Welcome to today’s edition of The Definitive Ranking of Every Single Sherlock Holmes Story, covering #31-#41 in the rankings. Note that unless otherwise called out in advance, a story’s summary will not give away the ending; I am not a monster.
So the stories covered this week are fine. Which, for Holmes, is pretty good! I do actually think you should read these, which I can’t say for all the stories from the past few weeks.
Here we’re just missing that certain something that could make the stories great. Some have memorable or bizarre elements but a basic-ass storyline, some of them are solid mysteries but just aren’t magical. Nobody will forget the end of The Illustrious Client, but do you remember the beginning? The Second Stain has some excellent imagery, which is important to me, but the imagery is kind of incidental to an overall meh story that’s an echo of better, similar Holmes stories. I would even say that Shoscombe Old Place and The Retired Colourman are both very serviceable mysteries – but they don’t have that magic that makes them Holmes. And some of these stories would be better if they were a smidge less racist.
So they aren’t top-tier. That’s fine. Everyone has a solid off-day. Even Serena Williams loses occasionally. (Serena Williams > Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for the record. The criteria here are very complicated.)
I’m pretty sure some of the stories in this post are quite popular among ~true fans~ who will be horrified at how low they’re ranked. Oh well!
41. The Problem of Thor Bridge
First published 1922. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.
As both a content warning and spoiler (sorry, there’s no other way to give the content warning), this story contains a suicide.
An American gold magnate’s wife has been killed, and the American gold magnate is very concerned with ensuring that the attractive family governess is not convicted of the crime. He comes to Holmes for help. Holmes does not like him very much, but gets him to admit that he loved the governess and hated his wife, and that his wife loved him and the governess did not, and with the preliminaries out of the way Holmes heads to Thor Place to investigate. It seems hopeless, but a bit of chipped stone may give Holmes the clue he needs.
This Aged Poorly: The murdered wife is Brazilian, and is therefore a fiery, impetuous woman – “tropical by birth and tropical by nature,” as one character says, a phrase that can be applied any number of Conan Doyle women from South or Central America. The phrase “the heat of the Amazon” is also used, and the general theme continues throughout the story.
I was today years old when I learned that Thor Bridge was based on a true story as reported by criminologist Dr. Gross. (Aside, I highly recommend the Leslie S. Klinger annotated version of the Holmes Canon.) Anyway, it’s a decent little tale, perhaps the best actual mystery of the final collection, marred by the racist caricature of an impetuous Brazilian.
Read This Story If… You like Agatha Christie-esque twists that aren’t entirely logical (I’m looking at you, Murder in Mesopotamia).
Drink Pairing: A Gold Rush.
40. The Adventure of the Crooked Man
First published 1893. Collected in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes appears on Watson’s doorstep at midnight because he is in the middle of a case and needs someone to talk to. The case in question concerns the murder of one Colonel Barclay, head of a famous Irish military regiment, who dies in a locked room after quarrelling with his beloved wife. The clues make no sense – the key to the room is missing, the footprints of a mysterious animal unknown to England are found outside, and the wife was overheard shouting “David,” a name that was not her husband’s. Can Holmes knit these clues together to track down the truth?
This Aged Poorly: Reference to “red-Indian” complexion, usage of the word “cripple” and unkind descriptions of the person in question, and reference to a “street Arab” (a class of people not actually of Arabian descent). Part of the backstory references the Indian Mutiny, including how a white man was tortured and enslaved by the Indians, and of course there is the general assumption that Britain was on the right side of that altercation.
This one is fine but not great. I actually find it a story better to watch than read, perhaps the Jeremy Brett version; following the story visually is more interesting than just listening to Holmes recite it, which is what 90% of the written version is. I think the main problem is that because it’s just Holmes telling most of the story, we don’t get the level of character richness that Conan Doyle is capable of.
Read This Story If… You like some military flair in your murders.
Drink Pairing: Indian tea, the comfort of an agitated woman.
