By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 60 Sherlock Holmes cases in all: 56 short stories and four full-length novels. But where is the best place for the reader who is new to Sherlock Holmes to begin exploring these classic works of detective fiction? We offer our selection of the ten best Sherlock Holmes cases below.
Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!
Of the four novel-length adventures Conan Doyle penned about Sherlock Holmes, this is the most satisfying (and the best-known), and the one novel that we’ve included on this list of Sherlock Holmes’s best cases.
Inspired by a story Doyle heard from his friend, the sportsman and journalist Bertram Fletcher Robinson, about the legends surrounding a seventeenth-century squire, The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the best-known Sherlock Holmes cases, featuring supposedly demonic hounds on atmospheric Dartmoor.
In 2012, a portion of Doyle’s original manuscript sold at auction for $158,500.
2. ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’.
To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind …
This is the short story that launched Sherlock Holmes’s successful ‘career’ in the pages of The Strand in 1891. Until this story, he was the star of two short novels, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of the Four (1890), and known to a small group of readers. After the short stories began to appear in The Strand, he became one of the most famous fictional characters in the history of literature.
This debut short-story outing for the sleuth sees him trying to recover an incriminating photograph owed by one Irene Adler, who once had a ‘friendship’ (of sorts … if you catch our drift) with the King of Bohemia. The story owes an obvious debt to Poe’s ‘The Purloined Letter’, but Holmes transforms the raw ingredients that he borrows from Poe into something magical.
3. ‘The Red-Headed League’.
Sherlock Holmes’s quick eye took in my occupation, and he shook his head with a smile as he noticed my questioning glances. “Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labor, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.”
A red-headed man, Jabez Wilson, lands an unusual job: he has been hired to copy out the Encyclopedia Britannica in a room for a number of hours a day, but one of the oddest things about the job is that it had to be done by someone with red hair.
Sherlock Holmes has his interest piqued by this unusual early case, and agrees to investigate …
4. ‘The Speckled Band’.
“He seems a very amiable person,” said Holmes, laughing. “I am not quite so bulky, but if he had remained I might have shown him that my grip was not much more feeble than his own.” As he spoke he picked up the steel poker and, with a sudden effort, straightened it out again.
Conan Doyle included this classic tale among his list of his favourite Sherlock Holmes stories, and observed that it would probably make it only most diehard Holmes fans’ lists of the best Sherlock Holmes adventures.
The story is a classic ‘locked room’ mystery in which a woman fears for her life. The case will require Holmes not only to save his client’s life but to solve the mystery of how her sister died two years ago.
Like many of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the British empire lurks in the background (Dr Roylott had met the girls’ mother out in India, and has a menagerie of exotic animals from that country), and in this connection, the story also reveals a debt to one of the first detective novels, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone.
5. ‘Silver Blaze’.
“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
Perhaps best-known for Holmes’s famous line about ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night-time’ (used by Mark Haddon as the title for his bestselling novel), ‘Silver Blaze’ is the first story in the second collection of classic Sherlock Holmes stories, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893). The story concerns a missing racehorse and sees Holmes donning his famous deerstalker to investigate.
6. ‘The Greek Interpreter’.
This was news to me indeed. If there were another man with such singular powers in England, how was it that neither police nor public had heard of him? I put the question, with a hint that it was my companion’s modesty which made him acknowledge his brother as his superior. Holmes laughed at my suggestion.
It’s in this story that we meet Sherlock Holmes’s brother Mycroft, so that’s partly why we’ve included it here – Doyle himself placed it number 17th on his list of the greatest Sherlock Holmes cases.
The mystery itself revolves around a Greek interpreter named Mr Melas, who is engaged in a rather cloak-and-dagger way to translate for someone who is being held captive by some sinister criminals.
Its code-themed story probably inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Gold-Bug’, ‘The Dancing Men’ is one of Holmes’s greatest code-breaking triumphs. Doyle himself considered it the third best Sherlock Holmes story of the lot.
Mr. Hilton Cubitt of Ridling Thorpe Manor in Norfolk, and husband to a nervous wife, tells Holmes a series of stick figures have started to appear chalked up on the window-sill of the house. What do they mean, and who is responsible for them?
8. ‘The Gloria Scott’.
This story makes it into this list of the best Sherlock Holmes stories partly because it sees the great sleuth recounting his very first case, while still a student at university.
Holmes goes to stay with a university friend during the holidays, and becomes involved in a mystery surrounding the murky past of his friend’s father. Rather pleasingly, the story also appears to be the origin of the term ‘smoking gun’ to refer to an incontrovertibly incriminating piece of evidence.
9. ‘The Reigate Squires’.
This story made it into Conan Doyle’s own list of his favourite Sherlock Holmes stories because he thought it was the story in which, ‘on the whole, Holmes himself shows perhaps the most ingenuity’.
While recovering from a taxing case in France, Holmes travels to Surrey where he ends up investigating a series of mysterious burglaries involving a note written by two different people…
10. ‘The Final Problem’.
He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.
This is one of the best-known Sherlock Holmes cases, because it’s the one when the great sleuth was killed off – only to return a decade later. It’s also noteworthy for being the one Sherlock Holmes story penned by Doyle to feature the evil criminal mastermind, Dr James Moriarty, ‘the Napoleon of crime’.
Doyle was not actually the first writer to kill off Sherlock Holmes – his friend J. M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, had pre-empted him when he wrote a Holmes parody – and owing to popular demand, Holmes’s ‘final problem’ would not, in fact, prove to be so final after all.
Want the whole collection? We recommend the Penguin Classics Sherlock Holmes Boxset (containing 10 Titles), which contains all of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and novels – the definitive collection.
Continue to explore classic fiction with our pick of the best detective novels, these classic ghost stories, this selection of the best Poe stories, and our review of Max Carrados, the blind detective.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.