The Top 10 Sherlock Holmes Stories of All Time

Welcome to the final edition of The Definitive Ranking of Every Single Sherlock Holmes Story. Note that unless otherwise called out in advance, a story’s summary will not give away the ending; I am not a monster.

I cleverly arranged that the final entry in this saga would be due at the same time I needed to move apartments, which was also the same week I began a new job. Perfect timing, and a poor excuse for delay, I know. A proper blogger would have planned ahead. This is why I will never be an influencer. (The only reason, I’m sure.)

But now here we are.

I feel like my entire life has been building towards this moment. It is my great pleasure to present the Top 10 Sherlock Holmes stories of all time. Some are deliciously bizarre, some are first-class mysteries regardless of how one feels about Holmes, some are classics of the Canon, some are all three. These are the stories that I will always return to; these are the Sherlock Holmes stories that call me home. 

10. The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans

First published 1908. Collected in His Last Bow.

Summary

Holmes is bored, but luckily his brother Mycroft shows up with a problem. Arthur Cadogan West is dead on some train tracks and the very secret plans for the new Bruce-Partington submarine have been found in his pocket – except for three missing pages. Everyone suspects Cadogan West of selling out to foreign agents, but his fiancée protests his innocence (but of course she would). Holmes bustles around investigating and is promptly stymied when one of the two men who had access to the plans dies of a “broken heart.” Now with two people dead and the three most important pages still missing, Holmes and Watson must discover the murderer and recover the plans before any further catastrophe befalls the government.

Of Note: The second of two stories where Holmes’s brother Mycroft appears. (see also: The Greek Interpreter) In this one we learn a bit more about Mycroft’s job, which seems to be Official Synthesizer of Information for Her Majesty’s Government. “His specialism is omniscience,” Holmes says. Of the two Mycroft stories, this is definitely the better mystery, which is kind of a shame because The Greek Interpreter has better Mycroft content. In this one we do get Mycroft being a bit of a drama queen, though, a noted family trait.

One other personage of importance appears off-screen here: after saving the nation (spoiler? I mean is anyone surprised?) Holmes goes to Windsor to meet Queen Victoria and returns with a fetching tie pin. 

This Aged Poorly: “The Latin countries – the countries of assassination,” says Holmes in a not-at-all problematic way.

Reader’s Notes

Conan Doyle was definitely on his game with this one, writing a tight mystery that has Holmes at his wittiest and Watson at his most stalwart. We also get one of those moments of Holmes/Watson tenderness that started to creep into later stories. Watson doesn’t quite say that Holmes wipes a tear from his eye, but it’s close. 

I will admit, I am a smidge disappointed that once again (for the third time, I believe) important government papers are stolen but nothing terrible happens to the government because of some circumstance that Conan Doyle concocts. This is the least outrageous of the circumstances, but still. Get a new schtick, Conan Doyle. 

Read This Story If… You like government intrigue, train tracks, and fog like pea soup.

Drink Pairing: Coffee and curaçao.

9. The Adventure of the Red-Headed League

First published 1891. Collected in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

A red-headed man joins The Red-Headed League, an absurd organization which seems to have no real charter aside from paying him to make a handwritten copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Is someone simply pranking Mr. Jabez Wilson, or is there something more sinister afoot? Holmes and Watson investigate, and a thorough knowledge of the streets of London as well as some dusty knees lead Holmes to the solution just in time to save some rich men a lot of money. 

Notable Quote: Holmes’s “It is quite a three pipe problem,” comes from this story, though most references usually omit the delightful follow up: “And I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.” I often beg people not to speak to me for periods of time up to and including 50 minutes.

This Aged Poorly: Usage of the common slur for the Romani people.

Reader’s Notes

This story is a delight. I call it straightforward, and it is, but in addition to being a tightly-written mystery it contains some great color (no pun intended). I’ve said throughout this series that Conan Doyle is at his best with he’s throwing in something bizarre, and this story showcases that bizarre touch. He also reminds everyone that he is a proper writer, deftly showing the simplicity (some might say stupidity) of Mr. Jabez Wilson the red-headed man, while also maintaining his place as a sympathetic character. It’s just a great little story.

Read This Story If… You want a story that is just kind of silly and delightful and is emblematic of the weird little problems Holmes is called upon to solve that don’t necessarily involve actual criminal activity. 

Drink Pairing: A tequila sunrise, covering the spectrum of red and orange. Would also accept a ginger beer, for the wordplay.

8. The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual

First published 1893. Collected in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Watson wants Holmes to tidy up around the place, and Holmes cleverly distracts him by telling him the story of one of his early cases. A college acquaintance, Reginald Musgrave, comes to young Holmes complaining of his “Don Juan” of a butler, a man who left a trail of broken hearts, illicitly accessed private family documents – and has now disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Holmes quickly realizes that the key to the mystery is the ancient family riddle known as “The Musgrave Ritual.”

Of Note: This story has one of my literal, absolute, favorite-ever Holmes character study moments of all time. Watson begins the story with an AITA-esque report on his roommate’s annoying activities, which includes among other complaints:

“When I find a man who keeps his cigars in the coal-scuttle, his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper, and his unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jack-knife into the very centre of his wooden mantelpiece, then I begin to give myself virtuous airs. I have always held, too, that pistol practice should distinctly be an open-air pastime; and when Holmes in one of his queer humours would sit in an arm-chair with his hair-trigger and a hundred Boxer cartridges, and proceed to adorn the opposite wall with a patriotic V.R.* done in bullet-pocks, I felt strongly that neither the atmosphere nor the appearance of our room was improved by it.”

