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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.