39. His Last Bow
First published 1917. Collected in His Last Bow.
The Great War is nigh and Watson has deserted us for an omniscient third-person narrator who is given to dramatic scene-setting. On the eve of Britain officially declaring war, two German diplomats, Van Bork and Von Herling, are at Van Bork’s English estate musing on the British as a people. Von Herling leaves, and Van Bork settles in to wait for a traitorous Irish-American who is bringing him some stolen papers that Van Bork needs to collect before fleeing the country. Like all good Irish-Americans the man is chatty and a bit mouthy, but Van Bork gets a surprise when he opens the man’s parcel to find, not stolen government papers, but the Practical Handbook of Bee Culture.
Of Note: One of only two stories written in third-person. The voice is not jarringly different from Watson’s. Most interesting is the final exchange between the two old friends, with their country on the eve of war:
“There’s an east wind coming, Watson.”
“I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.”
“Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, strong land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.”
This is just a feel-good patriotic propaganda story. There’s no mystery, and honestly there’s very little story. This is not a favorite of mine, which I believe puts me in the minority, but then I don’t have that warm fuzzy patriotic feeling towards Great Britain as a whole. Many of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce films draw from this story in tone if not in plot, updated to World War II. I believe the film Voice of Terror is based pretty directly on His Last Bow, including Holmes’s patriotic final speech.
Read This Story If… You believe in the Union Jack.
Drink Pairing: A sweet Tokay.
38. The Adventure of the Retired Colourman
First published 1926. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.
Mr. Amberly’s wife has run off with his chess partner and a fair amount of Amberly’s life savings. Holmes is busy so he sends Watson to track down clues, which Watson dutifully does, though of course not to Holmes’s exacting standards. Is this, as Holmes originally posits, “the old story, a treacherous friend and a fickle wife?” Or is there a deeper, darker mystery here?
Of Note: This appears as the final story in the final collection (Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes) but was actually the penultimate story published in the Strand magazine. (I think penultimate. Maybe the pen-penultimate. Anyway, not the last, that was Shoscombe Old Place.)
This Aged Poorly: A man is referred to as having “n—-rdly ways,” a phrase which, if you are not familiar with its usage during this time period, meant he is a tightwad and a miser. It is currently, for obvious reasons, not in use.
A good solid little mystery, but a workhorse plot with no really colorful characters to vault it higher in the rankings. It is interesting how Holmes uses Watson in this case, hiding facts from him and then relying on his upright inability to lie or bluff to manage the suspect’s movements (see also: The Dying Detective). There is none so good and pure as John H. Watson, MD, and Holmes was not above taking advantage.
Read This Story If… You know that art is the real evil.
Drink Pairing: A Gibson.
37. The Adventure of the Second Stain
First published 1904. Collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes.
An important political document has been stolen out of the bedroom of Mr. Trelawney Hope, England’s Secretary for European Affairs. Holmes suspects that the disappearance is connected to a gruesome murder. The police, knowing nothing of the political angle, suspect the victim’s wife, but an oddity with the bloodstains on the carpet lead Holmes in a different direction.
This Aged Poorly: There is a woman “of Creole origin” whose temper and insanity may or may not be partially due to her heritage, and the word “Oriental” is used in a way that is no longer popular.
A similar idea to the earlier adventure The Naval Treaty, but taken in a different direction. There are some solid elements but it’s not Holmes’s strongest outing. His detecting skills are not really on display here; most clues appear by happenstance. Lady Hilda, Trelawney Hope’s wife, is another of the strong-willed female characters that Holmes tangles with, though she falls apart a little bit at the end. She is not one for whom Holmes has a lot of sympathy, however. (For the Americans who may be wondering, she is a Lady even though her husband is not a Lord because her father is a Duke.) Some exquisite imagery bumps this up above some of the other stories in this group (you gotta love matching up bloodstains).
