In Search of Sherlock

by John J. Miller on December 21, 2009 · 74 comments

in Blog Posts

  • Sumo

What’s your favorite Sherlock Holmes story?

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels about the character who has become literature’s most famous detective. The latest movie to feature Holmes arrives in theaters on Friday.

My favorite Holmes story is “The Speckled Band.” Runner-up is “The Blue Carbuncle,” which is a Sherlockian Christmas tale.

Sherlock Holmes in snow

  • Dave

    John, both great stories. I like, The Speckled Band.” First Holmes story I ever read. Read it when I was 13 by kerosene lamp during a power failure (perfect setting for it). My personal favorite, “The Musgrave Ritual.” Runner-up, “The Final Problem.”

    Greenbelt, MD

  • Jessica O’Connor

    My favorite Sherlock Holmes Story? All of them!

  • “The return of Sherlock Holmes” is one of my favorites, especially the part where he bumps into Watson carrying his books. I always enjoy reading (in the Hound of the Baskervilles) when Holmes tells Watson that if he sees the sky, that is a proof that someone stole their tent.

  • Nachum

    Aneinu, I’m afraid that last bit is a recent joke and doesn’t appear in any story.

    I’ve always liked “Silver Blaze,” especially the most famous line Holmes ever uttered. “Six Napoleons” is also rather perfect…oh, too many good ones to choose.

  • Scott Baker

    The Musgrave Ritual is my favorite. I’ve often wished my family had a secret ritual whose origin was lost to the mists of time.

  • Agree with “Silver Blaze” and “Speckled Band.” Let’s not slight “A Study in Scarlet,” for the introduction of Holmes and Watson.

  • Good choices! I’m rather fond of “The Speckled Band,” but my runner-up short story is “The Second Stain.” If I may include the novels, it’s “Hound of the Baskervilles,” hands down and across the board!

  • thanks Nachum,

    I say it so often, I actually thought it was there.

    Time to read it again.

  • Mike Pence

    Four years ago National Review Online led me to a newly published collection of the Sherlock Holmes’ novels and
    short stories. An annotated and illustrated collection that’s
    just wonderful.

    Over the winter of 2005/2006 I read all four novels (even during a bout of the flu). My favorite novel, as a Pennsylvanian is “The Valley of Fear.” I was just so amazed by Doyle’s knowledge of the northeastern Pennsylvania coal region, the Molly McGuires, etc. What a great story. But, truth to tell, all of the novels are great.

  • Ellen

    The Mugrave Ritual, Silver Blaze and The Speckled Band. Another one I like is The Man With the Twisted Lip. I’m looking forward to the movie, although I still say that no one can replace Basil Rathbone as Holmes.

  • Joshua

    I assume novels are fair game, not just the 56 short stories. . .so The Hound of the Baskervilles is the greatest, with the Sign of the Four close behind. As for the short stories, the Speckled Band, Blue Carbuncle, and Man with the Twisted Lip are all superb. I’d like to through a vote in for the Mazarin Stone, too–less well-known but a classic.

  • Doug F

    “Study in Scarlet” is mine, although it’ll never be made into a movie.

  • Dave

    For me it is The Red-Headed League, a clever, twisty tale that has been “borrowed” by writers and film makers ever since. The Sign of Four is also a favorite.

  • Mr.Grizzly

    Of the novels: ‘Sign of four’.

    Short stories are not so easy: probably ‘Silver Blaze’, but there’s strong competition from ‘Scandal in Bohemia’. I also very much like ‘Charles Augustus Milverton’, which doesn’t seem to be popular on lists like this. And ‘Blue carbuncle’ for Christmas, of course.

  • Mark

    Reigate Squire and Silver Blaze.

  • J

    Speckled Band….I’m 60 years old and, to this day, I WILL not have a bell pull to summon the maid!

  • Nancy W

    John – Since we’re beyond one, I agree with your two (Speckled Band, Blue Carbuncle) & add Silver Blaze for respectively: deduction, fun, “curious incident of the dog in the night time.”

  • Stephanie

    A Scandal in Bohemia. I read it when I was 13 and thought how cool is it that Holmes got outwitted by a woman!

  • Mr. Miller, it was the story of a gigantic hound!

  • Jim

    I love them all, but “The Red Headed League” has always been tops. It has the outrageous diversion of the league, a banker almost giving away the trap, and the same banker lamenting missing his rubber of whist.

