It finally happened. It took two years, but I finally convinced my book club that we should read a Sherlock Holmes story. Flush in my moment of triumph, however, I immediately fell into what I can only describe as nervous, writhing convulsions as I found myself assigned the daunting task of picking just one story for us to read.
“Grace, stop overthinking this,” everyone said.
“Ha!” I said. “Overthink? Me? Ha! Ha ha!”
I love the Sherlock Holmes Canon with a fiery passion, and I have very definite points of view on many Holmes-related topics. I stan Sidney Paget, Jeremy Brett, and William Gillette. Holmes and Watson are not lovers. Violet Hunter is a legend, and Toby is the greatest dog in the history of Western literature. These are just off the top of my head. Suffice to say, Sherlock Holmes is a topic on which I can quickly become insufferable.
So when faced with the prospect of picking just one story for us to read, I immediately started trying to pick the best one, but what did I mean by best? Most fun? Containing a classic character? Best mystery twist? And as I flailed about in my feels I said, “This is going to lead to me ranking every single story, isn’t it?”
“Please do this on your own time,” said my book club, and then my partner used the phrase “wine pairing” and my fate was sealed.
So here we are. Please enjoy this definitive and not-at-all biased ranking of all 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories (novels are an entirely different animal and are excluded). And obviously, because just a simple ranking is not enough, I have included short summaries, notable moments, drink pairings, and suggestions for picking which Holmes story is right for you.
Yes, I have been accused of being ~extra~. Why do you ask?
(And to answer what I am sure is the primary question on your mind, my book club ended up with A Scandal in Bohemia due simply to its being the first, and excellent, and also because I needed to make a decision before I could reread everything. We are pairing it with the first Arsène Lupin story, if you care about that level of detail, but that’s another blog post.)
On what criteria are these stories ranked?
A good question, and I’ll tell you, there is a very extensive set of criteria being used, it’s very complicated and you probably wouldn’t understand it all, but –
Oh who am I kidding, it’s all based on gut instinct, kiddo. These are ranked in order of which stories bring me, personally, the most joy. To make sure we’re all on the same page about my standards, some of the things that bring me joy are:
- An odd or bizarre setup (The Red-Headed League)
- When Holmes and Watson get extra Holmes and Watson-y (The Musgrave Ritual)
- Mycroft Holmes (The Greek Interpreter)
- A memorable bad guy (Charles Augustus Milverton)
- A good tricksy mystery plot (The Bruce-Partington Plans)
- Horrifying or otherwise remarkable imagery (The Cardboard Box)
So this means there are some stories that are ~important to the Canon~ that may not rank particularly high here, and some stories that aren’t as ~good~ that hit my Top 20. If you disagree with me, that’s fine, I hope we don’t need to fight about it. We’re all on the same team here.
So with that, let’s begin with…
The 5 Worst Sherlock Holmes Stories Ever.
It is a shame that a ranking of Sherlock Holmes stories means following up the fanfare of the kickoff with the five worst stories in the Canon, but that’s how rankings work and here we are. These five stories are bad. I’m sorry.
Coincidentally, in addition to just generally being bad, four of these five stories are also among the most problematic in the Canon. (Maybe it’s not a coincidence.) Liking Victorian literature while disliking racism, ableism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny can prove a challenging balancing act; a reader comes to expect a constant low-level simmer of problematic language and ideals. Throughout this series I’ll call out things that might be especially jarring or unwelcome to a modern reader; for today’s selections, these notes will be a bit more robust. Victorian racism and ableism, specifically, are on stark display here.
In general throughout this series I will not spoil the endings without explicit warning. Consider yourself warned here; I wish to complain about these stories in their entirety. Therefore the endings of The Missing Three-Quarter, The Yellow Face, and The Blanched Soldier are fully disclosed while Wisteria Lodge is hinted at.
#56. The Adventure of the Three Gables
First published 1926. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, 1927.
A “huge negro” barrels into 221B Baker Street, disturbing Holmes and Watson’s morning reverie. He makes vague threats but is immediately cowed by Holmes’s non-vague threats and runs away. This interlude convinces Holmes to take a case he was wavering on, and he and Watson head out to the town of Harrow Weald. There, Mrs. Maberley tells them a remarkable story: a man has tried to buy her house and everything in it – everything, down to her furniture and personal effects. Holmes suspects something nefarious is afoot, a suspicion confirmed when the house is later burgled.
This Aged Poorly: Let us just say that Steve Dixie, the Black man who opens the story, is not handled particularly well by either Conan Doyle or Holmes himself. The character is thoroughly a Victorian caricature – in addition to various descriptors (“wooly” hair, references to “a mad bull”), he uses “Masser” to address Holmes. And his treatment by the other characters only exacerbates the problem. One minor character straight-up used the N-word, but perhaps worse is that our beloved Holmes is at his most racist here. Regardless of what Conan Doyle gets up to, Holmes is usually a gentleman, his comments and actions no worse (or better) than any other mid/upper-class Victorian male. Not here. He refers more than once to how badly Dixie smells, and is generally dismissive and poorly-behaved.