Read This Story If… You enjoy diplomatic intrigue and strong-willed ladies who do not care about diplomatic intrigue.
Drink Pairing: A gin and tonic, made with the eminently British Beefeater gin.
36. The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez
First published 1904. Collected in Return of Sherlock Holmes.
Young Stanley Hopkins, a promising young Scotland Yard Inspector (see also: The Adventure of Black Peter, below), comes to Holmes on a blustery November night with a case he can’t untangle. A young secretary of impeachable character, Mr. Willoughby Smith, has been murdered; in his hands are clutched a pair of pince-nez which were not his. Can this sliver of a clue, the gasping words of the dying man, and an excess of cigarette smoking lead Holmes to this puzzle’s solution?
The puzzle part of this story – and how Holmes figures it out – is actually pretty cute, but the story doesn’t have any of the vivid characters or bizarre concept that would make it top-tier. I don’t not recommend it, it’s just a bit more of a workhorse and lacks heart, though it does (surprisingly) contain Russians.
Read This Story If… You are a student of Russian history.
Drink Pairing: A shot of fine Russian vodka.
35. The Adventure of the Gloria Scott
First published 1893. Collected in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
In this story, to the delight of fans everywhere, Holmes recounts his first ever case to Watson. When his college friend Victor Trevor’s father drops dead after receiving a mysterious note about hen pheasants, Holmes rushes to his aid. The source of evil seems clear, but what hold did old Mr. Trevor’s strange long-lost acquaintance have over the old man to cause him such fear? Holmes solves a ciphered letter so slowly that Harriet the Spy would have been ashamed of him, but it kind of doesn’t even matter because the dead man left a detailed and unhidden letter explaining every last detail of his life.
Of Note/Notable Quote: This is, per Holmes’s own telling, his first ever case and is remarkable for that if for nothing else.
The Holmes-solving-a-mystery part of this is completely mundane – the only real action Holmes takes is to decipher a coded message that isn’t important at all. However, the dead father’s explanatory letter at the end is actually a rather entertaining adventure story, which is the only thing that saves this tale from dropping lower in the ranks.
Read This Story If… You thought Titanic had too much romance and not enough vicious murders by ex-convicts.
Drink Pairing: Brown sherry. I don’t know what this is, but it probably tastes better if you’re at sea.
34. The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place
First published 1927. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.
Something strange is in the air at Shoscombe Old Place, the home of Lady Beatrice Falder and her brother Sir Robert Norberton. The woman is acting strange, avoiding her favorite horse and drinking “like a fish,” and her brother has given away her favorite dog and dug up an old body in the family crypt. When a human femur is found in the home’s furnace, the worried head trainer at Shoscombe Old Place brings the strange case to Holmes.
Of Note: The last Sherlock Holmes story Conan Doyle ever published. (And therefore the last Sherlock Holmes story that matters.)
This Aged Poorly: “In the hands of the Jews” is used multiple times to mean “in debt.”
If this were not a Sherlock Holmes story, it’d be a perfectly good addition to any Victorian anthology. It just lacks the spark that we want from Holmes. The lack of pizzaz as well as Holmes’s sympathetic treatment of the villain keep this one relatively low in the list, even though it is a successful mystery.
Read This Story If… You want to read a mystery and don’t really care if it’s a Sherlock Holmes story.
Drink Pairing: A nice warm whisky, preferably by the bottle. (This is a joke. Please do not drink an entire bottle of whisky, even if you’re an actor.)
33. The Adventure of Abbey Grange
First published 1904. Collected in Return of Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes drags Watson out of bed in the middle of the night and then negs his writing talents, which are not character traits that I personally look for in a friend. Together they rush off to Abbey Grange to investigate the murder of Sir Eustace Brackenstall and the alluring feminine charms of his Australian widow. Sir Eustace was a violent drunk and nobody seems heartbroken at his demise, which is believed to be the work of a well-known gang of thieves. Further investigation, however, convinces Holmes that all is not as it seems.