Reader, I weep. My beloved Holmes just sits there and shoots the Queen’s initials into the wall. For fun. This moment is widely used in film and TV adaptations to provide a perfect encapsulation of Holmes’s attitude towards life, and I love it every time.

*Victoria Regina – English Kings and Queens use “Rex” or “Regina” as their last names, respectively; Queen Elizabeth still does as far as I know, tho she hasn’t sent me any correspondence recently.

This Aged Poorly: Some rather choice statements are made about the Welsh. 

Reader’s Notes

Who doesn’t love a treasure hunt? This one’s fun. There’s a murder, there’s a riddle, there’s an ancient buried treasure – what more could you need? Because the riddle is associated with a mysterious disappearance, it has a weight to it that some similar riddle mysteries lack. (Notably, I would say the Lord Peter Wimsey short story The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will, wherein there is a treasure but no crime.) (Yes this is just me taking the opportunity to show off that I am well-read.) Anyway, a fun little romp, and the opening framing sequence vaults it to the eighth spot on the list.

Read This Story If… You enjoy seeking buried treasure while retweeting that relationships.txt bot. 

Drink Pairing: Something with cobwebs on it – red wine from your cellar, perhaps?

7. The Final Problem

First published 1893. Collected in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Spoiler for one of the most famous deaths in literary history I guess?

Summary

Watson does not beat around the bush, opening by informing the reader that this is the last story of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes arrives at Watson’s consulting room pale and concerned about air-guns, asking his old friend to journey with him to the Continent. He tells Watson of Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime, the spider at the center of London’s web of criminal activity. Holmes declares Moriarty his intellectual equal, a true opponent that only he is able to take down – and Moriarty’s arrest is imminent. But after the Professor pays him a jolly visit, Holmes knows his life is in danger.

With the trusty Watson at his side, Holmes dons a disguise and heads to the Continent, leaving Baker Street burning dramatically behind them. But they get word that the police have arrested everyone in the gang – except Moriarty. Holmes tries to send his friend home but Watson of course refuses, and together they wend their way through Europe, eventually ending up at the picturesque Reichenbach Falls. 

Sidney Paget sure earned his keep this week.

Of Note: The Final Problem is really a one-two punch of notoriety – not only did Conan Doyle kill off one of the most popular characters in literature, he also introduced one of its most famous villains, Dr. James Moriarty, a man who is on the page for one, brief scene and has lived in our collective conscious ever since.

The historical impact of this story cannot be overstated. (Like, for literature – as far as I know no wars were started or anything.) The death of Sherlock Holmes lost the Strand 20,000 subscribers. We know now that Holmes will return from the dead, but Conan Doyle wrote this fully intending it to be the last Holmes story and distraught contemporaneous readers would have to wait almost 10 years to learn their beloved Holmes survived his clash with Professor Moriarty.

Reader’s Notes

While this story is of course most compelling if you are already invested in Sherlock Holmes, it stands on its own merits, though not as a mystery. It’s also not quite an adventure. Really it’s a horror story: we are shown the monster, we are shown the victim’s fear, we are shown the doom getting closer and closer, inevitable. We know when Watson passes Moriarty on the trail even when Watson doesn’t – don’t go into the basement, Watson! You can still save Holmes! But Holmes, seeing his fate approaching, lets Watson leave knowing that if he remains, Moriarty would kill his friend as well. I think I’m turning Watson into Final Girl, and you know what – it works.

I find this story to be less about Holmes’s end than about Moriarty’s beginning. Conan Doyle introduces the character of Professor Moriarty and makes him Holmes’s complete equal and diametric opposite in the space of half of story. To create such a villain – a character whose name is synonymous with villainy – in such a short time is truly masterful. It is not Moriarty himself that makes him important, but his relationship with Holmes. Like my main man Mycroft Holmes, his place as an equal (or superior) to Sherlock Holmes gives him a stature that is grander than his physical presence on the page might suggest.

Read This Story If… You like a travelogue that ends in murder.

Drink Pairing: A shot of your favorite beverage, to pour out over the nearest waterfall.

6. The Adventure of the Empty House

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

Spoiler alert for the most widely-known plot twist in literary history, which it is impossible not to discuss here. And while this recap does not give away the ~mystery~ part of the story, if you want to read with fresh eyes the Dramatic Return of Sherlock Holmes into Watson’s Life, skip the summary section. 

Summary

Watson is just minding his own business, musing about a recent locked-room murder that is the talk of the town, when he literally runs into an ill-mannered bibliophile in the street. A short time later, the bibliophile turns up in Watson’s study, removes his disguise, and becomes the apparently not-deceased Sherlock Holmes, sending Watson into a dead faint. After the application of some restorative brandy, Holmes tells how he escaped the chasm of Reichenbach Falls and invites Watson to once more share a dangerous night as they get to the bottom of the unsolved murder of Ronald Adair.

Of Note: Suffice to say, this story is notable as the one that returns Sherlock Holmes to his adoring public. We also meet Colonel Sebastian Moran, not as imposing a figure as Moriarty, but one who still lives on in Sherlockian legend as an incredible marksman and dangerous adversary.

This Aged Poorly: There are long explanations about where in the East Holmes traveled during his three-year absence, written with the grace of a gentleman who grew up in Victorian England.  

