Analysis of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

These 12 detective stories were first published as a series in the Strand Magazine, 1891–92, and then as a collection by George Newnes in 1892. After the novellas A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle employed the shorter form for subsequent stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, not returning to the novel until The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes comprised the first 12 stories to be included in the Strand Magazine: “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “A Case of Identity,” “The Red-Headed League,” “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” “The Five Orange Pips,” “The Man With the Twisted Lip,” “The Blue Carbuncle,” “The Speckled Band,” “The Engineer’s Thumb,” “The Noble Bachelor,” “The Beryl Coronet,” and “The Copper Beeches.” The stories mark a departure from the embedded narration form of the longer stories and show modifications in the character of Holmes, from the decadent figure of the novellas to a more ascetic character (for example, as Ian Ousby points out, Holmes’s use of cocaine is greatly reduced). The short stories are, perhaps deliberately considering the intended family readership of the Strand Magazine, less sensational than the first novellas, which featured corpses in bloodied rooms and macabre deaths by exotic poisons. By contrast, the Adventures are mostly based in romantic and political intrigues, financial conspiracies, and ingeniously planned robberies; only three of the stories (“The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” “The Five Orange Pips,” and “The Speckled Band”) involve a murder investigation.

The stories make use of tropes used extensively in late Victorian detective fiction and developed in the 20th century, most significantly the threat of the criminal foreigner and the return of a colonial past with criminal consequences (“The Engineer’s Thumb,” “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” “The Five Orange Pips”) and the instability of identity (“A Case of Identity,” “The Man with the Twisted Lip”). In other stories, the mystery lies in explaining an unusual set of circumstances, usually connected to a criminal plot; for instance, in “The Red-Headed League,” Holmes must find out why only a red-headed man should be employed by a mysterious organization to copy out pages from an encyclopedia. The short story form allowed Doyle to establish a structural technique that would become familiar to readers: Many of the stories open with Watson’s musings in Baker Street, followed by a display of Holmes’s powers of detection, then the entrance of a client who relays a mysterious narrative leading to the central investigation, before Holmes solves the mystery and explains his reasoning at the conclusion. The repetition of this form may have contributed to Holmes’s popularity with readers of the Strand; it also allowed formalist critics to propose a structural “grammar” for the 56 Holmes short stories written by Doyle.

Each story was accompanied in the Strand by as many as 10 illustrations by Sidney Paget, and the tendency of later editions to omit these presents certain methodological difficulties for those studying the stories, not only because it provides a different textual experience from that of the Strand, but also because of the close relationship between Doyle’s text and Paget’s visual representations. The images were largely responsible for the establishing the visual iconography associated with Holmes (the other major influence was the American actor William Gillette’s stage portrayal in the early 20th century), to such an extent that Doyle’s later descriptions of Holmes were consciously altered to better fit Paget’s depiction, which was itself modeled on Paget’s brother William.

Analysis of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Stories

Analysis of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Novels

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. London: Newnes, 1892.
Ousby, Ian. Bloodhounds of Heaven: The Detective in English Fiction from Godwin to Day 6. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.
Stashower, Daniel. Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle. London: Allen Lane, 2000.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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