  • Charles Purvis

    I honestly believe “Hound of the Baskervilles” is one of the most perfectly paced novels ever written, so it’s my favorite, followed very closely by “Valley of Fear.”

    Of the short stories, “The Speckled Band” is pretty much my favorite, though I do relish re-reading “The Final Problem,” and “The Empty House,” back to back . . . just for the emotional beats.

  • Michael Finley

    My favorite is “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.”

  • Novel: The Hound of the Baskervilles. Short Story: Silver Blaze (the dog that didn”t bark). Honerable Mention: The Adventure of the Empy House (Holmes “returns from the dead”).
    My favorite line from a Holmes story is the first line he ever utters (upon meeting Watson in the first novel, A Study in Scarlett): “How are you? You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

  • Paul Spudis

    This is a tough one. For the novels, “Hound of the Baskervilles” is probably the best tale, but “The Valley of Fear” has the best opening chapter or any story or novel. For the short stories, I’ve always been partial to “The Resident Patient” (yes, I know — go figure), although “Silver Blaze” and “The Dancing Men” come in a close second.

  • Doug Rivers

    Like what you’re doing here.

    I second the Musgrave Ritual

    ‘Whose was it?’
    ‘He who is gone.’
    ‘Who shall have it?’
    ‘He who will come.’
    (‘What was the month?’
    ‘The sixth from the first.’)[1]
    ‘Where was the sun?’
    ‘Over the oak.’
    ‘Where was the shadow?’
    ‘Under the elm.’
    ‘How was it stepped?’
    ‘North by ten and by ten, east by five and by five, south by two and by two, west by one and by one, and so under.’
    ‘What shall we give for it?’
    ‘All that is ours.’
    ‘Why should we give it?’
    ‘For the sake of the trust.’

  • Stuart Koehl

    The two greatest Holmes stories are “The Two Coptic Patriarchs” and “The Giant Rat of Sumatra”. Unfortunately, the former has been lost, and the world is not yet prepared for the latter.

  • James Curry

    A Study in Scarlet

  • Dan

    Not an A.C. Doyle story, but Neil Gaiman’s short story “A study in Emerald” is absolutely brilliant–mixing Lovecraft and Holmes? Perfect for any NRO reader, and with a great twist at the end. Even better, you can find it for free online here:

  • “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” and the Jeremy Brett version of it was the best of that series.

  • I have long been a Holmes fan, and am a member of the Norwegian Explorers, A Minnesota scion society of Holmesians. Let me put in a good word for Mycroft, who for my money is an even more interesting character than Sherlock. As Sherlock said of his brother, “some people say he is the British government.” That quote is from an often-overlooked but superb story, “The Bruce Partington Plans,” involving Mycroft, Sherlock and even the PM and cabinet in a complex tale of espionage. It is in that story that we learn more about Mycroft than in any other. That alone makes it uniquely outstanding. Go see the new Sherlock movie on Xmas day!

  • Alexander

    “The Speckled Band,” “The Musgrave Ritual,” and _The Valley of Fear_ are my favorites. But as many have said, all of them – or at least all of them up until those last few – are great.

  • Alexander

    Oh yes, and “The Dancing Men” was great.

  • John Cunningham

    Curious coincidence. the girlfriend and I are visiting family in northern Michigan, who have the Baring-Gould annoted edition. Last night I read A Study in Scarlet, it was outstanding. I plan on reading more before the movie this weekend.

  • /bill bond

    Hound of the Baskervilles. I recently re-read it. And I own 3 different movie versions.

  • Stephen Harvey

    Tie between Musgrave Ritual and Blue Carbuncle.

  • Ed Hamlin

    My favorite has always been “The Valley of Fear.” I like the combination of mystery with a little-known piece of American history. It’s actually a fairly decent account of the Molly McGuires, told with sympathy to both sides. Second choice is “The Dancing Men” for many reasons, but the foremost is the postcard my best friend Jack sent me many years ago, when we were both in the Army (he’s since passed on, much too soon). The card was written in the dancing men code, and it took me an hour to find the story and translate it. I still have that card, lovingly preserved.

  • Ben

    Red-Headed League, for sure. And I everything I ever learned about Mormons I learned from A Study in Scarlet.

  • Deborah

    I have a 1936 copy of “The Complete Sherlock Holmes” (published by The Literary Guild with a Preface by [writer] Christopher Morley—I share this info so you will be impressed). I read it cover to cover in the early 70s—an overdose of Sherlock Holmes to say the least—and have used the book for reference only since then. Now I don’t remember enough to call out a favorite. I guess it’s time to start over. Thank you, John.

