You definitely know who Sherlock Holmes is. You’ve probably seen at least some of the acclaimed BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. But with four novels and 56 short stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle, where’s the best place to start reading?
The title of this short story from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes may not ring any bells, but where better to start than Conan Doyle’s personal favourite? At its core, this is a locked room mystery about an inexplicable murder. It takes Holmes and Watson to an eccentric tumbledown manor house to help a young woman who believes her stepfather wishes her harm. It’s not yet inspired the BBC series, but has been adapted into a play, an anime series, a video game, and even a puppet show. And if you want to keep reading in Conan Doyle’s order of preference, he chose The Redheaded League and The Adventure of the Dancing Men as his number two and three.
In 1889 an American magazine editor held a dinner in London to find some up and coming writers. As well as The Sign of Four (originally titled The Sign of the Four), the dinner also produced a commission for Oscar Wilde for what became The Picture of Dorian Gray. This Holmes novel is notable for being the story that introduces Watson’s future wife, Mary, played by Amanda Abbington in Sherlock - in a role that fills in many of the gaps that Conan Doyle left in Mary’s backstory. In The Sign of Four she turns up at Baker Street after her father disappears, and kicks off a story involving stolen jewels, cocaine and the iconic line: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
Conan Doyle’s first short story loosely inspired A Scandal in Belgravia, the first episode of the BBC's Sherlock. It features Irene Adler, played by Lara Pulver in the BBC series (and Rachel McAdams in the 2009 Robert Downey Junior film). It opens with a masked visitor meeting Holmes on behalf of a mysterious and wealthy client who is quickly revealed to be the hereditary (fictional) King of Bohemia. Full of disguises, royalty and arguably the female character Conan Doyle did the best job with, prompting the line “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.”
Possibly one of the most famous Holmes stories, this story from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is the one in which Conan Doyle finally killed Holmes off. The author ended up becoming resentful of the fact that his Sherlock Holmes books overshadowed the rest of his work, and his pleasure in getting rid of the detective is palpable in this story. Ending in an iconic battle with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, this is another story that the author himself felt was one of his best. It’s also a great read for fans of the TV show – if you are interested to see how Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss played with the dramatic finale, there are a lot of references to enjoy picking up on while reading and watching.
Despite Conan Doyle’s best efforts, he ended up resurrecting Holmes in what has become one of his most iconic stories (even though Watson doesn’t feature much). Featuring secret military research stations, hellhounds and Dartmouth clothed in fog, it inspired the second episode of the BBC series and introduced us to Benedict Cumberbatch and his mind palace. Moffat and Gatiss pulle their ideas from more than one story though; if you want to explore even more clues and references, try reading The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot and The Adventure of Black Peter.
And if you want to keep on reading...
To find out more about the man behind the myth, check out this exploration of the writer's life, based on over 1500 letters that Conan Doyle wrote to his family, which Miller was the first biographer to see.
If you’re hungry for more of Conan Doyle’s writing, The Lost World is arguably his next most-famous work. It follows journalist Ed Malone, who accompanies an expedition to South America to investigate the prehistoric creatures living there.
Watson’s Choice by Gladys Miller
In Gladys Miller’s vintage murder mystery, Sir Bohun Chantrey is obsessed with the stories of Sherlock Holmes, and throws a party at which guests – including detectives Mrs Bradley and her secretary Laura – are invited to come as characters from the books.