BOOK REVIEW: The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, #4)The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the second collection of short stories and the fourth book overall in the canon of Sherlock Holmes. It includes eleven adventures of the great detective as narrated by his partner, Dr. John Watson.

Below, I’ll describe the premise of each of the stories:

 

“Silver Blaze” A race horse goes missing and its trainer is found dead. The eponymous race horse is favored to win an upcoming race, so Holmes faces a race against time to see that the horse can compete.

 

“The Yellow Face” A man begins to suspect the wife that he’s never had cause to doubt before. Only he doesn’t know exactly what he suspects her of, but it seems to revolve around visits to a nearby cottage that has been recently occupied by an unknown and mysterious resident. Note: this is one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories both because it displays the humanity of the character in that his initial guess proves wrong, and in it shows how the author was ahead of his time in his worldview.

 

“The Stock-Broker’s Clerk” When an out-of-work clerk, recently hired by prestigious firm, is given an offer of much more money but finds himself doing only busy work, he gets suspicious and calls on Sherlock Holmes.

 

“The ‘Gloria Scott’” Holmes is visiting a college friend when the friend’s father is visited by a gruff ex-sailor. When the family patriarch uncharacteristically bends over backwards to make the sailor happy, it’s unclear why. When the old man dies upon reading a letter, the mystery becomes all the more intriguing.

 

“The Musgrave Ritual” A butler is fired for digging around in the family papers, despite the fact that the document he’s discovered with is nothing more than a series of cute questions constituting an old family ritual.

 

“The Reigate Puzzle” Burglaries in the countryside culminate in the murder of a coachman. The family that employed the coachman is neighbor to a close friend of Watson.

 

“The Crooked Man” A couple who’ve been married for thirty years without any known incidents of domestic unrest get in a raucous fight, and the man–a career military officer–ends up dead. The wife is the only suspect.

 

“The Resident Patient” A benefactor agrees to fully fund a new doctor’s practice provided that he is allowed to live on-site as a resident patient. The mystery begins when the resident patient begins to be inexplicably nervous.

 

“The Greek Interpreter” An interpreter is kidnapped and forced to translate a mysterious conversation between his kidnappers and a disheveled Greek man. Despite handsome compensation and threats of what will happen if he should tell anyone of the job, the interpreter feels obliged to get to the bottom of the imprisoned Greek man’s case by hiring Holmes.

 

“The Naval Treaty” A member of the Foreign Service has a crucial treaty stolen while he goes to check on the service of his tardy coffee. The loss of the treaty spells professional death for the young man unless Holmes can solve the case. The commissionaire and his wife are initially the sole suspects.

 

“The Final Problem” Perhaps the best known story of the collection, it was intended to be the end of Sherlock Holmes. The story involves an uncharacteristically shaken Holmes, his arch-nemesis, and a trip to Reichenbach Falls.

 

This collection includes some essential Sherlock Holmes stories, as well as some classic Holmsian cases and quotes. For 19th century literature, it’s highly readable. Definitely a must read for fans of Sherlock Holmes.

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BOOK REVIEW: Mastermind by Maria Konnikova

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock HolmesMastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a book about how to be more observant while avoiding the pitfalls of drawing faulty conclusions based on unsound reasoning, tainted memory, or faulty assumptions. Examples from the canon of Sherlock Holmes (i.e. the 4 novels and 56 short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) are prevalent throughout the book, but Konnikova also discusses Doyle’s limited real life investigations as well as those of the men who influenced the writer. Doyle lived at time when science and reason were making great strides in overcoming superstitious and spurious ways of thinking, and so the Sherlock Holmes works were cutting edge for their time.

The book is neatly organized into four parts with two chapters each. The first part is entitled “Understanding Yourself” and it unpacks what we have to work with in the human brain. One learns how one’s brain works and how it sometimes leads one astray. It also introduces how the scientific method can provide a framework to harness the brain’s strengths and avoid the hazards of its weaknesses.

Part II investigates how one can become more skilled at investigation, as well as the role played by creativity and imagination. We learn how our attention is much more limited than we feel it to be.