Notable Quote: “The game is afoot,” Holmes declares at the beginning of this tale, a phrase ever after associated with the Great Detective.
This Aged Poorly: Use of the phrase “white man” to mean “honest.”
Holmes is oddly self-reflective in this one, noting earlier cases where he went off half-cocked, as it were, and maybe did more harm than good. Here, Holmes moves a bit more slowly and thoughtfully. He eventually takes the law into his own hands, nominating Watson as the British jury (“and I never met a man who was more eminently fitted to represent one”) and deciding on his own recognizance to let the killer go free. The victim, who in addition to physically abusing his wife also set fire to her dog, is not one to inspire sympathy, and I tend to side with Holmes on this one.
Read This Story If… You think some men had it coming, and only have themselves to blame.
Drink Pairing: A vintage red wine.
32. The Adventure of Black Peter
First published 1904. Collected in Return of Sherlock Holmes.
Stanley Hopkins, an up-and-coming Yard inspector, brings Holmes in on a most mysterious case. An old sailor has been killed, a jolly man known throughout the neighborhood for doing things like “driv[ing] his wife and daughter out of doors in the middle of the night and flog[ging] them through the park until the whole village […] was roused by their screams.” We’re all #teammurderer in this one, but the police still have to do their job and figure out who ran the man through with a harpoon.
Of Note: The first appearance of young Stanley Hopkins, one of the few members of the police force that Holmes ever expressed true admiration for (though not necessarily in this story). And this is neither here nor there, really, but in this tale Holmes uses the disguise of “Captain Basil,” 35 years before one Basil Rathbone disguised himself as Sherlock Holmes for a series of successful films. It means nothing, I just think it’s cute.
It’s a solid little story. Conan Doyle packs a lot in – financial shenanigans, a despicable victim, clues that point to the wrong killer, and some peak Holmes nonsense (the story begins with Holmes harpooning a dead pig carcass for testing purposes). It doesn’t have quite as much ~flavor~ as some of the other stories, but it’s solid.
Read This Story If… You appreciate violent domestic abusers being run through with harpoons.
Drink Pairing: Rum, like a proper seaman.
31. The Adventure of the Illustrious Client
First published 1924. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.
Colonel Sir James Damery is famous in London society for “fixing problems” but now has a problem even he can’t fix – the pretty and innocent Violet de Merville has become obsessed with the villainous Baron Gruber and intends to marry him no matter how many horrible stories she hears of his past. Sir James hopes that Holmes can help extricate the beautiful young innocent before she becomes Baron Gruber’s second dead wife. Holmes enlists the help of the impeccably-named Shinwell Johnson, who produces one of the “fallen women” of Baron Gruber’s past, a Miss Kitty Winter. Holmes takes Miss Winter to see the icy Violet de Merville, but that interview ends poorly and two days later Holmes is almost murdered in the street by the Baron’s henchmen. The solution to their troubles, obviously, is for Watson to study Chinese pottery.
This Aged Poorly: The description of Baron Gruber uses an outdated expression to refer to people of East Asian descent (which he is not, incidentally).
The ending of this story is unforgettable, as Kitty Winter takes her vengeance upon the man that wronged her. It’s dramatic, but troubling. Kitty Winter is very similar in temperament to Flora Miller from The Noble Bachelor; together, they give an unflattering picture of what Conan Doyle thinks of poor women who have been sexually ill-used by rich men. Holmes also makes a lot of sweeping generalizations about women generally, specifically how all women react the same way to their lovers being disparaged.
All that nonsense aside, it’s a good little story.
Read This Story If… You enjoy seeing abusive men get their comeuppance.
Drink Pairing: A delicate Chinese tea.
And that’s it for this week!
Agree? Disagree? I am always game to talk about Sherlock Holmes, so please feel free to leave a comment below!
Join us next week for 9 Really Quite Good Sherlock Holmes Stories! The entire series can be found here.