9 Really Quite Good Sherlock Holmes Stories

Welcome to today’s edition of The Definitive Ranking of Every Single Sherlock Holmes Story, covering #22-#30 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.

Finally! Actively good Sherlock Holmes stories! How exciting! This week includes stories that are both good mysteries and have something delightful or quirky about them. (I mean, as delightful and quirky as misogyny and murder can ever be which is… OK, not at all, this line of thought is getting away from me, moving on.)

The rankings here are honestly pretty irrelevant, it’s like a massive tie for 22nd place, but I started down this ranking path and I have to see it through. Which is all to say, these aren’t the best of the Canon, but they’re classics. Please read them.

30. The Boscombe Valley Mystery

First published 1891. Collected in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Australians abound in the first proper murder mystery in the Holmes short story Canon. When James McCarthy is accused of killing his father, his neighbor Miss Alice Turner calls in Holmes to investigate for reasons that may have to do with her wanting to marry James McCarthy. Will Holmes be able to solve the mystery and one-up the police? (Yes.) Will Holmes get to talk about his monograph on cigar and cigarette ash? (Also yes.)

Of Note: The first short story appearance of Inspector Lestrade, one of Holmes’s longtime frenemies on the police force. Here is a fine example of what the two gentlemen think of each other: 

“We have got to the deductions and the interferences,” said Lestrade, winking at me. “I find it hard enough to tackle facts, Holmes, without flying away after theories and fancies.” 

“You are right,” said Holmes demurely; “you do find it very hard to tackle the facts.”

Reader’s Notes

This one is not the most exciting, but it has some solid, classic Holmes detective work. There’s cigar ash and footprints, two of Holmes’s favorite things. Holmes gets to do one of his favorite activities, which is measure footprints and neg the police for tromping around the crime scene, and Watson gets to do one of his favorite activities, which is describe a pretty girl. 

Read This Story If… You are intrigued by Australians or footprints or you want just a good solid little murder story that isn’t going to overwhelm you with excitement.

Drink Pairing: Foster’s, which is Australian for beer.

29. The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax

First published 1911. Collected in His Last Bow.

Summary

Holmes pontificates on “drifting and friendless” women and sends Watson to the continent to find one that has gone missing. Watson tracks Lady Frances Carfax through a variety of hotels, reporting facts to Holmes. The noble Watson even gets into an altercation with a suspicious, swarthy stranger, demanding the release of Lady Frances. But Holmes is more interested in a religious gentleman’s left ear than in Watson’s swarthy strangers, and that left ear may be the clue to the whole thing. The trail returns to London and Holmes negs every single detecting choice Watson has made. (Sometimes we ask ourselves why Watson remains his friend.) With the woman still missing and the criminals investing in coffins, the prospects look bad – will Holmes be able to figure out the solution in time to save the missing woman?

Notable Quote: This quote falls into the class of “I don’t know if it’s notable, but it certainly brings me great joy” – and you may recall that bringing me, personally, joy is what this whole ranking series is about. When Holmes sends Watson off to the continent instead of going himself, Holmes explains the action with the delightful, “On general principles it is best that I should not leave the country. Scotland Yard feels lonely without me, and it causes an unhealthy excitement among the criminal classes.” Modest as ever, our Holmes.

Reader’s Notes

A lot of things actually happens in this story, which is honestly a bit unusual, and the twist at the end is worthy of Agatha Christie. This doesn’t have the luscious background or vividly-drawn villains that many of the best Holmes stories have, but I definitely recommend it as a good little adventure.

Read This Story If… You too are drifting and friendless. 

Drink Pairing: A sparkling tonic water, for your health. You may add vodka if you wish to be extra-healthy. 

28. The Adventure of the Dancing Men

First published 1903. Collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Mr. Hilton Cubitt brings a scrap of paper to Holmes which shows a series of childishly-drawn stick figures, innocuous except that the paper has scared the living bejeebus out of his wife. His wife is American, and he knows very little about her past except that there’s some secret lurking there she doesn’t wish to share and that he has agreed not to ask about. Instead he asks Sherlock Holmes. Holmes, who loves a cipher as much as any 10-year-old boy, dives in gleefully. He solves the puzzle, of course – but is he too late to prevent a tragedy?

Reader’s Notes

This one is very popular, apparently (Conan Doyle himself ranked it third on his own list of favorites), but I do not find ciphers as exciting as Sherlock Holmes does so the 3-page explanation of the dancing men in the middle really kind of drags things down. The mystery itself is fine, though I prefer the framing story of The Valley of Fear, which has a similar vibe. 