  • Chuck Conti

    The Final Problem- I loved that Holmes had a nemesis that could potentially appear in other stories. Unfortunately, the copy I read had a painting on the cover that gave away the surprise ending, where it didn’t appear to end well for Holmes.

  • Glad to see so many votes for “The Blue Carbuncle,” also my favorite. Jeremy Brett did one of the great adaptations of this on the series where he played Holmes.

  • Stephen J.

    I actually will cite one not noted yet, “The Dying Detective”.

    Why? Because it’s one of the few stories where Holmes gives Watson an out-and-out *compliment*. In explaining why he couldn’t let Watson in on a vital deception, he says (roughly paraphrasing), “My dear Watson, whatever aspersions I may have cast on your deductive abilities, do you imagine for a second that I hold your medical skill in anything but the highest respect? I knew that were you to examine me closely your keen eye would detect the imposture in an instant.”

    It’s the nicest thing I ever recall Holmes saying to Watson, and it’s something that brings their friendship into sharp relief.

  • Sheri

    One of the lovely things about the Christmas-time Blue Carbuncle is the deductions all begin with a beaten up old hat. Hard to think anyone could get so much from a hat these days, but there it is.

  • Mike Ross

    Like many other commenters, “The Speckled Band” is my favorite short story. It contains the neatest encapsulation of Sherlock’s sense of justice (from my faluty memory): “Violence in turn recoils upon the violent, and the evil-doer falls into the trap he laid for another.”

    “The Dancing Men” is a very close second.

  • John A. Barnes

    The first one I ever read: “The Red-Headed League.” Still enjoy reading.

    What about LEAST favorites? “The Lion’s Mane,” one of the few stories narrated by Holmes without Watson, seemed rather obvious to me even as I was reading it. Among the novels, I found “The Valley of Fear” to be such heavy going I couldn’t get past the first few dozen pages.

  • Tired Turtle

    At Christmas time one must go with the Blue Carbuncle. Jeremy Brett’s performance was perfect in the film version. I particularly enjoy The Red Headed League and the Sign of Four. Fun reads with great twists. The Speckled Band gets high marks and like J above, I refuse to have a bell pull for the maid! (It hasn’t been a real problem however, as maid’s are in short supply in the manse now days!)

  • astorian

    “The Speckled band” would be a great story if every bit of it weren’t contrary to known facts. Snakes can’t hear, so they can’t respond to a whistle. They don’t like milk, and can’t be trained to do anything, let alone commit murder.

    I’d vote for “The Musgrave Ritual.”

  • Thomas H

    It’s just so nice to hear the story names, it brings back fond memories. The Devil’s Foot, The Crooked Man, Abbey Grange and Baskerville( I have a very large hound native to the British Isles.) are all great. The Sign of the Four is wonderful, too.

    I enjoyed the Jeremy Brett series greatly. PBS occasionaly repeats them. Wish they would do the same with Jeeves and Wooster.

  • The worst stories? “The Yellow Face” and “A Case of Identity” surely rank down there. The latter rests on the unbelievable stupidity of a woman not recognizing a close relative disguised in a beard.

  • Patrick

    The early ones are the best of course. My favorite is the Red-Headed League. The Man with the Twisted Lip, The Blue Carbuncle, A Study in Scarlet, The Abbey Grange, and A Case of Identity are all also very good (I see Steve Schier #48’s objection to that last, but there’s a lot of unrealism in most of the stories).

    I’ve actually always liked the American disgressions in Scarlet and the Valley of Fear, but I know a lot of people don’t like anything outside the Holmesian setting (and lacking Holmes). OTOH I have always found the Moonstone rip-off aspects of the Sign of Four very heavy going – and of course marrying off Watson was a bad move (which didn’t exactly take).

  • I love them all, and have read them all many times, but “A Study in Scarlet” remains my favorite, because it was my first.

    In college, I took part in a Holmes group at the University of Minnesota (home of one of the world’s largest collections of Sherlock memorabilia) called the “Norwegian Explorers.” In 1987 I went to work in D.C. for Senator Rudy Boschwitz and was pleased to find that he was also a Holmes fan, and frequented the D.C. Holmes study group, which I believe was called the Red Circle Society.

    At one dinner I was introduced to a friend of the Senator’s, and when I asked what he did, he said, “Oh, I work for the government and do some negotiating.” Turned out to be Kenneth Adelman, who was then involved in negotiating the INF treaty.
    Great group of people who love their Holmes.

