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.

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!

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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.