Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outre results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.
The quote, from “A Case of Identity,” is a good summation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories–indeed even of his work in general.
Re-reading all 60 stories was enough of a treat on its own (and I’m doing a writeup of both volumes because it’s rather silly to just review one) that I shifted it above Dostoevsky, who is really supposed to be next in line in my bookshelf re-reading projects. This is not just because of the awesomely timeless characters of Holmes and Watson, but because of Doyle’s zippy, tightly plotted mysteries, full of dialogue, with the genius detective always several steps ahead of everyone in the novel and the reader.
I don’t really need to write anything about the plot or the characters. Everyone knows Sherlock Holmes, the sarcastic, egomaniacal genius consulting detective, the only one of his kind, and his great friend Dr Watson, steady, reliable, honorable, and quick with a revolver. They have taken on a life of their own outside of the 60 stories and Doyle’s writing itself (see recently, the AWFUL Ritchie movie adaptation). The police come to Holmes when they are stumped (which is often) and the public comes to him when they have some kind of case they can’t bring to the police. Holmes solves crimes (or doesn’t–but that’s much rarer).
Doyle’s fascination with scientific details and logic, his genuine appreciation for all of the latest developments in criminology, is appreciable, especially considering the time period he wrote in. And his language conjures up even now such an evocative picture of gaslamp-lit Victorian London that years later, people reading the books seem to love the setting almost as much as the characters.
The first couple of books of mysteries are the best; something goes out of them after The Hound of the Baskervilles (rightfully considered one of the better things Doyle ever wrote) and Holmes returning from the dead. Still enjoyable but a little without the same energy. Still, it’s entirely possible to dip in and out of the stories, to return to them again and again, year after year. Some things are timeless. Holmes is one of them.