Foreigners are often handled in a stereotypical way by Conan Doyle (and many other Victorian writers, he ain’t special) and you’ll be shocked to learn that The Three Gables is not going to be an exception. This story gives us a celebrated Spanish beauty of fiery temper and ill repute but honestly, her treatment in the narrative seems downright godly next to Dixie’s. Finally, I personally take offense at the line “It was as if the air of Italy had got into his blood and brought with it the old cruel Italian spirit,” but it’s not the worst thing that has been said about my people and is by far the tamest thing said about a foreigner or minority in this particular story.
Racism aside (momentarily, we’ll circle back) the story itself is rather dull. There’s no drama, there’s no fun background element (like rugby or horse-racing), there’s no magic. They mystery is rather hum-drum in its setup and its solving. The characters aren’t memorable except with a wince. So when we add the virulent racism on top of all that blah, this story drops straight to the bottom of the list. It truly has no redeemable qualities.
Read This Story If… You think the racism of the Victorian/Edwardian eras is quaint.
Drink Pairing: A glass of red sangria.
#55. The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier
First published 1926. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, 1927.
A Watsonless Holmes takes on the case of Mr. James Dodd, who is worried about his missing friend and Boer War comrade-in-arms Godfrey Emsworth. Godfrey’s father claims he is sailing around the world in perfect health, but a visit to the family home shows Dodd that Godfrey is alive and not-too-well in England. Holmes agrees to meddle and quickly arrives at the solution. Holmes and the reader both regret the absence of Watson, as Holmes goes out of his way to give the reader incomplete information so that the big reveal can remain revealing.
Of Note: One of only two stories narrated by Holmes himself, and not improved by it.
This Aged Poorly: Spoiler alert – Godfrey has leprosy. The descriptions of the leper colony where he contracts it are not kind.
Reminiscent of the earlier story The Yellow Face (see #54) in that Holmes is aggressively poking into a family matter that could be avoided if there wasn’t a ~horrible secret~ the family was trying to conceal. Like The Yellow Face, the secret within is handled in a problematic way by Conan Doyle, though not by Holmes.
The story’s also just not that good. Aside from Holmes’s subpar narrative technique and the rather dull mystery, it ends with a clunk – spoiler alert #2, it’s not actually leprosy. When Holmes gets a specialist to examine Godfrey Emsworth it is discovered that he actually has something called ichthyosis, which mimics leprosy’s symptoms but is harmless, therefore giving this story a happy ending that it does not deserve.
Read This Story If… I mean, honestly, don’t.
Drink Pairing: Jenever, a Dutch spirit distilled from malt wine.
#54. The Adventure of the Yellow Face
First published 1893. Collected in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894.
If you guessed by the title that this one would be ~problematic~ boy were you right.
Grant Munro of Norbury arrives at 221B Baker Street with a problem: his wife is acting weird. (Women, amirite?) She’s being edgy and secretive and sneaking about, and he can’t figure out why. She was a rich widow when they married; her first husband and child died of yellow fever in Atlanta (this is a clue). When she married Munro, she signed her whole fortune over to him but she’s recently asked for some of the money back and won’t tell him why. Seemingly related, somehow, the empty house next door has been rented, and Grant Munro saw a face in the window that was so terrifying, so unnatural, and so strangely yellow that he is overcome with horror. Holmes comes up with a robust and completely incorrect theory about the woman’s first husband blackmailing her. When he is proven wrong, he tells Watson to just whisper “Norbury” at him if he’s ever getting too full of himself, to put him in his place.
Notable Quote: This isn’t a particularly famous line but I fall over laughing every time I read it so I have to include it. Watson, on Holmes: “Save for the occasional use of cocaine he had no vices.” Oh is that all Watson? Just the cocaine??
This Aged Poorly: Well. In additions to variations of “yellow,” “unnatural” and “livid,” the word “creature” is also used to describe (spoiler) the biracial child living secretly in the little house next door. Yes, at some points she is wearing a mask as a disguise and we are to understand that these descriptors perhaps are meant to refer to the mask and not the girl’s own face, but the narrative does not clearly differentiate. And if we layer in our understanding of the phrase “high yellow,” an outdated and offensive term for people with mixed Black and white ancestry, there’s really no way to read this language with a kind eye. (When they finally figure out that the girl is a person, Watson switches to “Negress,” which for the era is an upgrade.)
Perhaps most damaging of all, because it’s that insidious “I’m one of the good whites” racism, the girl’s white mother loves her but regrets that she takes after her father’s “people.” This is a sentiment that I’m sure will do no damage to the young girl’s mental health.
This story reads to me, a white person, as Conan Doyle trying to do something woke and failing. We end with the white Grant Munro telling his wife, “I think that I am a better [man] than you give me credit for,” implying that her fear was misplaced and he will adopt her biracial child. In 19th-century England, that action was noble and notable (the bar for white men was even lower then than it is now). But while that final moment is poignant, it follows an entire story filled with damaging descriptions of a biracial girl, and there’s not really any coming back from that.
