I came to Sherlock Holmes fairly late in my mystery reading career, and the result was an odd experience. It was very much like coming home to someplace I'd never been. Though I'd never read much, if any, of Arthur Conan Doyle's work, there was something familiar and comfortable about it all. It took me awhile, but I eventually figured it out. In a sense, I was coming home. Sir Arthur is to the mystery story what Mallory is to Camelot and Tolkien is to fantasy. Though not the first writer of detective stories, he is in many ways the source, the ur-quelle of so much that has come along since. I am not the most widely read mystery reader, but every author I have read owes a debt to Sherlock Holmes.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes are the first two collections of Holmes short stories. It is easy to see why their popularity endures. Doyle's writing is clear, tight and efficient without sacrificing elegance. The plots are well conceived and executed, and the action is always palpable. But those elements are secondary to the characters.
In Holmes and Watson, Doyle created what may be the most perfect detective partnership ever to reside between the covers of a book. They are as complementary as any two characters could be; Holmes the cold logician, effortlessly observant, solving crimes as though it was as easy as tying his shoes, almost too detached from the rest of humanity. Watson, the physician, warm, intelligent, resourceful, faithful, ready with his revolver, and contrary to the popular conception that he is bumbling and clueless, only a step or two behind his friend. Together they unravel mystery after mystery, each with a unique twist that hooks the reader and makes it hard to put the story down.
A word about the types of stories in these collections. Those in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are almost pure whodunnits. Just enough clues are scattered about here and there that the careful reader should be able to solve the mystery before the end. Having come off a recent Nero Wolfe binge, I was able to guess the answer to most of them. ;-) But the stories in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes have a very different flavor. They are more along the lines of character sketches as Doyle spends more time on the criminals and victims than on Holmes's intellectual feats. Clues are rare and Holmes and Watson seem forced to rely more on intuition than pure deduction. I enjoyed the difference as it kept the series from becoming an exercise in matching wits.
I look forward to reading the novels and other story collections, and highly recommend these first two to those who, like me, may have taken the long way round to being introduced to Mr Holmes.