11 Excellent Stories of Sherlock Holmes, The Great Detective

Welcome to today’s edition of The Definitive Ranking of Every Single Sherlock Holmes Story, covering #11-#21 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.

What all the stories this week have in common is that they live in my head rent-free, as the kids say. Whether it’s Mycroft Holmes’s introduction, Holmes and Watson as burglars, John Hector McFarlane’s fingerprint, or the Christmas special complete with Christmas goose – these stories all have a certain something that has stuck with me for decades. I hope they stick with you.

21. The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet

First published 1892. Collected in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

An estimable banker arrives at 211B Baker Street in a mad rush. He recently took in as collateral for a loan a priceless beryl coronet, providing in exchange the equivalent of $250,000 (in Victorian dollars!) to someone who is definitely not Queen Victoria’s eldest son, the scoundrel Bertie, future King Edward VII. Inevitably, this irreplaceable coronet is stolen out of the banker’s own home with the only suspects the members of his own small family, in particular his good-for-nothing son. The banker arrives at Holmes’s door a broken man; will the Great Detective be able to shed any light on the matter?

Reader’s Notes

Reminiscent in certain details of The Moonstone by my boy Wilkie Collins. The detecting here is nothing extraordinary, but Holmes gets to do two of his favorite activities: wear a lower-class disguise and follow shoe-prints around a yard. A simple story; I always find the family melodrama to be the highlight of this one.

Read This Story If… You like traditional Victorian family drama, misunderstood sons who are just trying to do their best, and conniving cads of the lowest order.

Drink Pairing: Champagne, what else do rich bankers drink? But it must be thrown in your face by someone who is mad at you.

20. A Case of Identity

First published 1891. Collected in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

A young woman with a small inheritance falls in love with the mysterious and unfortunately-named Hosmer Angel, and she is bereft when he disappears on their wedding morning. Holmes and Watson look into this affair of the heart, which concludes with Holmes gallantly threatening a cad with a riding crop in the most Victorian manner.

Reader’s Notes

Holmes spends the first few pages of this story pontificating at Watson about ephemera, which is really how all the best stories begin. The mystery itself is, as Holmes remarks, “trite” and no proper crime is committed, but it’s a cozy little example of the “slice of life” problems that Holmes and I both are so fond of. This tale is also where a pre-teen Grace learned that you could trace typewritten notes to the exact typewriters they were written on. (Keep this in mind if you are interested in committing typewriter-based crimes.)

Read This Story If… You like disguises, typewriters, and/or Jane Austen-esque romantic tragedy. 

Drink Pairing: A French wine, preferably red to match the lady’s ensemble.

19. The Adventure of the Dying Detective

First published 1913. Collected in His Last Bow.

Summary

Dear, sweet, loyal John Watson, MD. When he gets word that his friend Sherlock Holmes is deathly ill Watson comes at a rush, only for Holmes to be downright rude to him, denigrating his medical skills and his personal behavior. But Watson is stalwart and a true friend and refuses to let Holmes get rid of him without some sort of medical examination. Finally Holmes agrees to let him retrieve a specialist – a specialist who seems a little too pleased to hear of Holmes’s illness.

Reader’s Notes

This is a good little yarn, if you can stomach the emotional distress of Holmes being a downright beast to his best friend. It’s definitely better to read this one after you have read a few other Holmes tales as background; you need the less cruel Holmes to compare this one to for this story to have any real weight.

Also, for the record – as someone who, like Watson, does not count “dissimulation” (fibbing) among my many talents, if any of my friends ever pull this shit on me we will have to have a serious talk. Watson is a more forgiving person than I am.

Read This Story If… You enjoy interpersonal melodrama and true friendship in the face of all reason. 

Drink Pairing: A glass of claret.

18. The Adventure of the Six Napoleons

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

Summary

A madman is loose in London, breaking into homes to smash busts of Napoleon. When the mayhem turns to murder, Holmes begins to think there might be more at stake. Inspector Lestrade focuses on the Italian connection, convinced the Mafia is involved, while Holmes takes more of an artistic view. Who will uncover the true solution of this puzzle? 