  • Arthur

    Fine choices. I too have always been drawn to The Dancing Men and The Abbey Grange; and I remain partial to The Five Orange Pips as well, as it involves the Klan, and there is no real ending or solution, as such.

  • “Silver Blaze” is flawlessly constructed: at no time does Holmes know more than the reader. Occasionally, I have read the story to one of my classes, with the promise of a prize for anyone who can solve the mystery at the same time as Holmes. I have had to award the prize only once. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is the best long story.

  • Matthew

    I hate to sound repetitive, but “A Study in Scarlet” for the best novel, since it was the first I read. I also enjoy Watson’s not very respectful list of Holmes’s knowledge (and lack thereof) concerning various subjects. The short story is a tough call, but I think “A Scandal in Bohemia,” even though I always wondered why Holmes didn’t just go ahead and grab the picture when he could (my apologies if I just spoiled it).

    For portrayal, I’ve always preferred the Jeremy Brett films. I know the Basil Rathbone movies are classics, but I just can’t forgive Nigel Bruce for what he did to Watson’s image.

  • Terry Fitz

    The Blue Carbuncle and the Hound. I’m nothing if not conventional. If you like Conan Doyle you may also like the Raffles stories by E.W. Hornung, friend, brother-in-law of ACD, and, like ACD, a member of the Allahakbarries Cricket Club. Other members included J.M.Barrie, Jerome K. Jerome (Three Men in a Boat), P.G. Wodehouse, G.K. Chesterton, H.G. Wells, A.A. Milne, A.E.W. Mason, who trumped them all with an extra initial, and others, including the son of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Can you imagine the after-practice festivities?

  • Gary in Kansas

    A Scandal in Bohemia. She will forever be known as ” that woman”. But I can sit down anytime and just start reading them all. I wish Hollywood would just leave it alone.

  • Lawrence

    My favorite Holmes stories are two of the novels, The Sign of Four and A Study in Scarlet. I can still recall the first time I read A Study in Scarlet, and how jarring it was to go from the first half to the second half, from England to the US.

  • The Dancing Men and the Red-Headed League.

  • Roger Donway

    The Valley of Fear: Watson makes a joke at Holmes’s expense. Holmes cracks a code and solves a splendid puzzle (the apparent murder victim is alive). The back story is a brilliantly evocative tale unto itself. Moriarty hovers over all, and actually beats Holmes in the end, thus foreshadowing the Final Problem. And Doyle crafts his single most powerful sentence from four bland words: I am Birdy Edwards.

  • Wiley Christopher

    Though not exactly a Sherlock Holmes book, I enjoyed Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong by Pierre Bayard. He contends, and may well convince you, that in The Hound of the Baskervilles Holmes got the wrong murderer, the wrong murder, and even the wrong hound. He adds nothing to the text of the book but merely re-assembles the clues in a manner leading to a more logical solution. It was originally written in French (and is accordingly is rather haughty and pretentious (but that fits right in)) and some of the translation into French and then back into English weakens some of his arguments. Nevertheless, I was very intrigued by this book. One might say it makes Holmes come alive.

  • Keith Korman

    Very glad the Dancing Men got a mention. “Elsie Prepare to Meet Thy God!”

  • P Christofferson

    It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I must put in a vote for The Second Stain. Some of the best moments in the entire Canon, including this one:

    “You think, sir, that unless this document is recovered there will be war?”
    “I think it is very probable.”
    “Then, sir, prepare for war.”

    The moment when Holmes politely declines to help the Premier unless he provides ALL the facts is another nice touch, as is his chivalrous refusal to reveal the identity of the real “criminal”. The Jeremy Brett adaption of this particular story may be the best in the entire series. (Though I agree with those above that Brett’s Blue Carbuncle is very, very good.)

  • Benjamin Skeen

    “The Sign of the Four” was my first introduction to British India, and started a lifelong obsession with that part of history. My parents were in India last month, and went to Agra. I asked if they saw the fort, which they didn’t, and I said it was a shame, because that was where the conspiracy started. My father knew exactly what I was talking about. The effect it had on my life makes it my favorite Holmes novel. I probably prefer it to all of the short stories as well.

    “A Scandal in Bohemia” has to be my favorite of the short stories, because it depends on Holmes’ ability to examine the psychology of another, and not just his super-human observational skills. I think that makes it a far more interesting story.