Reader’s Notes

This is really a great little story. Conan Doyle not only cleverly figures out how to pluck his hero from the jaws of death (“I had no serious difficulty in getting out of [the chasm], for the very simple reason that I was never in it,” Holmes tells Watson), he also intertwines Holmes’s return with a regular old murder that would have been worthy of detection on its own. Like The Final Problem, this one is of most interest to those who are already invested in Holmes and want to know how he came back from the dead, and not really as a story in its own right, so if you’re planning to read it I’d get a few others (including The Final Problem) under your belt first.

Read This Story If… You like shocking emotional scenes and rascals who get their comeuppance. 

Drink Pairing: A nip of brandy with an old friend.

5. The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

First published 1892. Collected in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Holmes is at first dismissive when governess Violet Hunter asks his advice on whether she should take a position at a home called the Copper Beeches, but as he learns more about her potential employer he senses danger. A few weeks later, he and Watson answer a desperate summons from Miss Hunter as the happenings at the Copper Beeches have become more and more bizarre, verging on terrifying. The house obviously hides some horrible secret – will Holmes figure it out before it is too late? Will Carlo the Hound get a tasty snack of human flesh? And what – or who – is hiding in the attic?

Notable Quote: “You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales.” This is one of the many stories that begins with Holmes pontificating, focused for not the first (or last) time on the inferiority of Watson’s writing. Poor Watson, just wanting to tell his friend’s exciting stories, and this is the thanks he gets.

Reader’s Notes

I could write an entire paper just on this one story; there’s so much to unpack. It’s so deliciously gothic and Mr. Rucastle is such a delightfully unpleasant villain. And though it’s a simple story, Conan Doyle packs so much into it. There’s the opening, where Holmes complains about Watson’s storytelling strategy, and there are Holmes’s delicious musings on how the idyllic English countryside is an excellent place for murder, and then there’s the story itself, a gothic adventure. To be perfectly honest, from a story structure/plot perspective Holmes’s presence isn’t really that necessary, but the meat of the story is so good that you don’t really even care.

And then there’s Violent Hunter, one of multiple Violets who appear in the Canon (and my favorite, with Bicycle Violet a close second). Holmes refers to Violet Hunter as a “quite exceptional woman” and Watson expresses disappointment that the relationship did not blossom further than the pages of this story. To me, this is simply one more example of Holmes’s actions belying the common misconception that he is a misogynist –  frankly, Holmes doesn’t like anybody (he refers once to Watson as his only friend). He treats everyone with equal disdain, but has no problem noting exceptionalism when he sees it, no matter the source. He appreciates Violet Hunter’s boldness of spirit, and has no compunction about involving her in the dangerous part of the proceedings. 

Read This Story If… You’re a fan of Jane Eyre-esque governesses and enjoy a “why are the people in this house so weird and creepy” vibe. 

Drink Pairing: Wine, but not so much that you get locked in the cellar.

4. The Adventure of the Cardboard Box

First published 1893. Collected in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Miss Susan Cushing does not know why she has received a box of ears in the mail, but she would like them removed from her home and for everyone to stop bothering her with questions. Holmes, brilliantly deducing that the “S. Cushing” of the address might in fact be Susan’s sister Sarah, starts out on a journey that leads to a tragic family drama complete with adultery, alcoholism, and murder. Nobody wins here, except the reader.

“Yep, definitely ears.” – not a direct quote

Of Note: This story begins with the famous “mind-reading” scene, where Holmes, by simply watching Watson’s eyes move around the sitting room, is able to follow his train of thought so closely that he can break in with a relevant comment 10 minutes later. Conan Doyle was apparently so fond of this scene that when he omitted this story from the first version of Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (see below), he transferred the whole scene verbatim into a different story.

This Aged Poorly: An old-fashioned usage of the word Jew (technically descriptive and not pejorative, but still jarring for a modern reader).

Reader’s Notes

This story is so grotesque that apparently Conan Doyle kept it out of the first version of Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes as it was not appropriate for young readers. I am, of course, obsessed with it. It’s got everything – adultery, murder, sailors’ knots, and body parts whizzing through the general post. 

The mystery is not complex – and, frankly, the murderer was going to give himself up regardless of Holmes’s interference – but the story is layered over a richly-drawn family tragedy. If I wanted to be flowery, I’d suggest that the grotesqueness of the disembodied ears provides a physical representation of the grotesqueness of human nature. Even Holmes himself is overcome by a sense of gloom. The story ends with his solemn words: “What is the meaning of it, Watson? What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear?”

Read This Story If… You like Jerry Springer but want it to be sadder and wish it had more boxes full of ears. 

Drink Pairing: A nice sparkling seltzer with a twist of lime, for our sober friends.

3. The Adventure of Silver Blaze

First published 1892. Collected in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

A valuable horse is missing and his trainer has been murdered, though it’s a little unclear which one everyone finds more troubling. (OK, it’s the missing horse.) With the local constabulary baffled, Holmes heads to Dartmoor to take over the investigation. In a rural version of following shoeprints, he follows hoofprints across a field and has a rather terse conversation with a neighboring horse-trainer. Is this man the murderer? Where is the most famous horse in the county hidden? And what possible importance can Holmes find in a dog who does not bark?

Notable Quote: Silver Blaze gives us a line so famous it’s the title of an entire unrelated book. Here’s the whole quote.

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” “The dog did nothing in the night-time.” “That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes. 