The third part reflects upon the building one’s powers of reasoning as well as the importance of knowledge-building in the process. Konnikova describes “deductive reasoning” using Holmes’s favorite term. [She doesn’t really get into the whole muddle of—as many have pointed out—the fact that Holmes more often uses induction than deduction, i.e. going from very specific observations to draw broader conclusions.] The second chapter considers the importance of being knowledgeable and broadly educated. Holmes’s conclusions often hinge on fairly arcane knowledge about a range of issues: animal, vegetable, and mineral. However, a large part of the discussion is about the idea of degree of confidence. It’s also pointed out that knowledge can be double-edged sword—an impediment as well as a tool. Extraneous knowledge may lead one down the wrong path.

The final part suitably closes the book with one chapter on practical advice for how to put all of the knowledge discussed in the book to work and another on the recognition that even the best minds can go astray. The first chapter summarizes as it offers pragmatic advice. The second of these chapters discusses a fascinating investigation of a supernatural phenomenon (i.e. the existence of fairies from photographic evidence) upon which even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mind led him astray.

The use of the Sherlock Holmes character is beneficial as many readers have consumed the entire Holmsian canon, or will do so, because it’s short and readable even today. Even those who haven’t read it will at least be familiar with the lead character and his proclivities as well as the other essential characters, such as Dr. Watson, Professor Moriarty, and Irene Adler. There are too many television shows, movies, and pop culture references to not be aware of these characters. One needn’t have read all Doyle’s Holmes to benefit, as Konnikova offers the essential background. However, one might find it a bit more intriguing if one has read the canon. At the end of each chapter, Konnikova offers a set of references that point to the sections in the Sherlock Holmes canon relating to that chapter’s discussion. Konnikova uses quotes and stories that aren’t attributable to Doyle to good effect throughout this book as well.

Graphics are used sparsely and only as absolutely necessary. There is a “Further Reading” section at the end of the book in addition to the end of chapter pointers. Besides a list of the Sherlock Holmes books, there are chapter-by-chapter prose suggestions of relevant key readings.

I found this book interesting and informative. While it may be most useful for someone who wants to become more attentive, less prone to biases, and more effective in drawing conclusions, it could also be enjoyed by Sherlock Holmes fans as a way to drill down into stories a bit further.

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BOOK REVIEW: Anno Dracula by Kim Newman

Anno DraculaAnno Dracula by Kim Newman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Anno Dracula is set in a world subsequent to the events of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In the world of Anno Dracula, Dracula kills Van Helsing (not the other way round) and becomes more powerful than ever. In fact, the Count has married himself into line to become king. Vampires flourish in the open and their numbers are swelling. But a few of them are being gruesomely murdered. In Newman’s work, the vicious Whitechapel murders attributed to Jack the Ripper target young, “turned” working women of Whitechapel. The killings attract attention and become politically charged. The book’s plot revolves around the investigation by an unlikely duo, Charles Beauregard (human) and Geneviève Dieudonné (Vampire elder), into the murders.

Newman creates a fascinating world that blends not only his own characters (e.g. Beauregard and Dieudonné), but also characters from other popular works set in the 19th century as well as from our own history. Some of these borrowed characters are important to the story, others are mere cameos, and still others are references to the departed or imprisoned. Among the book’s fictional pantheon are those from works by Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and—of course—Bram Stoker. Bram Stoker lends the critical character of Dr. John Seward to the book, although there are references to most of that book’s major characters. (You’ll miss some connections if you haven’t read Dracula, but you’ll still be able to follow the story.) The next biggest contributor of characters is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Mycroft Holmes, Inspector Lestrade, and Professor Moriarty are all present in the flesh, though the latter plays a small role, and others—including the great detective, himself—are referenced throughout.

Many of the real world characters are literary greats (poets, playwrights, and novelists) including George Bernard Shaw, Lewis Carroll, Alfred Tennyson, and Oscar Wilde. However, also included are political figures, royalty, and—of course—the victims of Jack the Ripper. This mixing of the literary and historical worlds lures book-lovers further down the rabbit hole.

If this book seems like a murder mystery, it’s not. One of the interesting elements of Newman’s approach is that he reveals the killer from the outset. While we know who the killer is from the book’s opening, we don’t know whether or how he will be brought to justice—or what precisely justice means in this case. The book is more about the web of intrigue that surrounds the murders than it is about the murders. Ultimately, the book takes in a much bigger picture than a few murders in the seedy side of London.

