The Top Ten Sherlock Holmes short stories
When I first sat down to make this list, I thought I’d be deliberating for weeks; sifting through Conan Doyle classics, weighing up excitement, humour, thrills and the exquisite pleasures of deduction. But then I realised I’d already done a lot of this work, for in my two novels – using Doyle’s character of Wiggins as the hero – I had already referred to more than half my favourites, referencing either locations, or lines or plot points.
The Final Problem
Let’s start at the end; or the end of the beginning. This is a majestic story, full of drama, pathos and menace. It’s soaked with Watson’s sorrow about his dead friend, yet it also contains a gripping account of Holmes and Watson’s flight from London and the eventual ‘demise’ of the great detective. Perhaps best of all, it introduces Professor Moriarty in all his glory, the world’s first true super-villain, ‘The Napoleon of Crime’. As with most of the best Holmes story, it also contains a valuable piece of advice for everyday life: never take the first taxi that presents itself, nor the second but the third.
The Blue Carbuncle
Sherlock Holmes is above all else a Londoner, and I love this story for its quintessential Londonness. It starts in classical fashion, with a stray object (a hat) in need of Holmes’ deductive powers, and ends up romping through Covent Garden and all the way to Brixton, in order to solve the case of a missing jewel. Our heroes even visit a pub, The Alpha Inn, that still exists to this day (known now as The Museum Tavern) and it contains a superb example of Holmes’ easy cunning with members of the public, as well as his natural sense of justice and clemency. Oh, and it’s a Christmas story too.
Conan Doyle cited this as one of his favourite stories, let down only by a slight mistake in the rendering of rules for entering horses into races. But I don’t care about such small factual lapses, for this contains one of the greatest pieces of dialogue in the stories, if not in English literature itself. I draw your attention to ‘The curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’ ‘But the dog did nothing in the night-time?’ ‘That was the curious incident.’ The murder of race horse trainer John Straker has a stunning solution, too, and the story contains one of my favourite character names – Fitzroy Simpson.
The Red-Headed League
The original three pipe problem. This is a delightful story, laced with humour and mystery and culminating in a suspenseful set-piece. What starts off as a bizarre curio – hapless pawnbroker Jabez Wilson has recently been enjoying a very high-paid but mindless job, secured on the back of his red hair, and is upset when the job abruptly ends – closes with Holmes vanquishing ‘one of the coolest and most daring criminals in London’ and includes a tour de force of deduction, confirmed by the examination of a man’s knees.
The Bruce Partington Plans
A government clerk, Cadogan West, is found dead beside an underground railway track. Only Holmes notices the most important detail: West did not have a ticket on him. What follows is a beautiful series of deductions and the uncovering of treason, plot and the theft of submarine plans. This story helped me write more than one element of my first novel, The Irregular. Not only did I steal a plot point – the possible theft of sensitive material from Woolwich Arsenal – but also a London location dreamt up by Conan Doyle.
The Naval Treaty
Sherlock Holmes rarely shows much interest in, or even regard for, women other than Irene Adler. Unlike Watson, who doffs his cap at many a fine lady. But when a valuable treaty is stolen from the foreign office, and the clerk who was in charge of it is laid low by a nervous breakdown, it is the clerk’s fiancé – Annie Harrison – who Holmes relies on to help resolve the issue. The pleasure in this story is derived as much by how Holmes retrieves the stolen treaty, as by how he deduces who did it.
Man with the twisted Lip
This is in here primarily for its terrific opening. Watson goes searching for a friend in the opium dens of east London and finds more than he bargained for. What follows is almost a locked room puzzle. When Mrs St. Clair finds herself lost down a grubby and dangerous street in the East End, she suddenly sees her respectable businessman husband at a high window. But there’s only an old beggar in the room while Neville St Clair’s clothes (including his coat full of coins) are found. Holmes is called in to solve the case in an atmospheric tale of London, the rich and poor, high finance and low cunning. There’s no real crime, as such, which makes it all the more satisfying.
The Speckled Band
This is up there with the very finest of short stories in the Holmes canon, or any other. When a young Helen Stoner comes to Baker Street, full of unformed fears for her life and in the shadow of a powerful stepfather, Holmes has to exercise all of his deductive powers – and Watson and he all of their pluck – to overcome the threat. It also has possibly the best third party description of the great detective in the entire works: ‘Holmes the meddler, Holmes the busybody, Holmes the Scotland Yard jack in office.’
This isn’t normally cited as one of the classics, but I’ve included here because I’ve always enjoyed the window this gives on to Holmes’ character – and to what an absolute nightmare of a house guest he must have been. He narrates the story himself, and it’s a rather sad tale from when he was a student. He visits the house of a friend Trevor for the vacation, and immediately uncovers the secrets of Trevor’s father. This turns the holiday a little sour. Later Trevor’s father receives this spine-chilling note: ‘The supply of game for London is going steadily up. Head keeper Hudson, we believe, has been now told to receive all orders of fly-paper and for preservation of your hen-pheasant’s life.’ I leave it for you to decode.
The Empty House
The return. This story, solving the murder of a society gent, contains all the hallmarks of one of the classic tales – seemingly intractable problem, a gripping set-piece finale, a well-named villain – but what really makes it special is the sheer sense of relief it must have engendered in the readership. The great detective back from the dead is a treat too good to miss. And what’s not to loathe about a man like Colonel Sebastian Moran?
And, if the Editor will allow me a bonus:
The Sign of the Four
It’s not a short story, but this novel is my favourite Holmes story of all. It has London, it has India, it has Romance, it has murder, grand larceny and deduction – ‘when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’ – and best of all it has the Baker Street Irregulars, and their leader, my hero, my inspiration, Wiggins.