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 story is rich in characters, from the dead trainer, to Silver Blaze’s owner, to the perfectly acceptable Inspector Gregory, to Silas Brown, the crotchety owner of the competing stable across the moor. We also get the full force of Holmes’s personality; Silver Blaze’s owner treats Holmes dismissively, and Holmes has a little fun at his expense, showing an unexpected bit of petty humor that I, as a petty person myself, quite enjoy.

It’s also just a great mystery. There’s depth and motivation to all the characters, even with the limited space of the short story, and the clues are all present in the text yet we still get a classic twist ending. This one’s a very strong outing from the Great Detective.

Read This Story If… You are or wish to become a horse girl.

Drink Pairing: A refreshing mint julep. I realize they’re connected to a different horse event, but we only have one horse story so we’re just going with it. 

2. A Scandal in Bohemia

First published 1891. Collected in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Watson, recently married, visits his old friend Holmes at 221B Baker street and endures some deductions about his life. Luckily, a mysterious and distinguished client arrives to distract Holmes from Watson’s problems. After some taut wordplay, Holmes gets the visitor to confess that he is, indeed, the King of Bohemia. He needs Holmes’s help in recovering a compromising photograph of himself and a certain Irene Adler, which would be ruinous to the King’s impending marriage. Holmes concocts a complicated scheme involving Watson and an ill clergyman to discover the location of the photograph – but will he be outwitted after all?

Of Note: The very first Holmes short story, after two successful novels (A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four), and Holmes’s first appearance in the Strand Magazine.

This story contains the second-most famous Holmes antagonist, after Professor Moriarty: Irene Adler, the “adventuress.” Much is made of Irene Adler, a woman – “the woman.” She bests Holmes, she wears pants (quelle horreur!), and she lives her best life in Victorian England, a time when women were not generally able to live their best lives. Her character is so strong and so beloved that – even though this is the only story where she appears – she has been given a rather mythic status by fans, many of whom want her to be more than she was. The world runs mad with alternate universes where Holmes and Miss Adler are lovers (no) or solve crimes together (also no) or even, God forbid, have a child (nooooo) who moves to New York and becomes Nero Wolfe (nooooooooo). As the most famous woman in the Canon, she is often brought in by filmmakers when a fun and/or spunky “modern” woman is needed and they don’t want to create someone new. There’s a way in which her fame has outpaced her actual presence in the Canon, with people imposing more on her than is needed – she is a great character, by herself, without a century of other people’s ideals forced on her.

I could write an entire thesis just on Irene Adler’s placement and misplacement in the Holmes lore, but we’ll move on.

Reader’s Note

Even if Irene Adler had not become Irene Adler: The Woman, The Myth, The Legend, this is still a great story. A lot happens, there’s a proper mystery-adventure, both the client and the antagonist are extremely well-drawn characters, and the story is so thoroughly of its time that you feel yourself plopped right in the middle of Victorian England. There’s also a lot of action, with Watson playing a key role that was often denied him in later stories. 

Read This Story If… You enjoy sisters who are doing it for themselves, standing on their own two feet.

Drink Pairing: Becherovka, a popular drink in the modern-day Czech Republic, the current location of olden-time Bohemia.

1. The Adventure of the Speckled Band

First published 1892. Collected in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

A panicked young lady, Helen Stoner, rouses Holmes and Watson from their beds with a tale of horror. Her twin sister died two years ago, in what can only be described as incredibly creepy circumstances, with mysterious whistles in the night and her dying words referencing a “speckled band.” Bereft, Helen now lives alone in their isolated country home with her violent stepfather and his menagerie of wild animals. Now, as her wedding day approaches, she has been forced to move into the room where her sister died – and the same mysterious, creepy things that preceded her sister’s death are starting to happen again. What can it mean? Will Holmes and Watson be able to prevent a second tragedy?

Of Note: Dr. Grimesby Roylett, with his “deep-set, bile-shot eyes,” is a true titan of the Canon. His first appearance gives us one of the most famous Holmes moments: the villainous Dr. Roylett, to convince Holmes that he is a very scary man that Holmes should avoid crossing, bends the heavy metal fire poker clean in half with his bare hands. After he departs, the thin and wiry Holmes, unperturbed, calmly unbends the poker. (This bit of heroism is referenced in many other stories when an author needs a shorthand to show how cool and strong his protagonist is; one notable example is performed by John Steed in The Avengers episode The Superlative Seven, and if you thought I was going to get through this entire saga without sneaking in a reference to the The Avengers boy were you wrong.)

Suck it, Dr. Roylett.

This Aged Poorly: Usage of the common slur for Romani as well as generally stereotyping them as criminals. Being disparaging of the Romani is basically a plot point in this one, and Roylett’s close association with them is supposed to be an indication of his ill repute. Conan Doyle’s treatment of the Romani here is the one blight on what I consider to be an otherwise perfect story. 

Reader’s Notes

This is a doozy of a gothic horror story, complete with mysterious sounds in the night, fantastical wild beasts, mysterious poisons, and an evil villain rivaling any in literature. It is also a classic locked room mystery – how could the lady be killed, locked in by herself? It’s Conan Doyle’s merging of these two genres that make this story so great; it’s a clever plot drenched in atmosphere, with dangers so real that Watson must bring his trusty revolver.

As a quick aside, I would remind any potential American readers of this tale that the phrase “knocked up” does not have the same meaning in British English as it does in American, and therefore this story does not begin with a rash of surprising pregnancies, though that reading is almost certainly available on AO3.

