In her impressive new story collection, Observations by Gaslight, Edgar finalist Lyndsay Faye depicts Sherlock Holmes from perspectives other than Watson’s. Drawing on canonical supporting characters (Mrs. Hudson) as well as lesser-known ones (Henry Wiggins), Faye pushes the envelope judiciously, providing depth to the iconic sleuth without transforming him beyond recognition. For example, “The Adventure of the Stopped Clocks,” narrated by Irene Adler, the one woman who bested Holmes, fleshes out his admiration for her intellect, and explores the impact on the sleuth of Watson’s marriage and move out of Baker Street, all within the context of an ingenious take on an untold case centered on why all the clocks in a man’s home have stopped.
There are three kinds of people in the world: those who haven’t read Sherlock Holmes; those who read Sherlock Holmes, nodded affably, and walked away; and those who, having already read Sherlock Holmes, simply forgot to stop reading Sherlock Holmes. I’m of the last variety, those who didn’t get the memo saying “Okay, you’ve read them all, you can move onto something else!” There is something to adore about each and every story.
But as with all foods that nourish us, body or soul, we have our likes and dislikes, and no one would be foolish enough to argue over whether some snacks are tastier than others. A flavorful Thai curry for supper is always going to trounce saloon floor wood shavings. So goes it with the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and countless “Best Of” lists have been compiled with childlike enthusiasm. (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even made one himself, the cheeky little scamp.) Repeat offenders in the excellence department include “The Red-Headed League,” “The Blue Carbuncle,” and “The Speckled Band.”
A far more intriguing query, to my mind, is which of the 56 short stories and four novels are the most consistently underrated? Which slide under the radar, becoming the canonical equivalent of WWII fighter pilots? And if they ought to be recognized more often, then why? I invite you to peruse my personal list of Sherlock Holmes stories worthy of greater admiration than they’re generally afforded. They might not pack a knockout punch, but as the great detective himself might put it, they deliver a “straight left against a slogging ruffian.”
10. The Golden Pince-Nez
It’s not the most exciting case in the canon, I admit—the entire premise is that of an old woman hiding in a wardrobe. But Holmes plays a plucky trick in scattering cigarette ash to pick up footmarks, and the backstory is a poignant one. Anna, the murderess (manslaughter, in fact, as it was unintentional) has just finished a long stint in Siberia for Nihilism, and her heartless betrayer is the professor whose home she has broken into. Bonus for our dear Inspector Stanley Hopkins’ appearance!
9. The Valley of Fear
The shining star of the four Sherlock Holmes novels is also one of the most famous works of English literature: The Hound of the Baskervilles. Following on its heels are A Study in Scarlet simply for its iconic introduction of our heroes, and The Sign of Four for its rip-roaring treasure hunt, Watson’s introduction to his bride Mary Morstan, our first poignant glimpse into Holmes’s drug use, and hey, we get a boat chase.
Still, The Valley of Fear is not at all without merit. There’s Holmes cracking a cipher message in the cozy Baker Street sitting room intro. Birlstone House, where the murder investigation takes place, ain’t no cottage—there’s a moat. Add the old switcheroo where the corpse isn’t very dead at all, the nefarious Prof. Moriarty’s involvement, and an engaging backstory featuring the Pinkertons, and you have yourself a very solid Sherlockian entry.
8. The Lion’s Mane
I know exactly why this one is underrated, even by me: Sherlock Holmes is not as compelling a narrator as John Watson is, nor can he be. The Sherlock Holmes stories at their heart aren’t about the crime at all; they’re about Watson watching Holmes, munching popcorn and being utterly fascinated.
Still, this glimpse at Holmes’s post-retirement life in Sussex fleshes out his biography beautifully, sketching a portrait of a solitary man living a peaceful existence following his life of… well, let’s face it, both crime and crime-solving. If that’s not enough, I have two words for you: killer jellyfish.
7. The Beryl Coronet
Alexander Holder is a banker who has issued a gargantuan loan. His prominent client, in what I’d term a moment of not-so-brightness, offers the invaluable beryl coronet as collateral. In a second shining instance of not-quite-brilliance, Holder decides it’s more secure in his private safe and trots it off homeward. Key problems arise when Holder discovers his son Arthur violently wrestling with the priceless diadem, which is now missing a hunk containing three gems.
Arthur promptly clams up. Holder is convinced Arthur did the deed. Holmes is convinced he didn’t. Cue tangled skeins of love and loyalty, plus Holmes doing footprint magic and holding villains at gunpoint. It’s all very tightly written, highly satisfying, and most importantly, vastly underestimated.
6. The Sussex Vampire
This one would make the list based solely on Holmes’s stern line to Watson regarding the existence of vampires: “The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.” It also contains Watson’s offhand mention of the case of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, “a story for which the world is not yet prepared,” which has spawned frillions of pastiches and enough salivating speculation to fill an Olympic pool.
