The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Twelve stories, approx. 94,000 words
The great sleuth in his prime
When we're talking about Arthur Conan Doyle's contribution to detective literature, we really mean the entire oeuvre of fifty-six Sherlock Holmes stories, plus four Holmes novels. But if you're looking for an introduction to the famous works, The Adventures opf Sherlock Holmes (1892) is a good choice, as it presents Doyle's detective character fully fledged—and includes some of his most intriguing mysteries.
At this point in the canon, before The Adventures, Holmes had already appeared in two novels, starting with A Study in Scarlet, in which Dr. Watson had first met Holmes but which had featured the detective for less than half the story. The Sign of Four had developed Holmes's persona and surroundings further.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes then gets right down to it, with its 12 short stories pitting the sleuth and his narrating sidekick against some of his best puzzles and cleverest enemies.
Chances are, however, you won't easily find this particular volume but will more likely lay your hands on a collection of Sherlockiana that includes several stories from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes along with some from later volumes, namely The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, because there are great Holmes entries in each of these volumes. Better yet, pick up a complete works (they're cheap enough now) and delve into them at will.
Most of the stories appeared in The Strand Magazine in London before being collected into book volumes. They do follow some kind of chronology—though "Watson" jumps around a bit with the order, which gives Holmes fanatics (whose numbers are legion the job of figuring out when in real time each of the fictions is thought to have taken place. But it isn't at all required to read the stories as given in order to appreciate them.
However, two of the most popular—and enduring—Holmes tales lead off The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
A Scandal in Bohemia
The first Adventure, "A Scandal in Bohemia," brings him up against the woman who to Holmes will always be the woman.
You may already be familiar with this story as it is often singled out for television treatment and has been much copied.
To be fair, Doyle's story is itself a variation on a much earlier detective story, Edgar Allan Poe's The Purloined Letter of 1845. In my opinion, however, and probably that of most readers, Doyle's version is better.
It's not the greatest mystery, hardly a mystery at all, but an entertaining tale of police work, almost a thriller.
The Red-Headed League
The second story in the volume, "The Red-Headed League," is a real head-scratcher, a mystery with one of Doyle's clever solutions that seems obvious after it is revealed—an irony that Doyle has Holmes himself point out in many a story.
It's like a magician's trick of misdirection. If afterwards, the magician repeats the trick for you but at the crucial point indicates out where you should be looking to see how the trick is done.... Well, that was simple, wasn't it? Nothing magical about it.
Doyle ties up our attention with the strange job an oddly qualified fellow is hired to carry out and and we never come close to figuring out what's really going on.
Until Holmes tells us, of course.
Speckled Band and the rest
All the rest of the stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are worthy, though one particular story seems especially popular for movie and TV adaptation. "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" involves a...but if I tell you, you'll know the solution to the mystery.
This is one of the more atmospheric of Doyle's mysteries. Not one of my favourites though. It's hardly a case of Holmes deducing his way to a logical solution but, as far as I can make out, just making a lucky guess on insufficient evidence. More of an adventure than a mystery.
Another story rated among the best is the collection closer "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches", a classic puzzler about a governess who is paid a handsome salary as long as she follows some peculiar instructions.
For the most part, these stories are individually ingenious as mysteries but also interesting, taken as a whole, for detailing the odd relationship between the arrogant, reclusive Holmes and the affable doctor, the purported chronicler of these cases.
The further adventures
The collections of stories that follow The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are also worthy, although a slight fall-off in quality is detectable as Doyle, tiring of his sleuth, pushes him through his mysteries. The second collection, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894), starts with one of his most popular outings in "Silver Blaze", and finishes with the first story that Doyle thought would end the detective's life in fiction: "The Final Problem".
But The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905) brings him back in "The Adventure of the Empty House". He continues to shine in such enduring gems as "The Adventure of the Norwood Builder" and, most interestingly, "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton", in which Holmes's morality is challenged.
The next collection, His Last Bow (1917), has a retrospective tone as Watson is looking back from retirement on some great cases in the detective's career. It ends with a story, also called "The Last Bow", in which Holmes comes out of retirement to help Britain find spies on the eve of the First World War.
The final and least highly regarded compendium is The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927). The stories are for the most part less plausible than previous efforts and the writing style varies. (Some are not even narrated by Watson.) The highlight may be the opener, "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client", which is as much of an action thriller as a mystery. Also enjoyable is "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger", not so much for the mystery as for its emotional impact—not a common effect in Sherlockian tales.
What he said
In all these fifty-six stories, by the way, the good doctor is never told by Holmes that any piece of detection is "Elementary, my dear Watson." Nor are the words uttered together in any other Sherlock Holmes books. They were, rather, stitched together in the movies.
One phrase the movies do get right from the books, though, is Holmes's call to action: "The game is afoot." It first appears in "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange", collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes.
You do want to get your data accurate when you're dealing with Sherlock Holmes.
— Eric McMillan