Would like to be introduced to Mr. Sherlock Holmes
January 29, 2012 5:45 PM   Subscribe

What Sherlock Holmes books should I read, and in what order should I read them?

We've been watching the series and I'd like to see how they compare. Thank you!
posted by A Terrible Llama to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Which series? The 80s-90s version with Jeremy Brett, or the current update, "Sherlock"? (Which is fab, by the way, and you should watch it if you haven't.)

In either case, I'd suggest starting at the beginning. The first story, "A Study in Scarlet," introduces both characters and their "meet cute." It takes a weird left turn into the history of Mormonism, but otherwise well worth reading.

I think most collections print them in the order in which they appeared in print, and that's a fine way to go through them. The stories themselves jump around in time a little bit and with a couple of exceptions they stand alone and you don't need to have read the prior stories to understand them.
posted by That's Numberwang! at 5:53 PM on January 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is how I started, but I ended reading them all:

In 1927 The Strand Magazine set a competition for its readers to decide the 12 best Sherlock Holmes stories, and the author was invited to make his own selection known.

How I Made My List by A. Conan Doyle

'The Speckled Band'.
'The Red-Headed League'
'The Dancing Men',
'The Final Problem'
'A Scandal in Bohemia'
'The Empty House'
'The Five Orange Pips'
'The Second Stain'
'The Devil's Foot'
'The Priory School'
'The Musgrave Ritual'
'The Reigate Squires'
posted by Harpocrates at 6:04 PM on January 29, 2012 [7 favorites]

Read the short stories in order as collected in the Adventures, the Memoirs, and the Return, and go on to the later ones if you want. For novels, try The Hound of the Baskervilles first.

Wonderful stuff! Enjoy them.
posted by wdenton at 6:04 PM on January 29, 2012

There's 4 novels and ~50 short stories iirc.

Read 'Study in Scarlet' first since its the first story.

The short stories (and other novels) can be read in any order generally, they don't tend to make too many references to each other. So if your attention span is low, pick up a short story; if you have more time start with a novel. Etc.
posted by the_ancient_mariner at 6:06 PM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just go through the stories in order. I never bothered to dive into the stories until after seeing the 2009 Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law film, and I was lucky to find this two-volume set at a local used-book store for $12. Excellent and easy.
posted by cardioid at 6:07 PM on January 29, 2012

Oh, and most (all?) of Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain. If you want, you can easily find the stories on-line.
posted by cardioid at 6:10 PM on January 29, 2012

Just read it all in chronological order. It won't take you long.

The only downside is that you have to start out with a couple of (short) novels, which aren't as deliciously snack-sized as the short stories. But they're good too.
posted by dfan at 6:11 PM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am actually just doing this, and I've just read Adventures and am halfway through Memoirs. It's working just fine so far - the stories are short and self-contained, and while there are often references to other stories, they're on the order of name-dropping - they're not critical to understanding the story at hand at all.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:12 PM on January 29, 2012

I'm also a fan of going in chronological order, which gives you the added bonus of watching the characters develop. It's not important for continuity, because ACD is gloriously, hilariously uninterested in continuity--most notoriously, he can't be bothered to remember where he put Watson's bullet wound.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:26 PM on January 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've done this over the last few months, mostly in published order of the books & collections. As everyone says, they're largely stand-alone, so order doesn't matter so much.

The only collection I couldn't easily as a free e-book was Case-Book (it's on Project Gutenburg, but in a crappy auto-generated form). I toyed with buying it, but eventually found an e-pub version here.

I did have some trouble with it - I can't remember the exact set of issues (I was also fiddling with Apple's new iBook authoring app at the time) - but either it wouldn't display at all in iBooks (which I fixed by running it through Calibre), or it was simply that the background <div> they used made it difficult to read (fixed by editing the CSS file in some freeware e-pub editor I found).
posted by Pinback at 6:39 PM on January 29, 2012

I am also in favor of reading them in the order they were published. Trying to read them in narrative chronological order will point out some of Conan Doyle's more glaring inconsistencies, like which part of the body Watson's wound is in and how many wives he had and so forth.

And though you didn't ask, I think the absolute best Sherlockian pastiche novel is Lyndsay Faye's Dust and Shadow, and that the best Sherlockian pastiche novella is Neil Gaiman's A Study in Emerald, and that the best Sherlockian pastiche short stories are those by Donald Thomas.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:42 PM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I read them all in order once—very enjoyable, and it really enhances the latest Sherlock series when you recognize some of the allusions they make, however briefly (i.e. "The Geek Interpreter"). Really, just grab A Study in Scarlet and go in order. I read them in a huge book that collected them all, with the illustrations from The Strand. You can often find these for pretty cheap at most bookstores, or check a used bookstore. Or, if you have an e-reader, you can get them all for free on Gutenberg.
posted by synecdoche at 7:02 PM on January 29, 2012

N'thing read in chronological / (published) order. The characters do develop, some get killed off and he does occasionally refer to previous cases.
posted by NailsTheCat at 7:24 PM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yep, read 'em in their original order. Very accessible, and you never feel like you need to be checking some Sherlock wiki in order to keep everything straight.

(And then get your hands on the Jeremy Brett series mentioned above, and marvel at how lovingly faithful to the original stories that series was. No one has ever been a better Sherlock than Jeremy Brett.)
posted by Gator at 8:16 PM on January 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just stopped by to make an out of left-field suggestion: Laurie R. King's Sherlock Holmes (and Mary Russell) series has supplanted the originals in my own mental narrative. I highly suggest giving them a try as well and seeing how you like them.
posted by vegartanipla at 9:58 PM on January 29, 2012

A point cost wise, since Conan doyle is long dead the books are out of copyright, you can pick them up on kindle for $0 to very little.
posted by biffa at 1:34 AM on January 30, 2012

If you specifically want to compare the books to the TV series - I'm guessing you mean the new Sherlock set in present day London - then why not read the original stories that match up with the ones in the TV series?