This Aged Poorly: While this story doesn’t directly state that all Italians are part of the Mafia, it does suggest that they are a generally dodgy people; one is described as “simian” and they’re all trying to knife each other to death in the streets and helping each other commit crimes. (This is a common misconception about Italians. My grandmother was Italian, and as far as I know she never knifed anyone in the street or committed any crimes.)

Reader’s Notes

This one is a chaotic delight. In one of my favorite Holmes tropes, what starts as simply a bizarre adventure takes a dark turn, giving a delicious backdrop to the story (see also: The Red-Headed League). In another commonly-used trope, Holmes pits himself against Lestrade, encouraging the Inspector to investigate along his own path before they reconvene to see who was correct. This one does not have any great detective twists or flairs, relying on solid footwork on Holmes’s part, but it’s still quite dramatic and enjoyable.

Read This Story If… You are a lover of art or Italians (or both).

Drink Pairing: A refreshing Bellini.

17. The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton

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

Summary

Holmes and Watson tangle with the odious Charles Augustus Milverton, a blackmailer with no equal and no moral compass. When negotiations on behalf of a client falter, Holmes resorts to more drastic measures – first becoming engaged to a housemaid, and then burglary. The noble Watson refuses to let him commit this crime alone, but when the two men break into Milverton’s house they get a bit more than they bargained for.

Notable Quote: This story has many delightful moments, but the peak might be when Holmes tells Watson he is engaged to be married. This story also contains one of my favorite lines: when Milverton says Holmes has clearly never heard of a certain Duke, Watson writes, “from the baffled look upon Holmes’s face, I could clearly see that he did.” Tee-hee.

This Aged Poorly: An inappropriate word for Black people is used as a descriptor. 

Reader’s Notes

Less a mystery than a delightful adventure, and packed with richness. We have an excellent villain, we have Watson swearing on his honor that he will not let Holmes go into danger without him, and we have Holmes making some morally gray choices. I also love how easily Holmes gets himself engaged, showing that even though he may not like women he knows how to woo them.

Read This Story If… You believe that sometimes good men must do bad things. 

Drink Pairing: Absinthe with burned sugar.

Holmes and Watson in their burgling outfits.

16. The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor

First published 1892. Collected in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

The late Victorian era presented a crisis to the English upper crust – whether for the variety or for their New World fortunes, all of their men were marrying American girls! Quelle horreur. One of these men is the dull fop Lord St. Simon but, unfortunately, his “fascinating” young American bride disappears within hours of the wedding, sending him in despair to Sherlock Holmes. Is Lord St. Simon’s scorned lover involved? (You know how those spirited women are, and she’s a dancer. *shudder*) Or did his lowly American wife become “deranged” at her sudden vault to status? (Lord St. Simon’s theory, not mine.) Only time will tell if Holmes is able to shed some light on the mysterious disappearance.

This Aged Poorly: A character is taken prisoner among the Apaches, which is some John Wayne bullshit honestly.

Reader’s Notes

If you can’t tell by my snide comments above, the treatment of women in this one is interesting. Poor Flora Miller, Lord St. Simon’s scorned lover, is regarded with misogynistic disdain by both St. Simon and Inspector Lestrade; however, since St. Simon decided to marry a rich heiress shortly after starting “friendly” relations with Flora, I can’t say that I blame her for some occasional outbursts of frustration. The narrative does not treat her poorly; only the characters.

The other woman is the missing bride, Hatty Doran. I love when Conan Doyle does Americans, and Hatty is the most American: the daughter of a miner, “a tomboy, with a strong nature, wild and free, unfettered by any sort of traditions” who independently refuses to take her new husband’s arm when going down to breakfast. My word! But she is a frank, honorable young woman, a real credit to her people. (Me, I am her people.) Holmes, despite his poor reputation regarding women, treats her with respect and paternal kindness.

Read This Story If… You like spunky American heiresses and have been cheering on as Harry and Meghan give the British monarchy the finger.