Read This Story If… You like gothicky horror goodness and things that go bump in the night. 

Drink Pairing: The obvious option here is a White Russian, but I personally hate dairy-based alcoholic beverages so I can’t in good faith recommend one. Let’s do a dark n’ stormy instead. Wild baboon optional.

~

And that’s a wrap on my magnum opus! Thank you for joining me on this adventure. The entire series can be found here, and, as always, feel free to talk to me about Sherlock Holmes anywhere and at any time. Literally, just stop me on the street.

And now we all take a little nap.

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. 

~

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 The Top 10 Sherlock Holmes Stories of All Time! The entire series can be found here.

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.

11 Perfectly Fine Sherlock Holmes Stories

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.

Summary

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. 

Reader’s Notes

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.

Summary

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. 

Reader’s Notes

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.

Summary

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.”

Reader’s Notes

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.

Summary

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.

Reader’s Notes

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.

Summary

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.

Reader’s Notes

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.

“Look, a clew!”

36. The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez

First published 1904. Collected in Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

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?

Reader’s Notes

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.

Summary

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. 

Reader’s Notes

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.

Gloria Scott also gives us one of the best Sidney Paget drawings of all time. The pure drama of it all.

34. The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place

First published 1927. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

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.” 

Reader’s Notes

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.

Summary

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.” 

Reader’s Notes

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.

Summary

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.

Reader’s Notes

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.

Summary

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). 

Reader’s Notes

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.

5 Sherlock Holmes Stories That Have a Hint of Magic, but Miss the Mark

Welcome to today’s edition of The Definitive Ranking of Every Single Sherlock Holmes Story, covering #42-#46 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.

The best Holmes stories have a bit of the weird, bizarre, or grotesque. In my opinion (welcome to my blog), Conan Doyle is at his best when he is combining mystery/adventure with bizarre/horror. 

Which makes this week’s stories all the more disappointing. There’s potential – they touch on the weird or unusual. There are vampires! How can the Sherlock Holmes/vampire crossover event be so low on my list? And yet these stories disappoint. They’re not much better than last week’s group, with a similar dullness of either plot or character, but there’s an undercurrent of oddity that makes them a little more Holmesian and therefore bumped them up in the rankings.

46. The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane

First published 1926. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Summary

Holmes is retired on the coast, raising bees, and responsible for telling his own tale. He is out for a walk with a neighbor when another neighbor, the science teacher McPherson, flings himself up from the beach gasping out his dying words: “The lion’s mane.” McPherson’s body looks like it has been flogged, and nobody can make heads or tails of the strange death – surely a murder? But who could have done such a thing? The man’s fiancée? The enemy-turned-friend-who-may-still-be-an-enemy? Holmes must find the answer before another death occurs. 

Of Note: One of only two stories narrated by Holmes himself.

Reader’s Notes

Strangely, Conan Doyle considered this one of his better stories, and would have included it in his own Top Ten list if that list had not been made prior to the story’s publication. In this judgement Conan Doyle was incorrect, as many writers are about their own work. It’s a nice little pastiche, and even a semi-clever little story if you like answers that make no sense and have nothing really to do with the clues, but overall it’s disappointing and you end it feeling like “I read all of these words for this?”

Read This Story If… Your sympathies have always been with the Sea Witch Ursula.

Drink Pairing: A Lion’s Tail.

45. The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger

First published 1927. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Content Warning: Suicidal ideation, and Holmes uses what is probably unhelpful language in addressing the topic.

Summary

Mrs. Merrilow has a strange lodger, a veiled woman who cries out about murder in the night. This lodger, a Mrs. Ronder, agrees to see the great Sherlock Holmes so that her story can be heard before she dies. She is the widow of the circus master Mr. Ronder, who was mauled to death by a lion some years ago, an incident that left her face horribly disfigured. It is to tell this tale that she summons Holmes. 

This Aged Poorly: Fat-shaming language; this is less a thing that aged poorly, because I still see similar language in modern writing, and more just a note that it was gross then and it’s gross now and everyone should just cut it out. 

Reader’s Notes

This story definitely isn’t a mystery; it’s the confessional of a woman who is planning to die. Calling it an adventure is too strong – maybe a grotesque little pastiche? It’s fine, as far as it goes, but it’s not very interesting.

Read This Story If… Your favorite part of the Batman legend is when The Flying Graysons abruptly stop flying. 

Drink Pairing: A cotton candy margarita.

44. The Adventure of the Creeping Man

First published 1923. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Spoiler alert for the story’s ending in the “this aged poorly” section, but no details are included on how Holmes gets there.

Summary

Why has Professor Presbury’s faithful dog suddenly tried to bite him? Why has Professor Presbury become sly and secretive and downright cranky? Why was he in Prague without telling his family? And what on earth is he doing crawling around the hallway at night, snarling at people? These are the questions that Presbury’s assistant (and soon-to-be son-in-law) brings to Sherlock Holmes, and the questions that bring Sherlock Holmes out to the college town of Camford. 

Notable Quote: “Come at once if convenient – if inconvenient come all the same,” Holmes says delightfully in a note to Watson.

This Aged Poorly: In a “this aged poorly” note that has a slightly different flavor than usual, the problem here is scientific rather than racist. The explanation for the professor’s strange behavior comes from an “elixir of life” that seems very questionable from what little I know of how science works. 

