Image: Penguin

Image: Penguin

Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes isn't the first fictional detective to grace bookshelves, but C. Auguste Dupin and Monsieur Lecoq haven't become quite such familiar household names. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Holmes in 1887, in the midst of a career as a doctor and botanist. Nevertheless, he was no great age when he created the character who would make him famous as a writer - he was 27, and wrote A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson's debut, in just three weeks. 

From that humble beginning, three Sherlock novels and five collections of short stories emerged. It even got to a point that Doyle himself was sick of his creation, writing to his mother in 1891: "I think of slaying Holmes... and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things." His mother - inadvertedly representing the voices of fiction fans the world over - was outraged. 

So Doyle turned to financial incentive in lieu of creative stasis, urging publishers to cough up for more Holmes stories. Such was their hunger, Doyle ended up being very well-paid indeed - and Holmes and Watson defied the death he had sent them to, and ended up retiring instead. 

But what's the best way to read them? Here's our take on the essential way to navigate the Sherlock Holmes stories.

A Study in Scarlet (1887)

This was the book that introduced the world to Sherlock and John. It's where we meet Watson and learn about his disastrous war record, how he was shot in battle and how he came to be in London in need of new digs.

Enter Sherlock Holmes: “'How are you?' [Holmes] said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. 'You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.'”

Sparks fly, and the bromance begins, setting up the moment Holmes and Watson take their first tug at “the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life.”

The Sign of Four (1890)

Even geniuses have their vices (especially geniuses, perhaps), and Sherlock Holmes was no exception. The Sign of Four introduces us to the gentleman sleuth's cocaine years, and his preferred method of administration, injection:

“For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.”

Watson, of course, hauls him over the coals for a habit that may “risk the loss of those great powers”. But soon a job comes in and they're back on London's smog-fogged streets on another adventure involving a one-legged ruffian, hidden treasure, deadly poison darts and a thrilling race along the River Thames.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)

Time to take a break from the novels and dive into Conan Doyle's first set of short stories for a deeper understanding of Holmes' complex personality, intriguing methodologies and his sideline as a master of disguise.

The most famous story is the first, A Scandal in Bohemia, because it concerns the infamous opera singer Irene Adler, the closest Holmes ever comes to a love interest and the first character in the canon with the brainpower to outwit Holmes himself.

The Speckled Band is wonderful (and the one Conan Doyle himself said was his favourite), The Engineer's Thumb is a rollicker and The Copper Beaches is mind-frayingly mysterious. But actually, there are no duds in this collection, through which Holmes never fails to deliver.

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894)

If you only read one story in this collection, it has to be the last one, The Final Problem, because introduces us, finally, to Professor Moriarty, Holmes' arch-nemesis. Or, as Holmes calls him, “the Napoleon of crime”.

Truth be told, by 1894, Conan Doyle had grown “weary” of his albatross sleuth, whom he once likened to “pate de foie gras”: “I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.”

So he concocted Moriarty as a simple device: to kill Holmes off. Cue a nefarious plot for world domination, a hot-tail through Europe culminating in a fatal tussle at the infamous Reichenbach Falls. It's also where – and this is important for Enola Holmes viewers – we first meet Holmes' cleverer brother Mycroft.

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905)

Conan Doyle couldn't keep Holmes dead for long. There was an uproar from fans across Britain, so the author wearily reanimated his pipe-smoking cash cow. And here's where we learn about Holmes' dab hand at the Japanese martial art of baritsu, which is how he dispatched Moriarty to his watery doom.

By The Norwood Builder (the second story in the collection) the bromance is back on and the inquisitive pair are up to their old tricks again, cracking encoded messages, freeing kidnapped heirs, investigating harpooned sea captains and finding famous pearls inside Napoleonic statues.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902)

There's a pretty strong argument for this as Holmes' finest escapade – the most famous story in the canon and maybe the one to start with. Holmes and Watson are dispatched to investigate the sudden death of Sir Charles Baskerville on the estate of his ancestral pile on the mist-shrouded moorland of Dartmoor.

What begins as a mysterious case of supernatural murder turns into a race against time to save Sir Charles' heir from the same fate. As the story unfolds, they must solve the riddle of an ancient curse, hunt down a phantom hound, and a side plot involving an escaped convict hiding out in the wilderness.

The Valley of Fear (1914-1915)

This is probably the least well-known of all the Holmes books, but it's still a doozy that takes us back to a time before Moriarty's death plunge. When a corpse is found with its head blown to pieces, Holmes and Watson must piece together a strange set of clues, involving a weird note, a bloody footprint and a missing dumb-bell.

Of course, Holmes solves the case with nothing more than Watson's umbrella. But there's more: was his old foe involved? Suddenly they're back on the cat-and-mouse, hot on the tail Moriarty and his goons.

His Last Bow (1917)

This is the last book in the chronology of Holmes and Watson (though “The Casebook...” was published later, it is set in the past). Holmes is getting a bit creaky in the old joints now (arthritis), but his mind is no less supple.

In The Cardboard Box, we finally learn about Holmes' passion for the violin (a theme amped up far higher in the movies), Paganini in particular, and how he bought his Stradivarius. 

But it's not until the eponymous final tale that Conan Doyle takes us out of our comfort zones, away from Victorian London and into the murky world of British intelligence during the First World War. Befitting of Conan Doyle's taste for shock endings, Holmes' great (and actual) finale, becomes more a spy story than a detective one. And there ends the duo's epic friendship.

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927)

By the time Conan Doyle got round to his final collection, he had clearly had it up to his moustache with Sherlock. The stories are pretty straightforward riddle-solving capers, mostly set back in Victorian London, though not really fixed to any particular chronological moment.

But for anyone in a hurry, the most interesting of the 12 are The Blanched Soldier and The Lion's Mane because they are the first time Conan Doyle breaks protocol and allows Holmes himself to narrate proceedings.

The Lion's Mane is particularly worth a stab as it's set after Holmes' retirement, where we learn he has swapped his houndstooth cap for a beekeeper's bonnet, tending bees and flowers in a coastal Sussex cottage. Still, if we've learned anything from Conan Doyle, it is that mystery is a stubborn mistress, and wherever Holmes goes, she's never far behind.

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