Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler
I have a fondness for Sherlock Holmes, as I am sure the majority of my readers do. Unsurprisingly, there has been a ton of Holmes fanfiction over the years. Pastiches that try to capture the feel of Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose, parodies that make fun of the detective’s odd habits, and weirder works. This is a collection of such, many done professionally by famous authors. Thus it might be better described as a big book of Sherlock Holmes-related stories.
There’s an editorial introduction, and the book proper begins with an essay by Arthur Conan Doyle regarding how and why he created Sherlock Holmes, and why he killed the character off. (The essay being written before he brought the detective back.) Interestingly, he mentions that the “arc” of a dozen individual stories designed to be collected into a book was an innovation at the time–most of the magazine authors aiming for book publication went with serialized stories. Then there are two short pieces by Doyle being silly with his own creations.
There are over eighty stories all together, most quite short. They range in time from the very first Holmes parody “An Evening with Sherlock Holmes” by J.M. Barrie (an obnoxious know-it-all engages in dueling observation with Mr. Holmes) to the very recent “The Case of Death and Honey” by Neil Gaiman (Holmes goes to China to solve one last mystery.) Several stories crossover with other fictional characters (three times with jewel thief Raffles) or real life people. Arthur Conan Doyle appears several times, but others range from U.S. President William McKinley to John Merrick, the “Elephant Man.”
There are stories as well, about Sherlockians (fans of the stories)solving mysteries, the most unusual of which is “The Martian Crown Jewels” by Poul Anderson (a Martian detective investigates the theft of the title gems.)
The selection process heavily favored stories that are historically important or are by famous writers; this means that several of the tales are not of good quality. “Sherlock Holmes and the Dasher” by the normally excellent A.B. Cox is particularly dreadful. Most of the bad stories are extremely short. Some of the stories are frequently reprinted (there’s a section of them towards the front), while others are rare.
There’s period sexism and ethnic prejudice in some of the stories. “The Marriage of Sherlock Holmes” by Gregory Breitman is particularly bad on the sexism front for purposes of humor; it fell flat for me. Suicide appears more than once, although some of them are actually murders.
The volume concludes with “The Adventure of the Marked Man”by Stuart Palmer (a Cornish man receives death threats, but he hasn’t an enemy in the world…right?)
Most of the stories are good, but due to the uneven nature of this anthology, I recommend it primarily for dedicated Sherlock Holmes fans who will appreciate the rare tales. Others should use the library, and borrow the volume to read the stories by authors they like. (I especially recommend the “Modern Victorians” section for casual fans.)