Reader’s Notes

This one holds a dear place in my heart because the Jeremy Brett version is the first Holmes story I ever remember seeing on screen – something about the grown man swinging through tree-tops with creepy lighting just stuck with me. That said, even the clouds of nostalgia force me to admit it’s not great. The setup is fine, but the explanation is eye-rolling, especially to a modern audience, and any mystery is only as good as its ending.

Read This Story If… You like to start your day with a smidge of pseudoscience.

Drink Pairing: Six gin and tonics, in honor of Mabel Jackson.

43. The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot

First published 1910. Collected in His Last Bow.

Summary

Holmes and Watson are in Cornwall (which Watson describes in excruciating detail) so that Holmes’s health can recuperate – and what is more restorative than a nice murder? Brenda Tregennis is dead and her two brothers raving and laughing at the table with her. Against Watson’s wishes, Holmes investigates this intriguing situation but there is an unfortunate lack of clues. When they return from brooding upon the moor about the unfortunate lack of clues, Holmes and Watson find in their rooms the local celebrity Dr. Leon Sterndale, one of the Great White Men known for killing lions in Africa. But even the great lion-killer cannot produce more clues, and it is not until a tragic second death that Holmes begins to see the light – but only after he poisons himself and Watson.

Notable Quote: A delicious exchange in this one: 

“How do you know that?” a suspect asks.

“I followed you,” says Holmes.

“I saw no one.”

“That is what you may expect to see when I follow you.”

Delightful!

This Aged Poorly: You will, I am sure, be shocked to find that the Great White Lion-Killer refers to Africans as “savages.” This story also contains one of those mysterious African poisons that writers of this era are so fond of – untraceable and producing horrifying effects. 

Reader’s Notes

Holmes calls this the “strangest case I ever handled” – he is wrong (that is a different series of rankings) but it certainly is grotesque. Like many of the latter-day Holmes stories, this one is a decent mystery with a tinge of the bizarre, but it lacks the spirit that marks the best ones from the early Canon.

There are a few items of note here, though: First, Watson definitively saves Holmes’s life (and his own) and for once Holmes shows proper humbleness towards his friend. You love to see it.

Second, in response to an outburst from a character, Holmes says “If the matter is beyond humanity, it is beyond me.” Conan Doyle was a noted spiritualist, very into seances and fairies and that sort of thing. I always find it interesting when Holmes dismisses the supernatural – yes, authors are not their characters, but I love how completely Conan Doyle prevented any hint of spiritualism from intruding on the Holmes Canon. It would be cheating the reader, and we can’t have that.

Read This Story If… You like moors and nightmares. 

Drink Pairing: Honestly it doesn’t matter as long as it involves a smoke machine. Smoke a Sprite if that’s your preference.

42. The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire

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

Summary

Some reputable lawyers send one of their clients to Holmes, considering vampires to be more in his line than theirs. Robert “Big Bob” Ferguson tells Holmes of a “friend” of his who married a Peruvian lady (Watson is too innocent to realize there is no friend, it’s just Ferguson, but Holmes is a sharper lad). This lady has inexplicably assaulted the man’s teenage son (by his first marriage) as well as their shared baby boy. Also she may be a vampire, and can Holmes possibly help? Holmes heads to Sussex, sure that there is nothing paranormal about the case, and his suspicions are quickly confirmed.

Notable Quotes: As a lover of vampire nonsense, this story has some delicious quotes that are probably not notable to scholars but which I greatly enjoy. Near the beginning: “The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.” And near the end: “The idea of a vampire was to me absurd. Such things do not happen in criminal practice in England.”

This Aged Poorly: The elder son is a “cripple.” The Peruvian wife is obviously described as “fiery,” because what other phrase would you use? (This is sarcasm. Fiery Latin Americans were a problematic fave of writers of this era.) The accent given to the Peruvian servant is questionable at best.

Reader’s Notes

Vampires come to 221B Baker Street! The crossover I didn’t know I needed, though of course there is a practical solution. It’s a perfectly fine little tale, though one of the many that would not have made it to Holmes if husbands and wives would just fucking communicate with each other. Honestly, the entire family should go to therapy.

Read This Story If… You suspect Holmes is a descendent of Van Helsing.

Drink Pairing: A Bloody Mary. 

A striking family resemblance, no?

~

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 Perfectly Fine Sherlock Holmes Stories! The entire series can be found here.

quick documentary review: Netflix’s Night Stalker

I am a very normal human, so I spent most of yesterday afternoon watching Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, Netflix’s recent-ish documentary on Richard Ramirez. My partner deliberately left the room for the majority of the show, but ha ha joke’s on him we live in a one-bed in a quarantine and he couldn’t escape my recap.

I’m fun at parties.

If you’re blessedly unfamiliar with Ramirez, he was a rapist, murderer, and supposed Satanist who terrorized Los Angeles (and, to a lesser extent, San Francisco) in 1985. There was no rhyme or reason to his victims; most sexually-motivated serial killers have a “type,” but Ramirez was indiscriminate, raping children (boys and girls), young women, and mature women across ethnic and racial backgrounds. His killings were even more randomized. He was a truly horrible human being, and be forewarned that this documentary goes into detail and includes many crime scene photos.

For only being four episodes, I feel like there’s a lot to dissect in Night Stalker for people who simply enjoy dissecting documentaries. It’s good, overall. I enjoyed it, if “enjoy” is the right word for this genre of media. But there are complications.