Apparently, Robert Ferguson has discovered his exotic Peruvian second wife suckling blood from their baby’s neck; this is admittedly troubling. She refuses to explain, locks herself in, and assiduously avoids Ferguson’s 15-year-old son Jack from a previous marriage, who lacks full use of his legs.
Holmes has this situation clocked quickly, and it turns out that the insanely jealous one is actually young Jacky, who loathes the healthy new baby and was attempting to poison him before his stepmother orally extracted the toxin. It’s a simple enough premise, but tumultuous emotions are involved, Holmes gets in some real zingers, and this case has atmosphere.
5. The Creeping Man
I have a deep affinity for things that are really, truly, genuinely bad. Bad movies, cheesy music, and in this instance, a story I think Doyle must have written during an opium-fueled fever dream. Or maybe Sir Arthur was just off licking poisonous tree frogs again. I really don’t know what mental state could have produced it—LSD hadn’t been invented yet.
Prof. Presbury, 61, is engaged to a fine upstanding younger woman. But suddenly he’s doing rather eccentric things like crawling on all fours and climbing walls without the use of ladders. What’s up with that?
I’ll tell you what: monkey serum. Maybe Doyle was on monkey serum during this writing process? Lord, it all makes so much more sense now.
4. The Adventure of Black Peter
This case has some truly great features, including your classic Holmes-style entrance into the Baker Street sitting room, whistling Dixie with a giant harpoon slung over his shoulder. Why, Watson asks?
Because harpoon murder, Watson. Please. Where have you been all these years?
3. The Reigate Squires
I’m aware I’m putting this too far up the list, but Holmes’s shenanigans are off the map—it’s a delight. First, we learn that Holmes isn’t actually superhuman; he’s prostrate with nerves after an exhausting case, laid up in France, and Watson is off arrow-quick to carry his buddy back to London like a sack of potatoes. To speed his recovery, Watson convinces the detective to take a wee springtime vacay, and the pair end up at the bachelor pad of his friend Col. Hayter.
A sick Holmes is sure still a frisky one. The case itself is negligible, but we are treated to pure Sherlockian mayhem. Witness Watson practically sitting on Holmes’s chest trying to keep him out of a local murder mystery (Watson fails). Shudder as Holmes fakes a seizure (is our hero still so very ill?). Gape as he shoves over an end table with a bowl of oranges on it (does Holmes hate oranges?). Marvel as Holmes apologizes to his doctor over the whole seizure thing (does Holmes perchance care?). It’s a lighthearted romp I thoroughly enjoy.
2. The Boscombe Valley Mystery
This is one of the most genuinely touching stories to ever be underrated. A pair of expat Australians, John Turner and Charles McCarthy, live in separate homes on a large estate. Their children, Alice and James, grew up together. When McCarthy is murdered near a pool, it quickly develops that he was there to meet with his son James, who was armed when they fell into a vicious argument. James won’t talk (I sense a theme here) and is already incarcerated for what everyone thinks is going to be the most open-and-shut homicide investigation of all time.
Sherlock Holmes, as ever, thinks differently. James admits to the quarrel but claims he is innocent. Holmes talks with Alice, who suggests she was the cause of the tiff; McCarthy wanted James and Alice to marry, a stance to which Turner was adamantly opposed. A star-crossed love story is revealed. James is in fact besotted with Alice but is already married to a barmaid. All Holmes must do now is spring James from the clink.
Which our hero does, of course. The true tragedy of this case is that McCarthy has slowly been bleeding Turner dry. Turner, a broken man, confesses the murder to Holmes. Before the Australians emigrated, Turner was part of a gang that robbed a gold convoy; McCarthy was the driver. Turner bought property with his ill-gotten ore, married, and fathered his beloved Alice. Then McCarthy turned up demanding a house, plenty of pocket money, and finally, the hand of Alice for James. And that’s where Turner drew the line.
Holmes practically gives Turner a medal for offing a blackmailer. Obviously moved, he says quietly after Turner leaves that he can’t see a story like this without thinking “there, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.” Our great detective sure makes for one lousy cold-blooded reasoning machine.
1. The Bruce-Partington Plans
I don’t know how, if I even wanted to, I could overstate it: this is my favorite tale in the entire canon. It has absolutely everything, and I cannot understand why people don’t realize this more often. A body dumped on the roof of a train! Rarely glimpsed affectionate moments between the doctor and his detective over dining tables! Holmes and Watson breaking and entering by night! Top secret documents! The fate of the British government at stake!
And the cameos, oh the cameos. Lestrade is here. Mycroft is here. I’d not have been surprised if Irene Adler suddenly swanned in to lend a hand. And that, friends, is why I count it as the most underrated adventure of all.