happens to be in the neighborhood of his lodgings. Why he needed those is never satisfactorily explained, especialyl givne how expensive they are to maintain. Why the man's respectable wife even be in such a lowlife area of London is even less explicable, but sees him in a window. By the time she can get up there with the police, he's donned his disguise, Literally thrown his coat across the street and into the Thames on the other side (which is impossible if "Swandam Lane" is anything like its real life counterpart, Swan Lane), and even his own wife doesn't recognize him? Absurd! This is really the Hosmer Angel story over again with a few plot points changed.
Unintentional humor is rife in these stories, such as in this one, where Watson says "...a sudden ejaculation caused me to wake up..." LOL! Wet dreams in Holmes stories! There is rather a lot of ejaculation going on in this book. Of course I'm sure Doyle didn't mean what a prurient mind twists it to mean, but this particular mention of it was perfect!
- The Blue Carbuncle
Blue carbuncle is just another name for a blue garnet, but 'carbuncle' is wrong because it refers to a red gemstone, not to a blue one. This story is almost literally a wild goose chase, and involves no brilliant deductions on Holmes part, merely an understanding of avarice and a trick to try and lure in the villain who "hid" his stolen gem in the goose by forcing the poor doomed creature to swallow it.
It makes no sense that, having successfully made it all the way home with the stolen gem in his pocket, he would then risk losing track of it by depositing it in a goose which is likely to abruptly disappear since it's Christmas season; then the guy evidently isn't too smart, so maybe he would. This was not a very satisfactory story.
- The Speckled Band
According to Wikipedia, Doyle considered this to be his best Holmes story, but I have to say I think it's the worst. It makes zero sense from start to finish. The speckled band is a snake. Who in their right mind ever refers to a snake as a band, speckled or otherwise? The very premise is nonsensical, yet the entire 'mystery' depends upon it.
Helen Stoner (the name probably explains a lot!) visits Holmes because two years before, her twin sister had died under odd circumstances while in her bedroom, and now Helen is forced to sleep in the very room where her sister died because of unnecessary modifications to the house. The clues are a bed fixed to the floor, a bell-pull that doesn't work and which hangs from a vent in the ceiling right over the bed.
The idea is that a 'swamp adder' is controlled by a whistling sound and on activation, it descends the bell-pull and bites the sleeping victim, retreating back up the pull afterwards. Since there is no such thing as a swamp adder and no venomous snake which could climb or descend something as insubstantial as a bell-pull, and since snakes are effectively deaf (they can detect sounds if their jaw is in contact with the ground, and perhaps some low frequency airborne sounds, but nothing else), then whistling to control one, even if such fine control of a snake were possible, is absurd. If you want a snake that can climb, why invent a swamp adder? Why not a 'tree' adder or a 'vine' adder? And which snake, exactly, drinks milk? Doyle clearly knew nothing about snakes.
This really wasn't very inventive on Doyle's part, and to me it's a poorly thought-out story which contains very little of Holmes's highly praised deductive skills. There's nothing he does here that any person of average intelligence and an inquiring mind could not have done. And why does Stoner come only when her own life is in danger? Did she not care enough about her twin to pursue inquiries into how she died? I thought this a weak and amateur effort.
- The Engineer's Thumb
Victor Hatherley comes to Watson's attention having suffered a severed thumb and blood loss. After treatment, Watson refers him to Holmes. The engineer had been contracted for five times his asking price to consult on a malfunctioning hydraulic press. When he gets too inquisitive, his employer comes after him with an ax, and he escapes through a window, losing his thumb to the ax in the process. Holmes uses some simple deduction to figure out where the engineer was transported in secrecy late at night, only to find the house burned down and the perp escaped. It's hardly a case of brilliant deduction, and certainly not one in which Holmes "gets his man".
- The Noble Bachelor
Lord Robert St Simon marries an American woman only to have her scarper immediately after the wedding. Holmes, with Lestrade's help(!) discovers that Hatty Doran was married to Francis Moulton, who was reported to have been killed by Apaches in New Mexico. Doyle does get it right that this is Apache territory, but New Mexico wasn't a state until after this story was written. It was however, a very large territory. Hatty had married Frank and when she thought he was dead, she felt free to marry Lord Robert, but Frank showed up at the wedding and rather than raise objections, snuck away with the bride. Again, the story made no sense, because it was Frank who wanted to tell Lord Robert the truth, so why did he not raise an objection at the wedding? Again no brilliant insights here, only 'elementary' deduction my dear Holmes.
- The Beryl Coronet
In this story, in another unintentionally funny sentence, Holmes, talking about shoes, says he disguised himself as a loafer (vagrant or slacker)! LOL!
A banker discovers his son holding a damaged coronet. Like a moron, Arthur refuses to give an account of himself and like an even bigger moron, his dad immediately leaps to the conclusion that his son has stolen the piece of the coronet which was broken off. There is no brilliant deduction here either, Holmes merely following a trail of footprints and surmising that Arthur's cousin conspired with an outside agent to steal.
- The Copper Beeches
Violet Hunter is unknowingly hired (and overpaid) for the purpose of impersonating a woman who is being held captive at that same location, Violet's role is to impersonate the woman so an outside interested party is fooled into thinking that she's there of her own free will and is enjoying her time. Holmes figures it out, but there is no great deduction involved. This story is really an amalgamation of three others, because it incorporates elements of The Engineer's Thumb (someone is hired for a ridiculous fee), The Redheaded League (hired for a particular look, and to occupy a certain place on certain occasions), and The Adventure of the Yellow Face, which is not included in this collection, but was with m The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and in which a woman in disguise is required to be visible in a window.
So, like I said, skip this and find a different version. I can't recommend it.