Structurally, the narrative follows the two LA County Sheriff’s Office detectives assigned to the case, Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno, as they realize that the disparate crimes across the county are related. (Carrillo is presented as the bright young hotshot, whose initial diagnosis that this is a serial killer is laughed out of the room; Salerno is the grizzled cop superstar, the detective who apprehended the Hillside Strangler(s) in the 70s. It’s made for Hollywood, honestly.) Throughout the documentary, we only know as much as the police knew at any given point. We learn Ramirez’s name and see his photo at the same point in the story the police did. It’s good drama.

I like this structure. In similar documentaries, we often follow the killer, trying to understand them, or follow the killer in tandem with the team trying to track them down. We are usually presented with the murders and then see police looking for clues that will lead to a foregone conclusion. (I’m thinking specifically about Manson family documentaries, which usually skip from the murders to apprehension very quickly, glossing over the 4 months of confusion and panic and police work. We the audience know Manson did it, so it’s only natural the police will figure it out.) The filmmakers here did a great job retaining a sense of mystery, encouraging us to feel the same horror the victims did, the same horror the whole city did as this mysterious murderer stalked LA. The victim statements are expertly integrated.

However, I felt at times like I was watching an apology piece for Carrillo and Salerno. Here are all the things we did, they seem to say, all the pieces of evidence we were tracking down, here’s how close we were—and here is how the system fucked us over. Whether it was LAPD vs. Sheriff’s office jurisdictional infighting that prevented evidence from being processed in a timely fashion, or budgetary restrictions that pulled officers from a sting the day before Ramirez returned to that location, or San Francisco Mayor Diane Feinstein’s ill-timed press conference that gave away valuable evidence—according to the detectives, they were doing great work and were victims of circumstance. They could have caught Ramirez so much earlier if, if, if. But the documentary misses an opportunity and doesn’t really press them, just letting this narrative unfold. Maybe it’s all true, but it’s hard to trust a one-sided narrative that seems to have an agenda.

The documentary also doesn’t press on a really troubling piece of police brutality that a San Francisco officer describes. When they got as far as knowing that the Night Stalker was a man named Rick, the SFPD went to talk to one of Rick’s friends to try to get his full name. When this witness was in the police car, the officer hit him, supposedly lightly. He then pulled back and told the witness he’d hit him so hard he’d rip him apart from “his head to his ass” (paraphrasing) and the man immediately folds. This is presented as if it is supposed to be a high moment—yeah, we’ve got him! We got a name! Success! But like… a white cop threatened violence against a Hispanic man in his custody and I don’t really find that to be uplifting? And the documentary just glides on by.

Finally, while I learned a lot about the investigation (which is great! I loved that tactic!) I don’t quite feel like I learned enough about Ramirez. It quickly became clear that the documentary was going to follow the classic Sherlock Holmes novel structure of 1) investigation, 2) identify/catch the killer, 3) flashback to the killer’s history, 4) denouement/trial if applicable. It mostly stayed on that track, but 3) flashback was not robust enough to really tell me much about Ramirez. For example, how did he get into Satanism? Did he actually believe it? This was the heyday of the Satanic Panic, but the documentary doesn’t really explore him within that context. I absolutely appreciated the narrative structure and minimizing the focus on Ramirez, but we needed just a bit more than we got.

Overall, the documentary just felt very slightly out of balance. I would have loved a non-police expert to weigh in on what police procedure was like in the 80s, how normal it was for that much evidence to have been messed up. I would have loved to hear from an actual mental health expert, instead of just tapes of Ramirez talking about whether a killer like him was born or made.

But I did really enjoy this documentary, in a horrified kind of way, and I’m nitpicking about documentarian choices. (Meeee?) It’s good, and tells a jaw-dropping story from an unusual perspective, and I definitely recommend it.

5 Sherlock Holmes Stories That Aren’t Unreadable, Just Kind of Dull

Welcome to today’s edition of The Definitive Ranking of Every Single Sherlock Holmes Story, which covers #47-#51. Note that unless otherwise called out in advance, a story’s summary will not give away the ending; I am not a monster.

You know how you’ll get that grocery store California Roll sushi and it’s, like, definitely sushi-shaped, and definitely has all the right ingredients in more-or-less the right order, but it’s just a sad echo of real sushi? And you are kind of sad about your life, but you eat the sushi anyway because it’s 1am and it’s what you have, but eating it just makes you remember the last time you had good sushi? And you wish you had the good sushi? So you’re unsatisfied and unhappy? You know?

#47-51 in our ranking are like that. They’re not, like, awful. They’re readable. You’ll read them and go, “Yes, that was certainly a Sherlock Holmes story that I read.” But they aren’t great. There isn’t anything magical about them. So let’s get them out of the way quickly so we can move forward into next week, when the stories will still not be great, but they’ll at least have a spark of that weirdness that makes a Holmes story special.

51. The Adventure of the Stock-Broker’s Clerk

First published 1893. Collected in Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894.

Content warning: attempted suicide.

Summary

Holmes collects Dr. Watson and dashes away with him to Birmingham to investigate the case of Mr. Hall Pycroft, a stock-broker’s clerk. Mr. Pycroft is befuddled by his new employers, a disconcertingly similar pair of brothers who poached him from another company and then sent him away from London to do grunt work. When Holmes and Watson arrive on the scene, Pycroft’s manager attempts to hang himself. Holmes must unravel a mystery with broader implications than just Pycroft’s paycheck.

This Aged Poorly: An old-timey pejorative word is used to refer to a Jewish person while stereotyping Jewish features. 