Anno Dracula is intriguing and readable. If one has read Dracula, the various Sherlock Holmes stories, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and other contemporary literature, it’s all the more enjoyable for the way it artfully places these all in the same universe. I’d highly recommend this book for readers of the classic popular fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu

The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of the Great Detective in India and TibetThe Mandala of Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of the Great Detective in India and Tibet by Jamyang Norbu

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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I gave this book the lowest rating that I’ve ever given a book I reviewed. However, there’s a selection bias at work. I don’t finish (and rarely start, for that matter) books that are so horrible that they’d get a lesser rating. Ergo, any book that I finish and review has some redeeming qualities. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine whether these redeeming qualities will outweigh the deficiencies of story in this book.

The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes takes our beloved detective out of London and onto a trip from Bombay to Shangri La by way of Shimla (India) and Lhasa (Tibet.) It’s one of several pieces of Great Hiatus fan fiction out there. (I recently saw an addition that took Holmes to Japan.) Fans of Sherlock Holmes will be aware that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became tired of the character at one point and killed him off (along with Professor Moriarty) at Reichenbach Falls. Holmes was “revived” several years later due to popular demand (and—perhaps—Doyle’s need for funds), leaving fans / authors to speculate what the detective did during his time in hiding (i.e. the so-called Great Hiatus.) This particular work tells us that Holmes spent his time in the Himalayas. It’s as good a setting as any, given that fascination with the esoteric Himalayan world was building in the West during this time. In an interesting feature, Norbu’s book brings in a fictional character from Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Hurree Mookherjee, to serve as Holmes’s sidekick. (FYI: Kim was published during the Great Hiatus years.) The story involves shadowy plots against both Holmes and a young 13th Dalai Lama (this was the predecessor of the current Dalai Lama) that are incidental to obtaining a powerful mandala.

I’ll begin with the strengths of the work before I tear into what I found objectionable about the book. The author, Jamyang Norbu, clearly did his research, and there are some fascinating tidbits and insights into that era of South Asia history. As a Tibetan, Norbu, paints an intriguing travelogue of the territory that Holmes and Hurree traverse. Also on a positive note, I’d rate the readability of this work to be high. It doesn’t follow the 19th century so closely that it falls into the purple prose and general verbosity of that century’s literature, and I think that’s a good thing. The author manages to create a bit of the feel of 19th century literature without falling off the abyss.

The book’s negative qualities are disproportionately loaded toward the back of the book. (Part of what keeps one reading and engaged is that it seems like the book could turn out well.) Let me begin with one minor character defect of the book which is that not all of the chapters advance the story; a few are descriptive like travelogues. However, most of said chapters are so short that it’s not that problematic.

I should note that one star that might’ve been obtained for originality must be forfeited because there’s no shortage of books following the same general premise.

But the story’s major flaw is that devolves into supernatural speculative fiction done poorly. Let me say, I’m not against the supernatural genre in theory. However, as with stories about Superman, these tales are exceedingly easy to do poorly and extremely difficult to do well. In the real world, tension is easily created because the reader knows many of the limits that characters face, and a good writer forces his characters up against some of those limits. However, when characters seem to be limited by the laws of physics, but then just start pulling magic rabbits out of their hats, the tension drains. We assume our protagonist will prevail and the antagonist will be thwarted. The odds stacked against our hero(es) don’t matter if one expects they’ll pull out a—proverbial or otherwise–magic wand and claim a cheap victory. If one wants to do the supernatural well, one needs to not only make the antagonist stronger (which Mr. Norbu does), but one has to know what everybody’s limits are. Otherwise, it’s just a cheap spectacle. [I should point out that Hurree does engage in a non-magical action that is critically timed during a key moment of the story, and some readers may feel that this absolves the novel of its ham-handed introduction of the supernatural.]

There’s another problem with the degree to which the book hinges on the supernatural, and that is specific to the domain of Holmes. The supernatural is usually something to be debunked in the Holmesian domain. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes is a product of the dawning of the age of rationality, and he is a man of science. [Want to know more? See this Tor article entitled “No Ghost Need Apply.”]Doyle’s Holmes may accept the possibility of the supernatural and apparently supernatural elements may make appearances, but Holmes is always looking for an explanation rooted in logic and favoring the possible. While Norbu goes to great lengths to capture the flavor of Holmes in many aspects, he abandons the character altogether in favor a world that looks neither like our own nor the one Arthur Conan Doyle created.

The disappointment of this book is that it looks like it’s on a trajectory to hit its mark, but then sails wildly off target.

If you like supernatural fiction and you don’t mind that magic suddenly pops up to shape the climax of the book out of the blue, by all means pick this book up. Otherwise, I can’t say that I’d recommend it for Holmes’ fans.

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