Our book today is the wonderful Bantam Classic 2-volume Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Short Stories. Of course the Holmes canon has had as many editions as Arthur Conan Doyle had hairs on his head, and there are merits to a great many of them. Several have reprinted the iconic Sidney Paget illustrations that originally accompanied the Holmes stories in The Strand magazine (legend has always had it that Sidney patterned the classic Holmes look on his brother, but legend has always been wrong: Holmes is a slightly older, slightly idealized version of Sidney himself, who in his youth was what the Victorians called a cutie-patootie); several have had fascinating pictures of their own (believe it or not, the old Readers Digest set of illustrated hardcovers is well worth having for this very reason); several have been exhaustively annotated (although to my mind the king of these, the official Annotated Sherlock Holmes reeks too much of frothing fanaticism to be enjoyable).
My favorite is this Bantam boxed set, however: it's the one I actually grab and take with me everywhere, when the yen to read Holmes is on me. The set has a delightful (and, as with most of what the man wrote, deceptively erudite) introduction by prolific mystery and western writer Loren Estleman (his novels Bloody Season and Whiskey River both get the Stevereads stamp of approval)(and his two Sherlock Holmes pastiche novels, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes and Sherlock Holmes v.s. Dracula, while certainly not claiming to be great literature, are lots and lots of fun, doing double-pastiche duty as they do!). Estleman turns his spotlight to that most neglected and misunderstood of Doyle's creations, his own stand-in, Doctor Watson:
I submit for your inspection one John H. Watson: medical man, late British Army surgeon, raconteur, journalist, connoisseur of women, Knight of the Battered Tin Dispatch-Box, valiant and loyal friend.
Estleman has a great deal of fun with the typical early portrayals of Watson on film, most notably the bumbling sidekick actor Nigel Bruce embodied to accompany Basil Rathbone's Holmes through improbably contemporary adventures:
If a mop bucket appeared in a scene, his foot would be inside it, and if by some sardonic twist of fate and the whim of director Roy William Neil he managed to stumble upon an important clue, he could be depended upon to blow his nose on it and throw it away.
In reality, as Estleman points out, the Watson of the early stories is "thin as a lath and as brown as a nut" - a bright, intelligent man of the world and a considerable practical anchor for the brilliant, mercurial Holmes. As some of you will know, I consider Jeremy Brett's Holmes to be the finest version of the character ever portrayed on film; I likewise consider Edward Hardwicke's Watson (not that of David Burke, whose version still had too much Nigel Bruce in it for my tastes, although Burke is a very talented Shakespearean actor, as can be seen readily in the filmed version of the Ian Holm King Lear) the perfect realization of the character - firm, capable, an essential friend, as Estleman points out:
Notwithstanding his friend's mastery of boxing and fencing, and sitting-room marksmanship that would quicken the heart of an Annie Oakley, when a pistol was necessary it was Watson who carried it, at Holmes's request. A modern-day police officer could do far worse in a partner, and often does.
This boxed set contains everything - all 60 stories and The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear, all ready to hand should you need a volume for train or doctor's office. The single most amazing thing about the Holmes canon is how inviting they are to infinite re-reading: you settle into them, and no degree of familiarity with the texts is a bar to enjoying them all over again. Quite apart from the actual settings of each tale, the Holmes stories always make the reader feel that it's a wet, windy evening in Baker Street - a fire is going behind the grate, the indefatigable Mrs. Hudson has left some cold pheasant on a plate, and a capacious easy chair beckons. But knowing the stories chapter and verse makes you acutely aware that some people don't, and Estleman keeps them in mind:
The reader who holds this volume in his hands, and who is about to experience for the first time the adventures contained herein, occupies an enviable position.
I remember the first Holmes moment that did it for me - I remember it vividly, because even after one reading, I knew I'd be revisiting this fictional world forever. It was "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League," and the hapless, exasperated Jabez Wilson has just finished telling Holmes and Watson of his dealings with the eponymous group - and their subsequent disappearance. Holmes promises him inquiries and bids him good day, then he invites Watson to go here Pablo de Sarasate play the violin at a afternoon concert. Doyle hooked me with the quiet thrill of contrasts:
All afternoon he sat in the stalls wrapped in the most perfect happiness, gently waving his long, thin fingers in time to the music, while his gently smiling face and his languid, dreamy eyes were as unlike those of Holmes, the sleuth-hound, Holmes the relentless, keen-witted, ready-handed criminal agent, as it was possible to conceive ... When I saw him that afternoon so enwrapped in the music of St. James's Hall, I felt that an evil time might be coming upon those whom he had set himself to hunt down.
Estleman is entirely right about envying somebody who has yet to add this inestimable canon to their own personal library; it's been essential reading since the moment it started being published - a truly endless source of delight and escape. Everybody has their own favorite edition, but you might want to try this one if you run across it. It's served me very well.