Read This Story If… You want to try solving a puzzle faster than the Great Detective (you have all the same clues he does!).

Drink Pairing: A southside fizz made with Al Capone’s gin.

a sketch of my favorite dance moves, or a very important clue

27. The Five Orange Pips

First published 1891. Collected in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Elias Openshaw opens an envelope containing five orange pips (this is fancy old-timey speak for seeds); two months later he is dead, presumably of natural causes. His brother Joseph Openshaw inherits the estate and also receives an envelope containing five orange pips; less than a week later he is dead – presumably of natural causes. Joseph’s son John Openshaw inherits the estate and he too receives an envelope containing five orange pips. John is maybe the smartest of the Openshaws, because he immediately heads to Sherlock Holmes in the hopes that Holmes can untangle this dangerous family mystery. Will Holmes be able to solve the mystery before the killers strike again? And what does KKK even mean? (Spoiler: it means exactly what you think it does.)

This Aged Poorly: Black Americans are referred to with outdated language.

Reader’s Notes

In this story, Conan Doyle again shares his fascination with strange American cults and secret societies by bringing us a tale of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s a bit of a strange one to read now, because any (American, at least) reader will know the it at the heart of the mystery as soon as the initials appear; in 19th-century England, the KKK was not commonly known. Personally, I like the sense of horror and impending doom that Conan Doyle creates, and it’s an entertaining read even if there’s only 50% of a mystery and the resolution is, frankly, disappointing from a narrative standpoint. It is also interesting as one of Holmes’s few complete failures. (That is not a spoiler, Watson mentions it in the first paragraph. This next sentence is a spoiler, consider yourself forewarned.) Finally, I do like this story as a character study: when Holmes loses his client, his reaction is that of wounded pride, not sadness for the loss of life. 

Read This Story If… You like an overall “fuck the Ku Klux Klan” vibe and don’t care that much about the mystery part.

Drink Pairing: A mimosa, obviously, but take the pips out before serving.

26. The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist

First published 1904. Collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Miss Violet Smith, whose womanly charms seem to have men throwing themselves at her, forces Holmes to listen to her story even though he is busy and cranky. Two friends of her rich uncle, Mr. Carruthers and the odious Mr. Woodley, have recently arrived from South Africa and she now teaches music to Mr. Carruthers’s young son. Every weekend, she bicycles from Carruthers’ house to the train station to visit her mother, and recently a mysterious stranger with a dark beard has started following her on her journey. Holmes, who is very busy and important, sends Watson to the country to look into these peculiar events and report back but then negs Watson’s investigative techniques. We can only hope that Holmes’s investigations are more fruitful and his misgivings about the situation do not indicate an impending tragedy.

Reader’s Notes

I like this one in retrospect more than when I’m actually reading it. There is the very strong visual of the cyclists, of course, and a beautiful moment when Violet Smith turns her bike around to charge at the man chasing her. But overall there isn’t much detecting – it’s just a little adventure story that Holmes happens to be on the periphery of. 

Read This Story If… You believe men are the actual worst and you delight when they are soundly punched and/or deservedly shot. 

Drink Pairing: A bicicletta, a drink made of Campari and white wine. It is apparently named for the elderly Italian men who drunkenly swerve around on their bicycles on their way home from their afternoon drinks, which I find delightful.

Violet Smith is not here for your nonsense.

25. The Adventure of the Naval Treaty

First published 1893. Collected in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

A school friend of Watson’s named “Tadpole” Phelps, because of course he is, writes desperately hoping Watson can connect him to his illustrious detective friend. Phelps works in the Foreign Office, and the disappearance of vital government documents – and the implicit though not explicit blame laid at his feet – has so distressed him that he has been laid up with a brain-fever for nine weeks. Watson drags Holmes away from his chemical experiments and off to Woking to investigate. Phelps is in the care of his fiancée and her brother, recovering from his troubles, and he relates how the naval treaty was stolen from practically under his nose, from a veritable locked room. They first suspect the cleaning lady, but when she is proven innocent it is up to Holmes to discover the true culprit and save England from a diplomatic catastrophe.

This Aged Poorly: Reference to a red Indian. 

Reader’s Notes

As Holmes notes, the case suffers from having “too much evidence,” and that is evident in the wordcount: this is the longest of the Holmes short stories, but it doesn’t really need to be. It’s not padded, exactly, it just has a few more sidetracks than the usual story but not as many as one of the novels. 