Read This Story If… You are scientifically interested in white Victorian wokeness.
Drink Pairing: A shot of peach vodka in honor of Atlanta.
#53. The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter
First published 1904. Collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1905.
If you know anything about rugby, you will begin this story less confused than Sherlock Holmes. Cyril Overton, a man “more accustomed to using his muscles than his wits,” is distraught – his star rugby player has disappeared and they have a match the next day. The missing man’s uncle is the richest man in England, but ransom doesn’t seem to be the motive – so what is?
This one starts kind of fun, with the rugby and the Scroogelike uncle, and ends very decidedly Not Fun. The backdrop of rugby is quickly discarded, leaving us with a rather ordinary disappearance. I think one of this story’s crimes is the disappointing jerk away from rugby – it could be a cool and vivid backdrop for the tale; instead it just kicks us off and is almost instantly dropped, a broken promise in the wind.
But it’s the ending that sinks it. (spoiler) Holmes and Watson, ignoring warnings to the contrary, break into a house where they aren’t welcome to discover the missing man distraught on his secret wife’s deathbed. I want to shake Holmes – just let the man live his life, get out of this room where you don’t belong and let him grieve. I always end this story feeling actively negative about my beloved Holmes and his masculine Victorian self-righteousness; I am inclined to agree with Dr. Grimesby Roylott who, in The Speckled Band, calls Holmes a meddler and busybody. (You never want to agree with Dr. Grimesby Roylott.) It’s also an abrupt tonal shift that Conan Doyle doesn’t really pull off, made more awkward when the apparent antagonist Dr. Leslie Armstrong, who has been telling Holmes to scram for the entire story, suddenly does an about-face to tell Holmes how great he is. It’s all just rather poorly done. Dr. Armstrong himself is a well-drawn and complicated character, but even that is not enough to save this story from its ignominious place on our list.
Read This Story If… Saturday’s a rugby day, but also you like to be unhappy.
Drink Pairing: As much cheap beer as you can drink in one afternoon. (Can you tell I played rugby?)
#52. The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge
First published 1904. Collected in His Last Bow, 1917.
A solid upstanding British citizen, John Scott Eccles, spends the night at the very odd house of his new acquaintance, Mr. Aloysius Garcia. When he wakes up the next day, everyone is gone, from the servants to the master. When Scott Eccles comes to consult Sherlock Holmes, the police arrive on his heels to inform everyone that Mr. Garcia has been violently murdered. Scott Eccles is far too upstanding a (white) British citizen to be a suspect, but it’s all very peculiar. Holmes and Watson traipse to the country to investigate, where a winding road of clues leads them to a dramatic conclusion.
This Aged Poorly: This whole story is a problem. A person of mixed race is referred to by a number of unpleasant terms, including “half-breed” and “hideous mulatto,” and his face is so horrible that a constable describes it as the most terrible thing he’s ever seen (this is similar to descriptions of the biracial character in The Yellow Face). Other notes are made about his person and his behavior that are challenging to read, including descriptions of his savage, cannibalistic Voodoo ceremonies. Aside from him, most of the characters of note are from Central America and are described in ways that make assumptions about their Latin temperament while using words like “chocolate” to refer to their appearance. It is obvious that the murderer is associated with the victim because, despite an absence of all other clues, they are all foreigners.
Overall, not Conan Doyle’s best day.
This is a pretty good mystery that is completely marred by its racism. And this one isn’t just mildly racist, with a few outdated terms used in passing. Racism is completely embedded into the way this story is put together and the way characters interact – the way the characters simply exist. The biracial cook’s Voodoo accoutrements (including an entire bucket of blood) provide the primary red herring for the tale. It’s a shame, because the twists of the mystery have potential.
In a way it breaks my heart to rank this story so low because it has one of my favorite minor characters, the local policeman that Holmes is working the case with. Inspector Baynes is the only member of the police force that we ever see actually keep pace with Holmes, coming to the same conclusion by a different route – even Young Stanley Hopkins, who shows so much promise, cannot do so much. “Why Mr. Holmes,” Baynes says, when explaining himself, “when you were crawling in the shrubbery … I was up one of the trees in the plantation and saw you down below.” It’s always fun when Holmes is matched or bested.
Which brings me to our place in the ranking. One of the criteria I didn’t even realize I was using at first was “how excitedly would I recommend this story to a friend” and… honestly, despite the things I like about it, I just can’t. The racism here is ingrained so deeply that it can’t be disconnected from the story. This one nudges out some of the other unflinchingly racist Holmes stories because of the richness of the mystery and supporting cast, but it must still be cast here among the worst. Sorry, Inspector Baynes. You deserved better, but so did the biracial cook.
Read This Story If… You want to appreciate the full force of Victorian racism.
Drink Pairing: A brandy and soda to calm your nerves.
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 5 Sherlock Holmes Stories That Aren’t Unreadable, Just Kind of Dull! The entire series can be found here.