Review: The Return of Sherlock Holmes + His Last Bow / Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle / Publisher: BBC Books / Release Date: Out Now
At first glance, these two volumes could be spin-offs from TV’s Sherlock, instead of the other way round. The BBC’s 21st century incarnations of Holmes and Watson are plastered over the front covers, and the name of the series, as well as its creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis, all feature prominently.
It’s a typically cheeky Holmesian piece of misdirection though as, inside, there’s not a glimpse of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s incarnations of the characters. Instead, the two volumes contain 21 of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 56 short stories. And they’re glorious.
These two volumes, released to coincide with the third series of the BBC’s Sherlock, comprise the third and fourth volumes of short stories written by the author. Two of the other collections, along with three of the four novels have also previously been released with a 21st century makeover.
For fans of the series new to the source material, there’s much to enjoy here. Besides passionate, heartfelt introductions by Holmes devotees Moffat and Gattis, three of the stories – The Empty House, Charles Augustus Milverton and The Last Bow – provide inspiration for episodes in the new series. Substantial portions of The Dancing Men and The Bruce-Partington Plans have previously been appropriated for their modern counterparts, as well as elements of several other stories.
The first volume, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, is the strongest of the two. The Final Problem (the last story of Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes) ended, as did series two of Sherlock, with the detective’s apparent death. Unlike his TV counterpart however, Holmes’ death in that story was originally meant to be definitive until Conan Doyle, largely due to public demand, resurrected the character here. These 13 stories, published in 1903/4, represented his first Holmes short stories in a decade, and the break obviously did the writer good, as Return contains many of his best adventures.
Besides the two stories here which provide inspiration for series three, other classics include The Dancing Men, The Priory School and The Second Stain, although, of the 13, there’s not a weak story among them.
His Last Bow, comprising eight stories originally published over a five year period, is more of a mixed bag. Although there are no bad stories here (Conan Doyle never wrote a poor Holmes story), it's more inconsistent than earlier collections. Two stories though, The Bruce-Partington Plans and The Devil’s Foot, rank among the author’s best work. Also worth noting is the title story, probably the most atypical of all Holmes stories. Set on the eve of the First World War, it provides a beautiful footnote to the great detective’s career. Unusually, this collection includes The Adventure of the Cardboard Box. Controversial when written in 1892 due to its subject matter of adultery, the story is usually included in UK versions of Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Its inclusion here is more in keeping with the American editions, where it ended up after being removed from Memoirs.
For aficionados, these volumes provide a chance to revisit old friends. Fans who only know the TV series, who are presumably the target audience of these repackaged editions, will also find much to enjoy. Besides inspiration for one of the best shows currently on TV, they serve as a superb introduction for a new generation to literature’s greatest detective.