Over 125 years since he was first shared with the world, the character of Sherlock Holmes remains the most popular fictional detective in history. The brainchild of British writer and physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), the genius super sleuth Sherlock Holmes features in 4 novels and 56 short stories, accompanied by his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson.
Regarded as milestones in the field of crime fiction, Conan Doyle wrote his first Sherlock Holmes novel in 1886. However, Holmes’ quick thinking in a range of thrilling settings didn’t immediately take off after being published in the Beeton’s Christmas Annual of 1887. Instead, Conan Doyle’s first collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories, published in The Strand Magazine in 1991, propelled him to international fame, and today, more than 60 million copies have been sold.
Since Conan Doyle’s death, professional and amateur ‘Holmesians’ have discussed the possibility of lost works, with as many of 18 works cited as possible entrants. However, those which are confirmed to be Conan Doyle’s have been endlessly adapted for film, television and stage, and are enjoyed by millions across the world.
Here’s a breakdown of the Sherlock Holmes books in order.
A Study in Scarlet
One of four of the full-length Holmes novels, this story marks the first appearance of famed detective duo Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The title derives from a speech given by Holmes to Watson, where he describes the murder investigation as his ‘study in scarlet’. The novel is the first work of detective fiction which incorporates the magnifying glass as an investigative tool.
Today, only around 11 complete copies of Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, the original magazine where the story first appeared, are known to exist.
The Sign of the Four
The second of Conan Doyle’s four Holmes novels, he described how he was commissioned to write the story over a dinner with Joseph Marshall Stoddart, editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. Famed wit and writer Oscar Wilde was also in attendance. Like Conan Doyle’s first novel, A Study In Scarlet, the novel was not particularly successful upon its first publication.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Conan Doyle’s first collection of short stories, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes contains twelve short stories which were originally published in twelve monthly issues of The Strand Magazine between 1891 and 1892. Though not supported by any fictional chronology, a key theme of all of the stories is Holmes identifying and correcting social injustices.
The first story, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, contains the only depiction of the character Irene Adler in any of Conan Doyle’s works; however, her character is frequently used in modern adaptations. Of the collection, Conan Doyle stated that ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ was his favourite.
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
Another collection of short stories, the 12 stories were similarly published over the course of a year from 1892 to 1893 in The Strand Magazine. Conan Doyle decided that this would be the last of the Holmes stories, intending to kill off the eponymous character in ‘The Final Problem’. However, reader demand prompted him to write another Holmes novel in 1901-2, ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, set before ‘The Final Problem’.
The Hound of the Baskervilles
One of Conan Doyle’s most famous works, The Hound of the Baskervilles is the third of the four Sherlock crime novels. Originally serialised in The Strand Magazine between 1901 and 1902, it is set largely on Dartmoor in Devon and follows the story of the attempted murder that is initially blamed on a large, fearsome, folkloric hound that roams the moors. The novel marked Holmes’ first appearance since his apparent death in ‘The Final Problem’, and was so popular that it led to the character’s revival.
It has been described as one of the most famous stories ever written. In 2003, the novel was listed as number 128 on 200 on the BBC’s The Big Read poll of the ‘UK’s best-loved novel’. It has also been voted the best of the four Holmes novels in a 1999 poll of ‘Sherlockians’.
The Return of Sherlock Holmes
The Return of Sherlock Holmes is a collection of 13 Sherlock Holmes stories, originally published between 1903-1904 by The Strand Magazine in Britain and Collier’s in the United States. The stories were the first Holmes collection since 1893, when Holmes famously appeared to have died in ‘The Final Problem’. The first story, set in 1894, sees Holmes returning in London and explaining the period between 1891-1894. In the last story of the book, Watson states that Holmes has retired and has forbidden him to publish any more stories. However, two more collections and a novel appeared later.
The Valley of Fear
First serialised in The Strand Magazine from September 1914 to May 1915, The Valley of Fear is Conan Doyle’s fourth and final Sherlock Holmes novel. It is loosely based upon the real-life Molly Maguires and Pinkerton agent James McParland. Consisting of two parts entitled ‘The Tragedy of Birlstone’ and ‘The Scowrers’, the novel is unusual in that it drew attention to real-life terrorist activity and American union struggles. It is also unusual in that instead of being a linear novel, it is ‘two parts and a coda [which] carefully stage managed the elements of fear and terror’.
His Last Bow: Some Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes
His Last Bow is a collection published in 1917 that consists of previously published Holmes stories dating between 1908 and 1917. In the US, the collection went by the name ‘His Last Bow: Some Later Reminisces of Sherlock Holmes’. All editions contain a brief preface by ‘John H. Watson, M. D., that informs readers that as of the date of publication, Holmes is long retired as a detective, but is otherwise alive and well, though suffering from a little rheumatism.
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes is the final set of 12 short stories that were first published between 1921 and 1927. Though some of the stories are comparable with Conan Doyle’s earlier work, this collection is often considered to be a lesser entry, in part because some of the stories aren’t narrated by Dr. Watson, and instead are written in the third person. It has also been suggested that a few of the stories might not have been written by Conan Doyle himself, with ‘The Mazarin Stone’, ‘The Three Gables’ bearing few hallmarks of Conan Doyle’s style.