The Essential Sherlock Holmes: Michael Dirda’s Recommendations

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels starring his fictional sleuth. So where to start?

This interview, by Daisy Banks, first appeared in The Browser, as part of the FiveBooks series. Previous contributors include Ruth Reichl, Woody Allen, and Ian McEwan. For a daily selection of new article suggestions and FiveBooks interviews, check out The Browser or follow @TheBrowser on Twitter.

I am intrigued about what goes on in the Baker Street Irregulars group, which you were inducted into in 2002.

The Baker Street Irregulars was founded in the 1930s by three brothers—Christopher Morley, who was a well-known literary journalist of the time, his brother Felix Morley, who was for a while the editor of my newspaper, The Washington Post, and their brother Frank Morley, who worked in publishing and once shared an office at Faber & Faber with that other great Sherlock Holmes fan, T.S. Eliot.

The Morley kids had grown up reading the Holmes stories and used to tease each other with questions about the most minor details in them. They decided to run a contest in the Saturday Review of Literature for people who had the same kind of passionate interest in 221b Baker Street, and from this contest there emerged a kind of literary society and dining club, which has being going strong for more than 75 years now. In it people play what is called “the Game,” which is founded on the premise that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are actual historical figures and the stories historical records of their exploits. There are discrepancies in “the canon," there are gaps, there are problems with chronology but Irregular scholarship will find a way to reconcile or make sense of them all.

Dorothy Sayers [the crime writer] was a member of an equivalent group in England—The Sherlock Holmes Society of London. She always insisted “the Game” should be played without cracking a smile. You needed to take it seriously. Sort of. The Baker Street Irregulars continues to flourish, hosting an annual birthday banquet with lots of toasts and talks. Being an invested member of the group is a lot of fun, especially since my fellow Irregulars range from the retired chief technical officer for Apple to judges and lawyers and notable writers such as Neil Gaiman.

A Study in Scarlet

Let’s have a look at some of the books you are all such fans of. Your first choice is A Study in Scarlet, which describes how the famous detective pair, Holmes and Watson, met.

If you’ve never read any Sherlock Holmes you really need to start with that book because it introduces this rather mysterious and romantic character. At the beginning, Dr. Watson tries to puzzle out the profession of his strange roommate at 221b Baker Street. He makes lists of what Holmes seems to know a lot about and what he doesn’t seem to know about at all—including the Copernican theory. In short, this is an introduction to a partnership and friendship that will be chronicled over 56 short stories and four novels. I think everyone needs to know the foundation of that relationship.

There have been so many different Sherlock Holmes films, which all depict Watson and Holmes differently. From your readings of the books how would you describe them?

Most of us grew up on Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in those old B movies of the 1930s and 40s. Nigel Bruce deliberately portrayed Watson as this bumbling dolt, which is very different from the Watson of the books, who is a soldier, doctor, battle veteran and an authority on “the fair sex." Happily, the 21st-century Sherlock produced by the BBC, with Benedict Cumberbatch as this very Aspergian Holmes and Martin Freeman as this vulnerable and engaging Watson, gives us a more accurate portrait of their relationship.

Watson, we know from the books, marries at least a couple of times and is a much more admirable and humane figure than Holmes. Over time, the stories show how Watson gradually humanizes this thinking machine. Agatha Christie—through the mouth of her own detective Hercule Poirot—asserted that Conan Doyle’s greatest creation wasn’t Sherlock Holmes but Dr. Watson.

Do you agree?

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Not really, but we do get all our information about Holmes through Watson. He is our representative in this strange household. Just as in vaudeville you need a straight man as well as a comic, so in these wonderful stories Watson has to be Holmes’s straight man. Think of all those little scenes at the beginning of each story when the pair are sitting around the fire and Holmes will suddenly notice that a visitor has left a hat or a cane and will ask Watson to make some deductions about the owner. Watson gets everything wrong and Holmes is then able to wow his friend with astonishing inferences. In one case—they’re studying an old hat—Holmes runs through all these details and finally concludes with a flourish that it is obvious that the man’s wife has ceased to love him! That example comes from the short story “The Blue Carbuncle," by the way. You need the give and take between the two men to make the stories work. I once read that in vaudeville it was often the straight guy who got paid more than the comic because that’s the tougher job. He has to set up the jokes in just the right way. It is really hard to find a good straight man, and Watson is one of the best.

The Adventure of the Speckled Band

Good point. Next up is the short story The Adventure of the Speckled Band, which is described as a locked-room mystery—what is that?

It is essentially an impossible crime. A victim is found murdered in a locked room and there are no obvious entrances or exits from it. How was the crime committed? How did the murderer escape? Seemingly only supernatural means can explain this impossible situation. But a detective like Sherlock Holmes will figure out how it all really happened.

The Speckled Band is also a kind of gothic story. You have a wonderful villain in Dr. Roylott, and you have the isolated home, the mysterious sounds and habits of the household. Most Sherlockians, if they had to pick just one story to represent the canon, would choose this one. For many years, it and "The Red-Headed League" were the two adventures most often reprinted in school textbooks.

To continue reading Michael Dirda’s interview about Sherlock Holmes, check out The Browser.