Friday, 18 May 2012

The Structure of a Series: Conan Doyle

Of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, what is the minimum number necessary to outline Holmes' career? 

"A Scandal in Bohemia" and "His Last Bow" are the beginning and the end. The latter appropriately refers back to the former.

"The Final Problem" and "The Empty House" are the middle: the "death" and return.

"The Greek Interpreter," set before the "death," introduces Mycroft Holmes. "The Bruce-Partington Plans," set after the return, explains Mycroft's role in the Government. 

"His Last Bow" is a return from the retirement that is announced in "The Second Stain" and described in "The Lion's Mane."

Therefore, I think these eight are the minimum. "The Bruce-Partington Plans" and "The Second Stain" name certain foreign agents working in London. This links these stories directly to each other and indirectly to "His Last Bow" in which Holmes and Watson apprehend Von Bork who is as significant in international espionage as Moriarty was in national crime.

I would also include "The Red-headed League" and "The Naval Treaty." John Clay, who is behind the Red-headed League hoax, is high in London crime which means that Holmes must be well on the road to identifying Moriarty. At least two dramatizations have retroactively linked Moriarty to the Red-headed League. Holmes says that Clay is "the fourth smartest man in London." The three smartest must be Moriarty, Mycroft and Sherlock although Doyle was probably not thinking that when he wrote this story. 

"The Naval Treaty," coming between "The Greek Interpreter" and "The Final Problem," is a third story about an important stolen document and thus fits in with "The Bruce-Partington Plans" and "The Second Stain."

If we include the novels, then we must include them all. Holmes and Watson meet in A Study in Scarlet. Watson marries in The Sign of Four, thus explaining why he is not living at Baker Street in many of the stories starting with "A Scandal in Bohemia." The Valley of Fear, set before "The Final Problem," features a criminal gang who, although they are brought to justice, engage Moriarty to exact their revenge. Finally, The Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps the novel that has been most often filmed, cannot be left out of any list of Holmes stories. 


  1. The interesting thing for me regarding the Holmes stories are the near-identical beginnings of two of them: The Resident Patient and The Adventure of the Cardboard Box. A bit of a mystery in itself.

  2. It struck me as odd that this should have happened, particularly as the stories appeared together in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, but a little investigating has uncoverd this (from Wikipedia);

    'The first London edition of the Memoirs in 1894 did not include "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box", although all twelve stories had appeared in the Strand Magazine. The first U.S. edition did include the story, but it was very quickly replaced with a revised edition that omitted it.

    The reasoning behind the suppression is unclear. In Britain the story was apparently removed at Doyle's request as it included adultery and so was unsuitable for younger readers. This may have also been the cause for the rapid removal of the story from the U.S. edition, and some sources state that the publishers believed the story was too scandalous for the American public.

    As a result, this story was not republished in the U.S. until many years later, when it was added to His Last Bow. Even today, most American editions of the canon include it with His Last Bow, while most British editions keep the story in its original place in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

    Additionally, when the story was removed from the Memoirs, its opening pages, where Holmes emulates Dupin, were transferred to the beginning of "The Adventure of the Resident Patient". In some later U.S. editions of the Memoirs, which still omit "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box", this transfer still appears.'

    So there you go. An explanation, of sorts.

  3. The Cardboard Box was removed? Its beginning was transferred to The Resident Patient? Then, The Cardboard Box was readmitted? So now two stories have the same beginning? Have I followed this?

  4. Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. An odd situation that's made more peculiar by Penguin allowing both stories to appear with the same beginning in its Complete Sherlock Holmes books. One would have expected the editor(s) to put things back to how they should have been in the first place.