We also get to meet another of the strong women that pepper the Canon, this time Miss Harrison, Phelps’s fiancée. Holmes recognizes from her penmanship (manlike, of course) that she has a strong character, and he trusts her with the vital task that will save her fiancé’s reputation. While not as well-known as Irene Adler or some of the Violets, Miss Harrison once again shows that Holmes will admit to admiring a woman if she proves herself worthy of admiration. (#notlikeothergirls)

Read This Story If… You like locked room mysteries and red herrings.

Drink Pairing: Prosecco and gin, to celebrate two great nations coming to a common agreement over what they think of the French.

24. The Adventure of the Reigate Squire

First published 1893. Collected in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Sherlock Holmes is physically and mentally unwell, so Watson whisks him away to recuperate at a friend’s house in Surrey. But it may not be the peaceful diversion that Watson envisioned – there was recently a break-in nearby, and Watson struggles to keep Holmes from exerting himself to solve the crime. Unfortunately the next attempted burglary leads to murder, and there’s no keeping Holmes on the sidelines. While his illness hampers his abilities to a distressing degree, Holmes sets out on a case where he can show off his knowledge of both handwriting and melodrama. But when Holmes gets in over his head, Watson must run dashingly to his rescue. 

Reader’s Notes

I find this one interesting because it is really essential that you have read other Holmes stories before reading this one – the whole gag here is that Holmes is off his game, which is of course only notable if the reader knows what he looks like when he is on his game. It’s a solid little mystery, though the cast is not as interesting as some others. Holmes’s entertaining theatrics are what make this story gold. And Watson’s excessive care and concern for Holmes’s health and well-being (and his furious dash to save his life at the end) will be of interest to people who read these stories for the ~friendship~ and ~undertones~. 

Read This Story If… You were in your high school drama society and/or like a good bromance built on care and affection.

Drink Pairing: A nip of brandy, to settle your nerves.

23. The Adventure of the Resident Patient

First published 1893. Collected in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Content Warning: A potential suicide (which is soon proven to be murder, but is described initially as a suicicide).

Summary

Holmes and Watson go for an evening walk because they have been trapped inside all day and need some air. (*laughs in 2021*) When they return, a doctor waits with a puzzling tale: a stranger named Blessington set him up with the money to start his career, in exchange for medical care and a cut of the profits. But Blessington has a secret, and two visiting Russians have sent him into a whirlwind of fear. Blessington refuses Holmes’s help, and the next day is found dead, a supposed suicide. But as Holmes investigates, it appears that all is not as it seems.

Reader’s Notes

I actually really like this one, though that may be partially because my first experience of the story had the exquisite Patrick Newell in the role of Blessington. It’s got a bizarre setup (who sponsors a young doctor for a cut of his profits?), a vivid central character, and a proper mystery. The mystery also gives Holmes another opportunity to pontificate on cigar ash, a favorite pastime.

Read This Story If… You like a good medical mystery but don’t actually care if the medical part makes sense.

Drink Pairing: A shot of non-Russian vodka or, if you’re a teetotaler like Dr. Trevelyan, a shot of ice cold water.

Patrick Newell as Blessington in Sherlock Holmes and Blessington’s No Good Very Bad Day.

22. The Adventure of the Priory School

First published 1904. Collected in Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

The exquisitely-named Dr. Thorneycroft Huxtable enters 221B Baker Street and faints on the hearth. He is the founder and principal of a school for the sons of England’s finest (richest) noblemen. Unfortunately, the Duke of Holdernesse’s son has been violently kidnapped right out of his school bedroom, and is missing with the school’s German teacher. The reward is enormous, and Holmes agrees to investigate. Will following bicycle and cow tracks leads Holmes to the solution?

This Aged Poorly: Usage of the common slur for Romani people, and the implication that they are criminals simply due to their being Romani.

Reader’s Notes

This has one of the most dramatic whodunit reveals in the Canon; it’s also just a pretty little mystery. For such a short tale it’s full of well-drawn characters, from the Duke to the Dr. Huxtable to the local innkeeper, Reuban Hayes, and it is good characterization that separates the ordinary Holmes stories from the excellent. And Holmes is given the opportunity to trek across a field and pontificate about bicycle treads, making him the happiest of boy detectives.

Read This Story If… You like a midnight bicycle chase and dislike the nobility. 

Drink Pairing: A nip of brandy and a glass of milk. 

~

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 11 Excellent Stories of Sherlock Holmes, The Great Detective! The entire series can be found here.

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