My best friend, Judith, is only two months older than me, but when we were at school, she was in the year above me. This proved very useful when it came to discovering literature. Many a book I read and loved came second-hand through her talking about what she was studying in English. This was certainly the case for my first Sherlock Holmes stories. I must have been either ten or eleven, and after her raving about Holmes, I just had to find out what all the fuss was about. Even at eleven, I didn't like missing out on a good story. I vividly remember that I read four stories, one of which was "The Speckled Band," which captivated me, appealing to my slightly ghoulish imagination. This must have been one of my first really grown-up stories, and it was like nothing I'd ever read before.
I've read The Hound of the Baskervilles a few times, but aside from that, Sherlock Holmes lay at the back of my mind for many years. I watched a few stories on TV, acquired much of the knowledge through the osmosis of popular culture, but didn't read much until about eighteen months ago, when BBC started airing Sherlock for the first time. The series sent me right back to the original stories: A Study in Scarlet, and The Sign of Four. After an unusually long wait for a second series of a TV show, Sherlock returned to the screens once more on New Year's Day this year, and I returned to the next volume of the series: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
After two novels, the third installment is a collection of short stories. This makes the book easy to dip in and out of, and you need little knowledge of what has come before, but can read the stories in any order - there may be a throwaway reference to "the case of..." but nothing that has any bearing on the tale. In fact, the stories aren't even compiled in chronological order - some are set after Watson's marriage, others before. They are narrated by Dr Watson, as written up long after the event. Though far from simple stories, they are told simply, often to the same formula: The problem is presented, Dr Watson, the client and the reader are all baffled, but not Sherlock Holmes, oh no! He ponders a lot, asks strange questions, goes out, solves the mystery then comes back and then tells us how he did it. My favourite stories in the collection are those which have a little less talking and a little more action, those stories in which Watson gets to go "on location" with Holmes.
Some of the tales are rather silly, such as "The Blue Carbuncle" - a valuable jewel which nearly ends up in the Christmas dinner. Two stories require suspension of disbelief as dodgy characters fool those closest to them with disguised identities, and then there is "The Red-Headed League." A fun, entertaining and cunning tale, but how gullible was Holmes's client, duped into joining this fictitious club, just for gingers?
Adventures also contains some of the most wonderful and memorable cases. We meet The Woman, Irene Adler, the one woman Sherlock acknowledges. There is the gruesome tale of the "Engineer's Thumb," and the "Copper Beeches" mystery, first dismissed by Holmes as his "zero point" for interest, but which turns out to be one of the most intriguing and exciting of all. And of course, "The Speckled Band," my old friend, the original locked-door mystery.
Yes, reading these stories, sometimes I found myself rolling my eyes at some of these cliched tropes - but let's not forget that they were not cliched. These are the original twisty page-turning detective stories, those that helped to invent the genre. I won't say Conan Doyle was the inventor - check out Poe's Auguste Dupin stories that came before - but for twists and thrills and cleverness, I think nothing has topped the Sherlock Holmes series in over a century. Maybe Agatha Christie put up a fair fight.