Reader’s Notes

This is a weaksauce version of The Adventure of the Red-Headed League, which preceded it by two years. It’s not a bad story, exactly, it’s just that Conan Doyle already wrote it once, better, and this version doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Overall just kind of dull.

Read This Story If… You’ve lost your copy of the The Adventure of the Red-Headed League

Drink Pairing: RC Cola, the lesser version of a better drink.

50. The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb

First published 1892. Collected in Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892.

Summary

When Dr. Watson tends a patient whose thumb has been cleaved down to a bloody messy stub, he immediately takes him to see Sherlock Holmes. There, the hydraulic engineer tells them the fantastic tale of his night’s adventures and how he came to be running from a mysterious German with a large meat cleaver.

Reader’s Notes

This one starts with promise but there isn’t really a mystery, and nobody gets any comeuppance. The only literary achievement is some mildly spooky atmosphere.

Read This Story If… You want to be vaguely disappointed while desperately trying to discover an interesting story, somewhere.

Drink Pairing: Just take a shot of jager to numb the pain. (Of the story, I hope your thumb is OK.)

49. The Adventure of the Three Students

First published 1904. Collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1905.

Summary

In this low-stakes case, one of three students has cheated on a college exam and for some reason Holmes agrees to investigate. (I mean, the honor of the college is at stake, but honestly who cares?)

The dramz.

This Aged Poorly: One of the three suspects is Indian, which is excellent for showing both the diversity of Fake Oxford/Cambridge as well as the stereotypes of the time. Thankfully, Holmes is in better form than he was in The Three Gables, defending the character against Watson’s charge of “slyness.” Overall I would characterize the man’s treatment as “surprisingly not as bad as it could be,” which I realize is giving credit for sailing over a very low bar.

Reader’s Notes

A perfectly fine little puzzle, though a modern reader might immediately latch onto the least likely suspect as the inevitable culprit. It’s also one of the stories where the culprit, upon exposure, is like “well yes I was going to confess here’s the letter I wrote” so Holmes isn’t really necessary at all. Meh.

Read This Story If… You yearn for your college days.

Drink Pairing: A nice Greek wine.

48. The Adventure of the Red Circle

First published 1911. Collected in His Last Bow, 1917.

Summary

Mrs. Warren finds her new lodger a bit odd, and asks Holmes to figure out why. An odd lodger himself, Holmes at first shows little interest, but when Mrs. Warren’s husband is roughed up in the street Holmes’s interest is piqued and he sets out to investigate. He quickly discovers secret codes, Italian ruffians, and a lodger who is certainly not what they seem.

Of Note: The only story in which Holmes works with the famed American detective agency, the Pinkertons. (Though Detective Leverton seems to do very little.) 

This Aged Poorly: The Italians are very dramatic and are obviously all part of the Mafia.

Reader’s Notes

This one is fine – the concept of the mystery lodger has promise, but the unraveling of the mystery is a bit lackluster. Holmes’s presence isn’t really required to ensure that everything ends up OK, and any story where the hero doesn’t really need to be there should maybe be reexamined. The secret cipher sounds like one of the most tedious things ever, but honestly that aligns with what I think of most ciphers.

Read This Story If… You wish the Godfather movies had more Sherlock Holmes. 

Drink Pairing: A nice Italian wine, red like blood and drama. 

47. The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone

First published 1921. Collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, 1927.

Summary

Watson, currently living in his own quarters, gets the run-down from Billy the Page: Holmes is on the trail of the missing Crown diamond, “the hundred-thousand-pound burglary” which has brought the Prime Minister himself to 221B Baker Street. Holmes appears fresh from a nap to cheerfully declare that his life is in danger, but even he is surprised when the man he knows to have stolen the diamond sends in his card. Holmes sends Watson for the police and lays a trap for the evil-sounding Count Sylvius, using the magic of the modern gramophone and a dummy of himself.

Check yourself before you wreck yourself, Count Sylvius.

Of Note: One of only two stories written in third person, which makes sense both from a narrative standpoint and when you get to the next paragraph and learn that this is adapted from a stage play.

Reader’s Notes

This story appears late in the Canon and seems to pull elements from a few earlier stories (including The Empty House and The Naval Treaty). It is adapted from a stage play, The Crown Diamond, which may account for some of these references and definitely accounts for it taking place in a single room. It’s a perfectly fine little tale, though not exemplary. 

Read This Story If… You are academically interested in theatrical adaptations or you enjoy watching villains hoisted by their own petard. (I just had to look up how to spell petard.)

Drink Pairing: A French 75, a drink that is yellow like the Mazarin stone and not actually French, like the French Cardinal Mazarin.

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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!

~

Join us next week for 5 Sherlock Holmes Stories That Have a Hint of Magic, but Miss the Mark! The entire series can be found here.

Finally, the Definitive Sherlock Holmes Ranking You’ve Always Wanted, Beginning With the 5 Worst Sherlock Holmes Stories Ever

Click here to view every post in The Definitive Ranking of Every Single Sherlock Holmes Story.

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.

One of the greatest men to ever wield the pipe.

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.

Summary

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.

Reader’s Notes

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.

Summary

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.

Reader’s Notes

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.

Summary

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.

Reader’s Notes

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.

Summary

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? 

Reader’s Notes

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.

Summary

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. 

Reader’s Notes

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.

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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 5 Sherlock Holmes Stories That Aren’t Unreadable, Just Kind of Dull! The entire series can be found here.