Drink Pairing: Whiskey and soda, cigar optional. 

15. The Man with the Twisted Lip

First published 1891. Collected in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

The noble Watson goes to rescue a family friend from an opium den – and finds Sherlock Holmes in disguise. What can it be but a case, of course? The rich and upright Neville St. Clair is missing under mysterious circumstances, and his wife fears the worst when his empty cloak washes up on the riverbank. The beggar found on the scene refuses to speak, but Holmes may have something up his sleeve… 

This Aged Poorly: Some old-timey but not violently racist (as far as I know) words are used to refer to non-white people, and these characters are of course described as having the “vilest” ancestors. The word cripple is used quite casually. 

Reader’s Notes

Conceptually, this one has always stuck with me (I can’t say more without giving away the twist in the story) but it is a little disappointing from a mystery perspective because Holmes never explains how he solves it. This might be because Conan Doyle used up his wordcount at the beginning – this is one of the rare stories that dives not only into Watson’s home life, briefly, but also gives us an almost-Dickensian description of a London neighborhood and opium den. 

Read This Story If… You agree that there is no figure more tragic than a straight white male of moderate income. Just kidding, it’s actually a decent little puzzle with a twist ending, so read it if you like decent little puzzles, twist endings, and descriptions of Victorian opium dens.

Drink Pairing: Poppy tea. (This is a joke. Note that neither I nor any medical professionals suggest you actually drink poppy tea.)

14. The Adventure of the Three Garridebs

First published 1924. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

A wealthy and eccentric Garrideb (Alexander Hamilton) has died in America, leaving a strange will – his fortune is to be divided among three (male) Garridebs, if three can be found. An American Garrideb (Joseph) has discovered a British Garrideb (Nathan) and now they are asking Holmes to help them find a third so they can inherit millions. When a third is found, in Birmingham, Nathan Garrideb hurries off to meet him. Watson is surprised by how seriously Holmes is taking this strange plot, but when Holmes warns of great danger the brave Watson is there with his revolver to support his friend to the last.

Of Note/Notable Quote: Watson is hit with a bullet, sending Holmes into what can only be described as a tizzy. “If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive,” he says to the villain, and I wept.

Reader’s Notes

This is the one story that will bring me to literal tears about how beautiful Holmes and Watson’s friendship is. There are a few murmurs, here and there throughout the Canon, that Holmes loves and respects Watson, but usually he is negative, a sharp friend that most of us would ghost. In this story he demonstrates his fear at potentially losing Watson, going so far as to state he would actually have killed the criminal had Watson come to permanent damage. The mystery itself has that oddness that marks all the best stories, although it is not one of the best stories, but the dramatic moment of Holmes’s despair vaults this one high in the rankings.

Read This Story If… You love friendship.

Drink Pairing: A horsefeather

13. The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle

First published 1892. Collected in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! What starts as an inconsequential little puzzle regarding an old hat and a Christmas goose turns into an Actual Investigation when a stolen gemstone is discovered in the goose’s crop. With Christmas cheer in their hearts, Holmes and Watson set out to trace the journey of the priceless blue carbuncle from a fancy hotel to a goose farm to Holmes’s own hearth – and hopefully to discover the thief. 

Aside: According to the internet, carbuncles only come in red but who cares, carbuncle is such a great word. It is apparently also a fact that geese do not have crops. Perhaps Conan Doyle failed to pay his research assistants this week. Carbuncle.

Reader’s Notes

This story is a delight. It opens with a classic segment of Holmes’s deductive reasoning as he pulls clues out of an old hat, and takes a turn to the absurd when a man pulls a gemstone out of a goose. We get to see Holmes doing dogged, ordinary detecting work, following clues and questioning people in a very Columbo-esque kind of way. 

Read This Story If… You love Christmas and jewel heists, two great tastes that taste great together.

Drink Pairing: Eggnog, spiked or not as you prefer.

