In 1893 Arthur Conan Doyle famously attempted to kill off his beloved detective Sherlock Holmes by having the character plunge to his death from the top of the Reichenbach Falls in the story The Final Problem. Doyle had grown rather resentful of the Sherlock Holmes stories because he felt that they were taking up far too much of his time and were distracting him from writing his more serious, self-consciously literary novels. He felt that killing off Holmes was the only way of getting his career back on track. However the Victorian public were outraged. Doyle received many angry letters, thousands cancelled their subscriptions to The Strand and there are accounts of people walking the streets of London wearing black armbands to express their mourning for Holmes. Doyle resisted the pressure from his fans and publishers to write more Sherlock Holmes stories for quite a few years until he finally decided to write a kind of prequel story called The Hound of the Baskervilles which was set before Holmes' death. Two years later Doyle would then bring Holmes back for good.
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I know many fans think that the Sherlock Holmes stories that were published post-Reichenbach Falls are nowhere near as good as the stories that came before them though and I'm inclined to agree with them to a certain extent. Most of the short stories in this particular book simply aren't as gripping and engaging as the stories that you'll find in the Adventures and Memoirs collections. The plots are weaker and there's some obvious story recycling going on. In The Norwood Builder Holmes catches the criminal by re-using a trick from A Scandal in Bohemia, The Six Napoleons is similar to The Blue Carbuncle, The Second Stain is very reminiscent of The Naval Treaty and The Solitary Cyclist is very reminiscent of The Copper Beeches (it's even got a character called Violet in it!) In fact the only story in this book that I feel truly confident about putting in "My Top 10 Sherlock Holmes Stories" list would be The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton. But having said that the stories in this book are still well-written, charming and enjoyable to read. The mysteries in this book might not be as good as the mysteries in the previous collections but it's always a pleasure to read about Sherlock Holmes and John Watson's friendship and in one of the stories - I can't remember which one sadly - it's even revealed that Watson eventually managed to get Holmes to stop taking drugs.
I certainly didn't enjoy The Return of Sherlock Holmes as much as the earlier short story collections or The Hound of the Baskervilles but I still liked it a lot more than the novels A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. And now I'm going to pick my top three favourites from this book:
The Adventure of the Empty House - The one where Sherlock Holmes comes back! The plot itself might not be particularly gripping or even very logical (a noiseless gun?) but I love the touching scenes between Holmes and Watson in this one. I find Holmes' slight bemusement at Watson and Mrs Hudson's emotional reactions to his return pretty funny too. Somehow I don't think Holmes had quite grasped the fact that they thought he was DEAD! Speaking of Mrs Hudson this is the first story in the canon that I've come across where she actually gets a very important role in the story and I thought that was quite lovely. And another reason why I really enjoy this story is because of its very interesting villain Sebastian Moran. He seems to be an evil version of John Watson in the same way that Moriarty is an evil version of Sherlock Holmes.
The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton - I love this one! It makes for a very refreshing change of pace from the typical Sherlock Holmes story. Its villain is a despicable blackmailer who Doyle actually based on someone from real-life: a man called Charles Augustus Howell who once preyed on Dante Gabriel Rossetti and was eventually found in the gutter with his throat slit and a coin in his mouth. Another very interesting thing about this story of course is that Holmes is morally questionable in it. Since he has a client who can't afford to meet Charles Augustus Milverton's ransom, Holmes decides that he'll have to break into Milverton's house and steal the letter back. To find out how to do this he then emotionally manipulates one of Milverton's maids by first wooing her and then becoming engaged to her! Holmes insists to Watson that it's no big deal since the maid has an adoring suitor who'll make a move as soon as the engagement is called off but it's still pretty iffy. Holmes' announcement of his engagement and Watson's reaction to it is really funny though! After that we then get the part where Holmes and Watson break into Milverton's house, which is really suspenseful, and then a shocking scene (even more shocking for the time) where Milverton is gunned down by one of his previous female blackmail victims. Then we get another really suspenseful scene where Holmes and Watson have to make a run for it and then a really funny scene with Holmes, Watson and Lestrade :D
The Adventure of the Abbey Grange - I'm not sure if I like this story enough for it to be in my Sherlock Holmes top 10 but it's certainly a very interesting one. Eustace Brackenstell is one of my most hated fictional characters ever! He's so much worse than Moriarty and Milverton! He repeatedly punched his wife in the face and stabbed her with hatpins! And just to provide some historical context: hatpins were almost a foot long and could be used to kill people. And Brackenstall even set his wife's dog on fire after dousing it with petroleum! What a sick evil b******! I guess the only reason why I like this story is because of Lady Brackenstall. Considering the horrific abuse that she's had to endure from her husband she's still managed to get through it with her spirits and her sanity intact. She's a victim who triumphs over her abuser and she's a badass - another woman in the canon who I'd class as more awesome than Irene Adler. In my head canon she totally married that "fine specimen of manhood" Captain Crocker (Watson's words not mine!) Then they sailed off into the sunset and had epic adventures on the high seas!