The first novel down in my quest to read The Complete Sherlock Holmes by the end of 2018. Though I have seen numerous adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories over the years, I only managed to read a handful of the actual source material as a child (and The Hound of the Baskervilles is the only one I remember with any clarity). I never managed to read this one, which gives us the introduction between Mr. Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective, and Dr. John Watson, his friend and biographer. I knew a lot of the beats, though! (Mostly because this novel is adapted loosely to be the first episode of the 2010 BBC Sherlock, and later, we get a Victorian dramatization of their meeting as well in “The Abominable Bride.”)
A great deal of this small novel is actually devoted to the meeting between the two men, and it is narrated mostly by Watson, as he comes to terms with the strange and fascinating man he has ended up sharing rooms with. I found it amusing that Holmes never told Watson what he did, leaving it to the poor doctor to work out on his own. He never manages to figure it out, because Holmes’s skills and interests seem simultaneously very limited and too far-ranging to be of use in any profession Watson has knowledge of. His detective vocation only becomes apparent when Watson is pulled along with Holmes to the scene of a murder. “Rache,” the German word for revenge, has been written on the walls in blood, but the victim has no wounds upon his body.
The thing that really threw me was the extended flashback sequence to Utah. Holmes catches the murderer, and then immediately we’re back in time thirty or so years, with characters we’ve never met, lost in the Utah desert. Then there’s this whole thing with early Mormon settlers, and forced polygamy, and to say I wasn’t expecting it would be an understatement. I suppose this would have read as pretty exotic to a contemporary Victorian readership. It doesn’t read as very flattering, that’s for sure! Wikipedia informs me that ACD based the story off of what he believed were historical facts, but he ended up apologizing later in life for the way he had portrayed the religion.
All in all, I enjoyed this. It was kind of fun to see how the flow of the mystery and the reveals/denouement compared to the way mystery novels play out today. The murderer was caught halfway through the book! When that happened, I had to check how much time was left. I thought surely it wouldn’t take the rest of the book to explain how it all went down. But I think the pacing did end up working, in the end, once I caught on to what was happening.
I’m also glad I didn’t have it spoiled for me by the BBC show, since the motives and means differ greatly, even if the murderers share names.
Lastly, shout-out to Watson here, because it is clear his feelings for Holmes are already pretty intense even though he barely knows the man. He’s so offended when the papers give all the credit to Lestrade and Gregson! It’s adorable.
[3.5 stars, rounded up for fondness]