  • CJW

    I like The Yellow Face (in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes). It’s one of the few stories in which Holmes actually gets it wrong.

  • MattC

    I had just started an anthology of S.H. short stories right before my wedding, and now its 7 yrs later & my wife still ribs me about packing that huge book in my luggage on our honeymoon cruise.

    The mysteries were great, but I liked the character of Holmes more than anything… his dialogue was genius, and his eccentricities (eg shooting holes in his bedroom wall) never failed to make me laugh.

  • Chris Weiss

    Most annoying thing about modern Holmes interpretations in movies and TV: the way they take a minor character device from the stories (opium use) and turn it into the sine qua non of Holmes. Doyle used it as the seasoning of the steak of Holmes’ prodigious character. Modern film throws out the steak and says “Look at how important this seasoning is”… here’s to hoping it isn’t the main focus of the new movie, although I wouldn’t bet on it.

  • Nick Stuart

    For any Holmes fan who didn’t know, Conan Doyle was a prolific short story writer, and you’ll enjoy his other stories like The Croxley Master and The Blighting of Sharkey.

  • Gary in Kansas

    Just happened to think of another scene. I think it’s in A Study in Scarlet, but may be later. Holmes is explaining to Watson the ineptitude of the official police force, and Watson gets offended that he is insulting Scotland Yard. He was a good London citizen. Watson did reprimand his friend occasionally for his some of his quirks.
    Also, how many times did Watson have to have his “revolver” ready to go. Sometimes “clasped to the head” of the perp!!
    I love this stuff.

  • Snorri Godhi

    At the risk of hurting the feelings of some of the commenters: I do not count some of the stories mentioned here as “real” detective stories. They can still be great fun to read, but they don’t follow the standard pattern of Holmes revealing it all to us dimwits at the very end. But I won’t say which stories I refer to.

    A random selection of short stories that impressed me:

    The Noble Bachelor (also Doyle’s favorite, I believe):
    “By the same brilliant reasoning, every man’s body is to be found in the neighborhood of his wardrobe.”

    The Red-Headed League:
    “The Red-Headed League is dissolved. Oct. 9, 1890.”

    The Priory School.

  • Larry Gates

    Favorite novel: Hound of the Baskervilles. Favorite short story: A Scandal in Bohemia (I’m a bit of a romantic). And Jeremy Brett was by far the most authentic Holmes. Physicians tend to be drawn to Holmes. When I was elected to Alpha Omega Alpha, the medical honor society, our chapter advisor gave each of us a copy of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories. Differential diagnosis is an exercise in Holmsian deductive reasoning. “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

  • Ray

    In the spirit of the season, I would vote for “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.”

    I notice the WSJ article states that after killing off Holmes, Conan Doyle’s “subsequent writings failed to recapture the magic.” This may be true if one is considering popularity, but not if one considers quality. The Brigadier Gerard stories that Conan Doyle started writing after killing off Holmes are at least as good as many of the Holmes stories and often very funny. I highly recommend them to anyone who has read the Holmes stories and is looking for something else to read.

  • Robert

    For the short stories I would place “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” and “A Scandal in Bohemia” near the top of the list (it’s hard to pick out just one or two as “the” favorite”)

    For the novels I would go with “The Sign of the Four”.

    In addition for any Sherlock Holmes fan I would recommend reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost Special” and “The Man with the Watches” available at Project Gutenberg in the collection titled “Tales of Terror and Mystery”. Both stories include a short bit with theories from a “well-known criminal investigator” who sure sounds like Holmes but who gets everything wrong. It’s fun to see Doyle poke a little fun at himself.

  • A Study in Scarlet introduces the characters so must be the first of the novels although Hound is the best plot. When I was in 7th grade (60 years ago) I had the stories all memorized. A couple of years ago, I came across my copy of the complete stories and found a folded sheet in the book that I had used to work out all the code of The Dancing Men. I have a daughter who is now a fan and I gave her my copy of the two volume annotated Complete Sherlock Holmes. I have had it 30 years or more.

  • Dear John:

    I very much liked seeing the Sherlock Holmes statue at Baker Street and Marylebone in the snow. I see it every spring, occasionally in the rain and the wind, but never this way. Very familiar with the Canon also. Will skip Downey as Holmes but have a fond remembrance of Robert Stephens, although the pursuits took umbrage. Thank you for the photo.


  • Postscript: Please excuse the pursuits / purists typo.

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