“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” Sherlock Holmes says on making Dr Watson’s acquaintance in A Study in Scarlet, the opening tale of this handsomely bound, 60-story collection. When an astonished Watson asks how he could possibly know this, the detective chuckles to himself and murmurs: “Never mind.”
The majority of the tales in this complete works, which has been in print since the 1930s and is republished here with an introduction by Ruth Rendell, are told in the form of Watson’s journal and set in a foggy but familiar Victorian London, with long sections narrated by other characters as they explain the puzzle they hope Holmes will untangle.
In all of them – from the famously eerie The Hound of the Baskervilles to A Scandal in Bohemia, in which Holmes is dazzled by the only woman who succeeded in outfoxing him – the convoluted plot is never predictable and Holmes (a violin-playing, drug-addicted, ex-prize fighter, it turns out) becomes more enigmatic by the minute, the one mystery that never gets cleared away.
The stories rarely stray from a formula. The novel The Sign of Four ends, as most Holmes stories do, with wrongdoers punished, the police getting the credit and a general sense of relief (in this one, Watson ends up happily engaged). But what about Sherlock himself? “‘For me,'” he says, in the story’s final paragraph, “‘there remains the cocaine bottle.’ And he stretched his long white hand up for it.” It’s this note of discord that turns Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories from games of logic into something less neat and more human.