The short story format is how most readers are familiar with the adventures of the world’s first consulting detective. Although Sherlock Holmes’s first adventure was presented as a novel-length account, fifty-six of the sixty original published stories were short narratives. So it would seem only natural that authors would return to this form when they take up their own pens and try their hand at the world of the Master Detective. There are a multitude of anthologies and collections of Sherlock Holmes stories, of various themes and formats, from the more traditional The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, to the more fantastic The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
The short story format also offers writers the opportunity to experiment with characters, settings, or plot devices, which might otherwise be difficult to commit to over the course of a longer story or novel. The following three short stories, while naturally all revolving around Sherlock Holmes and the variables of his universe, all also make use of a variety of different aspects of narration and perspective. I have spoken elsewhere about the limitations and benefits of the restricted narrative perspective in the Sherlock Holmes canon, but the authors of the following stories were burdened by no such restraints or constrictions, and the results are another crisply defined angle in the Sherlockian prism.
“The Adventure of the Apprentice’s Coin” (Darlene Cypser, May 2011):
After reading Darlene Cypser’s novel, The Crack in the Lens¸ which features a teenaged Sherlock Holmes, I immediately wondered how she would take on a more “traditional” Sherlock Holmes story (“traditional,” that is, at least in terms of the Detective’s age and locale). Cypser’s “The Adventure of the Apprentice’s Coin” seemed the very answer to my unspoken request. After a brutal attack and being left for dead in an alleyway, Sherlock Holmes is tenuously recovering from his injuries back at Baker Street under the care of Dr. Watson. But when the young silversmith’s apprentice who saved Holmes’s life is accused of passing a counterfeit coin, Holmes must solve the mystery without leaving his bed.
When readers purchase “The Adventure of the Apprentice’s Coin,” they are actually getting two stories: a “traditional” first person narrative from Dr. Watson’s limited perspective, and then a third person narrative from an omniscient point-of-view. Cypser’s third person narrative brilliantly shows how, even if the reader knows the solution to the mystery (as he or she should, after finishing the first person perspective), that sometimes details are left out of the final telling. Cypser leaves it up to her reader whether or not those details are ultimately important or superfluous.
“The Adventure of the Apprentice’s Coin” is available for both the Kindle and Nook. More information about The Crack in the Lens is available here. You can also follow the author on Twitter.
“A Hansom for Mr. Holmes” (Gillian Linscott, September 2002):
Sometimes, I think it is easy for all devotees of Sherlock Holmes to assume that everyone in Holmes’s sphere was similarly committed. Why wouldn’t the Great Detective be accommodated without complaint: restaurants held open, various services rendered gratis, all manner of personages available for any request by sending a mere telegram? Furthermore, what cabdriver would not be honored to convey Mr. Sherlock Holmes as he embarks on his exciting escapades? Well, as the cabdriver in Gillian Linscott’s “A Hansom for Mr. Holmes” tells the reader, there is a very good reason for cabbies to stay away from Baker Street—and many of the experienced ones do!
“And if trouble’s what you don’t want,” the cabbie says, “you certainly don’t go driving up and down Baker Street waiting for some geezer to shout, ‘A hansom for Mr. Holmes’ (129).” Unfortunately for the narrating cabdriver, he is distracted on a particular evening and drives down Baker Street anyway, and before long, he hears that dreaded call. Linscott’s story presents a narrator with a unique perspective on Baker Street’s most famous tenant. Again, it is easy for readers to assume that once the case is solved, that the story is over, but Linscott’s short story is an extremely humorous reminder that even the Great Detective’s actions had consequences and repercussions—and occasionally a cabdriver was left in his wake of deductive destruction.
I found Gillian Linscott’s “A Hanson for Mr. Holmes” in the short story anthology Murder in Baker Street, which was edited by the incomparable Martin H. Greenberg, Jon Lellenberg, and Daniel Stashower. Copies are available on Amazon, and if you find this tale in another collection, let me know.
“The Aristotelian” (Steve Poling, April 2011):
From the outset, Steve Poling’s short story is a bit of a rare gem. Told from the perspective a young Mycroft Holmes, “The Aristotelian” follows the oldest Holmes brother as he tries to prevent Sherlock from taking reckless measures in the wake of their mother’s untimely death; and when he cannot stop his brother, it is up to Mycroft to control the damage that Sherlock wreaks. While there is a larger mystery at work—a heavy shadow hanging in the background of the story—Mycroft’s own extraordinary powers are torn between his sometimes wild younger sibling (who spends a large portion of the story awkwardly trying out some of the deductive powers that he will wield so expertly as an adult) and their distracted and indifferent father.
Mycroft’s narration oftentimes seems detached and clinical—and perfectly in character with the man that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle presented—but his apparent disinterest is offset by the determination with which he tries to shield his younger brother, and console his isolated father. Indeed, Mycroft Holmes is a layered character, his relationship with his brother complex, and Poling’s use of Mycroft as a narrator is a perfect presentation of all those elements.
Steve Poling’s “The Aristotelian” is available on Amazon for the Kindle, and Smashwords for the Nook, and other compatible devices.
Sometimes, it is nice to return Sherlock Holmes to the form in which we knew him best. The short story format does not require a lengthy time commitment from the reader, and therefore, a shorter period of suspended disbelief. Authors are free to try out new plot techniques, or introduce new characters to see how they are received. Perhaps there is a reason that Sherlock Holmes spent most of his time in short stories—he certainly seemed the most comfortable there.
Congratulations to James Clelland, who is the winner of the “Ideal Sherlock Holmes Story” contest! He will receive a prize package of three Sherlock Holmes pastiches, including The Italian Secretary, by Caleb Carr, The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls, by John R. King, and The Sherlockian, by Graham Moore. Thank you to everyone who played!