A Study in Pink ---> A Study in Scarlet
The Blind Banker --> The Sign of Four
The Great Game --> The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans (*)

A Scandal in Belgravia --> A Scandal in Bohemia (*)
The Hounds of Baskerville --> The Hound of the Baskervilles
The Reichenbach Fall --> The Final Problem (*)

(*) = A short story, found in one of the story collections. The others are novels.

All those are especially good Holmes stories btw.

The connections between the originals and the episodes are quite loose, but there's enough in common between the pairs that you can have fun seeing the in-jokes and clever things the writers did to transpose various things from the 1890s to the 2010s.

Also each TV episode can draw on bits from several different stories. For example there's a bit in the Baskerville episode where Sherlock notices someone has a Racing Post, deduces they're a betting man, and pretends to have a bet with Watson as way of drawing out some information. That's from the short story The Blue Carbuncle, and its done in a such a throwaway manner in the TV episode that if you didn't know the story you could blink and easily miss what happened there.

If you just want to get into reading Sherlock generally regardless of the TV connections, there are three options... read the story that introduced him to the world, A Study in Scarlet. Alternately find a collection of best short stories and read those. Or thirdly read the first book of short stories, called The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which also happens to contain a fair bunch of those regarded as the best. See also this.

Personally I got introduced to Sherlock at a young age via an anthology of short stories. The first one I remember reading was Silver Blaze. That's the one with "the curious incident of the dog in the night time". One of the best, and as good a way to get started as any.

Whether you want to either get or read a complete set of the stories will depend on how hooked you get. To be honest, the quality is variable and if you're not a die hard Sherlock fan they can get a bit repetitive. Remember even their author got fed up of writing them at one point and tried to stop. I'm not sure that even now I've read every single one of them.

But the best are a real treat, and there's a reason why Holmes and Watson are two of the best loved characters in all of fiction.
posted by philipy at 2:22 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another vote here for starting with A Study in Scarlet, then continuing in chronological order. And Gator is right, there's never been a better Sherlock than Jeremy Brett --- Benedict Cumberbatch is pretty good, but Brett is AMAZING.

(But I do NOT recommend any of the Sherlock books written by anyone other than Arthur Conan Doyle himself: yeah, I know some people enjoy them, but I personally have a massive dislike of authors taking someone else's characters/fictional world, and I ESPECIALLY dislike it when, like Laurie King, they make signifigant changes to that 'borrowed' character --- i.e., King's marrying off Conan Doyle's somewhat-misogynist Sherlock to her own much-younger invention. This may not bother you, and YMMV.)
posted by easily confused at 4:02 AM on January 30, 2012

nthing order of publication.

The usual alternative for long-running series like this is in-universe chronological order, but in this case it's very hard to determine what order that is, since as thomas j wise mentioned above, Conan Doyle just wasn't that into continuity. I think there have been several attempts to rationalize the chronology; the only one I've seen up close is the chronology of William S. Baring-Gould. That link just has the list of stories in order, which is not much fun. The delightful, profligate geekery that made that list possible can be found in Baring-Gould's The Annotated Sherlock Holmes (1967).
posted by stebulus at 5:04 AM on January 30, 2012

After you've run through the original canon or if you want more of specific elements of Holmes while you're working through canon, you can try dipping your toe into the published sequels. Some are really terrible, some may not be to your taste, but some are really, really good and much better than the stories at the end, where ACD was dialing it in and recycling plots and so, so, so incredibly bored of writing Holmes and Watson:

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon (Holmes in retirement)
Hound of the D'Urbervilles by Kim Newman (Moriarty and Moran)
A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman. (Everything is beautiful and Cthulu and tentacled, available in PDF form from Gaiman at that link)
Arthur and George by Julian Barnes (technically not Sherlock, but a novel based on a real story about Arthur Conan Doyle trying to prove the innocence of a half-Indian living in England in Victorian times; it's really about race, class, and Victorian mores, sexual and otherwise, and it's by a Serious Author who can Seriously Write.)
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:42 AM on January 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, because stebulus reminded me of it, the Annotated Holmes volumes released in 2004 and 2005 are a delightful way to work through the canon, whatever order you choose to read 'em in.
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:45 AM on January 30, 2012

The Strand Magazine: Stanford put out some facsimiles of them a few years ago; I was lucky enough to get them for free mailed to me.

Today, looks like it's $10 if you want 'em mailed to your USA address, or perhaps you want them as (free) PDFs
posted by Seboshin at 9:33 AM on January 30, 2012

Although the Study In Scarlet is the first, it's actually quite dull, as 50% of it is about early Mormonism. Personally, I'd start with "The Hound of the Baskervilles" which is a cracking read.
posted by nicktf at 3:41 PM on January 30, 2012

While we're mentioning pastiches, Mitch Cullen's A Slight Trick of the Mind is one of the best I've ever read (although it's also a bit of a deconstruction of the Holmes legend, similar to the Chabon mentioned above).

Stephen King, of all people, produced a remarkably charming Holmes pastiche, "The Doctor's Case" (well, charming if you don't count the actual motives for the murder), which has been anthologized several times.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:28 PM on January 30, 2012

Thank you everyone and for all of your suggestions. I think I'm going to go in chronological order and hit the library.

For those who asked, we're watching Sherlock, the current version with the fabulous, awesome Martin Freeman. We're now done with the six or so episodes that were produced. I can't remember who said this about whom, but "I could watch him read a phone book."*

I feel bereft.

*when phone books were a thing
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:42 AM on February 3, 2012

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