12. The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter

First published 1893. Collected in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Holmes takes Watson to meet his brother Mycroft, which is startling to Watson because he was unaware that Holmes had a brother. Mycroft’s brainpowers are apparently even greater than Holmes’s, he’s just lazy (whomst among us cannot relate?). At Mycroft’s club for cranky old men, the brothers get into an unnecessary pissing contest of deductive wits before Mycroft brings up a case that might interest Holmes, that he simply doesn’t have the energy to undertake (whomst among us??). Mycroft’s acquaintance, a Greek interpreter, has recently had a nighttime adventure wherein he was kidnapped and forced to translate a conversation between some English ruffians and a Greek prisoner. A mysterious woman interrupts, ending the interview, and the interpreter is paid and sent home. Watson actually does a pretty good job of untangling the mysterious web (idiotic Jam Watson, as he is called in this household, is a creation of the cinema) but will everything fall into place in time for Watson and the Holmeses to save a life?

Of Note/Notable Quote: You guys have got yourselves a Mycroft Holmes stan up in here, so buckle up. This is the first Mycroft Holmes appearance (one of only two, though he is mentioned in a third story). We meet him at the Diogenes Club, a social club which contains “the most unsociable and unclubbable men in town” where “no member is permitted to take the least notice of any other one” which honestly before the pandemic hit sounded like a dream. Holmes’s smarter elder brother works for the government (in a role that is only fully explained in the later Bruce-Partington Plans) and enjoys reading of Holmes’s exploits while accurately guessing who the villains are without doing anything about it. The man is a legend, whose stature surely outshines his two appearances in the Canon.

The incomparable Mycroft Holmes, drawn by Sidney Paget

Reader’s Notes

The mystery is the least interesting part of the story. I mean, it’s fine, there are Holmes stories which are built on less, but the meat of this story is meeting Mycroft Holmes. Holmes doesn’t actually solve anything (the plot moves forward when someone answers a newspaper ad his brother placed) so it’s another story that’s more of a mystery-adventure than a detective tale. I will also say I’m personally a big fan of the last paragraph, but I can’t tell you about it because that would be a spoiler.

Read This Story If… You want to see what the Hardy Boys were like when they grew up. 

Drink Pairing: Ouzo.

Jam Watson, by Kate Beaton

11. The Adventure of the Norwood Builder

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

Summary

Holmes is musing on the lack of really interesting crimes in London since the death of Professor Moriarty (spoiler for the Top 10), when a young man bursts into 221B Baker Street certain that is about to be arrested for murder. Holmes is delighted and tries to hide it, and young John Hector McFarlane tells how a man he doesn’t know, Mr. Jonas Oldacre, appeared suddenly in his office to draw up his will – leaving his fortune to McFarlane. When Oldacre disappears and his burned body discovered in a fire, suspicion immediately falls on McFarlane. Holmes follows a trail of clues including uneven handwriting and a bloody fingerprint to unravel this clever plot.

Of Note/Notable Quote: Fingerprinting, a new science at the time, is used as evidence for the first time in a Holmes story. 

Reader’s Notes

There is something a little unSherlockian about this one, because Holmes continues to doggedly investigate despite all the clues showing McFarlane’s guilt because he feels “in his bones” that it’s all wrong. Despite that, I love this one. It’s tricksy with a lot of clues and a surprise ending involving burly men and fire.

As an aside, and maybe one of the reasons I like it so much, this story shares something with one of my favorite Perry Mason episodes – a clue, added by the criminal, that cements the case because the investigator is 100% certain that the clue was not there the day before. In the Perry Mason episode, Mason explains that he knew the clue had been planted because Lt. Tragg had personally searched the place and he had complete faith in Lt. Tragg’s abilities even though they were on opposite sides, and the number of times I have sobbed at the beauty of it all is more than zero. I am obviously a sucker for demonstrations of absolute perfectionism, which may be a reason I am generally such a big Holmes fan.

(Do you guys want me to rank Perry Mason episodes next??)

Read This Story If… You have an appreciation for large, able-bodied men with powerful voices. 

Drink Pairing: A nice smoky bourbon. 

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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!

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Join us next week for The Top 10 Sherlock Holmes Stories of All Time! The entire series can be found here.