Blog – Posted on Tuesday, Jun 30
Guide to Reading the Sherlock Holmes Books
Everyone’s heard of the famous British detective, many have seen one of the thrilling TV/movie adaptations, but not everyone’s read the original Sherlock Holmes books. Trust us — it’s worth it.
The fact that there’s so many Sherlock books (novels as well as short story collections) can be confusing, with newcomers wondering which order they should read them in. The books were also not written in chronological order in terms of plot, and reading them in the order of publication doesn’t help much either. So if you’re new to the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, we’re here to suggest a reasonable order to read them in that should keep things from getting too confusing!
We’ll explain our reasoning below, but without further ado, here’s the order we recommend:
1. A Study in Scarlet
2. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
3. The Sign of Four
4. The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes
5. The Valley of Fear
6. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
7. The Return of Sherlock Holmes
8. His Last Bow
9. The Hound of the Baskervilles
1. A Study in Scarlet (1887, novel)
The first one’s a no-brainer. A Study in Scarlet was the first Sherlock Holmes book to be published in 1887! So if you’re here because of BBC’s Sherlock, take a second to mentally lose the smartphones, cars, GPS systems... and, well, we hate to say it, but Benedict Cumberbatch will have to go too. This novel introduces readers to the original, late-Victorian Sherlock and Watson; it’s the first time the two characters meet, and the book cleverly establishes the dynamic between the duo, with Watson, as narrator, standing in for the reader as he tries to understand Sherlock’s superior mind. The two settle in together at the now-famous fictional apartment at 221B Baker Street in London, and work on a demanding and complicated murder case involving a wedding ring, some pills, a pipe, several telegrams, and a mysterious inscription reading “RACHE”...but you’ll have to read the novel if you want to connect the dots — or, as Sherlock says, unravel the “scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life.” The second half of this novel follows a flashback tale that may seem somewhat off-putting, and is the reason some readers recommend starting with a short story collection, but we still think it’s important for the reader to be introduced to the duo in a chronologically accurate way. So hang on in there for the second half — it’s definitely worth persevering, so you can move on to the next book.
🕵️ Fun fact: A Study in Scarlet is the book that first established the magnifying glass as a tool used by detectives to solve crimes! 🔎
2. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892, short story collection)
The stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are a fantastic way to deepen your understanding of Sherlock’s fascinating personality. The first story in this collection, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia,’ featuring a certain someone called Irene Adler. It was also the story that began the Sherlock fandom, despite not being the first published tale about the detective. For that reason, we think it’s important to deviate slightly from the chronology of publication, in order to get a strong sense of the detective’s intriguing methodologies and attitude. With stories averaging around twenty pages, this is a volume you can dip in and out of whenever you need that satisfying spark of intelligence that Sherlock Holmes never fails to deliver.
3. The Sign of Four (1890, novel)
To return to the order of publication, the second novel in the Sherlock Holmes canon, The Sign of Four, is where Sherlock’s drug use is first depicted and where readers finally begin to see the man behind the detective. This is also the novel where (130-year spoiler alert) Dr. Watson’s future wife, Mary Marston, appears. In this darkly atmospheric book of strange London alleys, a mysterious annual package of pearls, and a vanished father, readers are in for a thicker, more complex plot than short stories can supply!
🕵️ Fun fact: This novel was first published in Lippincott’s Monthly magazine, a literary magazine that also published Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in the same year. Other authors featured in Lippincott’s include Willa Cather and Rudyard Kipling — quite the magazine!
4. The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (1927, short story collection)
Okay, we’re really breaking with the order of publication here, but we think this book is best read before the complicated interconnectedness of The Memoirs and The Return (details below), even though it was the last to be published. In The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, the reader can enjoy a selection of straightforward detective adventures pursued by Holmes and Watson, which can stand autonomously. Two of these stories are actually narrated by Sherlock himself, which makes for an exciting reading experience!
A final note, if you’re trying to be selective and aren’t able to read the entire Sherlock canon: this is often considered the weakest Sherlock Holmes book, with the author seeming tired of the detective by this point in his career. If you leave something out, this should probably be it. This weakness is another reason we recommend not reading this book last even if you’re reading things in order of publication, as it sadly tends to be pretty anticlimactic!
5. The Valley of Fear (1915, novel)
Within the chronology of the Sherlock canon, The Valley of Fear takes place before The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, despite its later publication, since Sherlock states he has never met James Moriarty before. A book cipher message is followed by a mysterious murder at a manor house and a set of strange but promising clues. This novel is one of the most satisfying Sherlock books, and its detailed and well-planned plot is able to convey Holmes and Watson’s detective procedure with a sustained suspense that Conan Doyle doesn’t have the room for in some of his shorter works. Add to that the intrigue of secret societies, and The Valley of Fear is rightly shown to be a simply irresistible tale.
🕵️ Fun fact: The novel is loosely based on the real James McParland and his success against the Molly Maguires secret Irish society — though we would advise you not to Google this stuff before reading the book!
6. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894, short story collection)
Did you know that Arthur Conan Doyle was so tired of writing Sherlock Holmes stories that he killed the beloved detective off in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, but then had to find a way to bring him back to life due to fan outrage? Yep, that’s right; Conan Doyle had written to his mother that Sherlock “[took his] mind from better things.” Though she was horrified and urged him not to do it, he went ahead with it anyway in the last story of this collection, ‘The Final Problem.’ But that’s not the only reason to read this collection — the Memoirs is also where Sherlock’s archenemy Professor James Moriarty and brother Mycroft are introduced to the readers, in ‘The Final Problem’ and ‘The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter’ respectively.
🕵️ Fun fact: Later, Conan Doyle stated the following: “I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do towards paté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.” The 20,000+ people who cancelled their subscriptions to The Strand magazine (where these stories were published) as a result of Sherlock’s death were not happy. It is safe to assume the magazine staff was not happy either.
7. The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905, short story collection)
With The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle “revived” the popular detective — no zombie stuff, don’t worry. He found a way to explain the ending of Memoirs to his readers’ satisfaction, and so the legend continued, set three years after Sherlock’s apparent death. As usual, Dr. Watson is on the reader’s side: just as baffled by Sherlock’s reappearance, he facilitates the clarification of events. The duo finds itself returning to the area near their old Baker Street apartment, though things are not as they were before… Their humorous dialogue, however, is back and as strong as ever!
8. His Last Bow (1917, short story collection)
His Last Bow is the last book in the chronology of Sherlock’s life, but not the last to be published, despite an assurance by Watson that Holmes had retired and would not permit him to write any further books (remember, The Casebook is set in the past). Reaching the public while the First World War was still unfolding, His Last Bow features a final story by the same title where Sherlock and Watson are part of the British intelligence efforts. Their war service includes catching foreign spies and feeding Germany confusing and unreliable intelligence; gone are the days of the duo’s iconic detective work. For this reason, we suggest that you do not end with this book, despite the chronological closure it provides.
9. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902, novel)
The Hound of the Baskervilles was the first book Conan Doyle published after he initially killed Sherlock, and it’s set before the events of that story. This novel is widely considered the best of the Sherlock canon — so we’ve saved the best for last. In Devon’s moors, Charles Baskerville is found dead with a horrified expression, prompting speculation that an old folk story about a demonic hound haunting the area might be true. Sherlock is called to investigate, and so begins this darkly Gothic novel, complete with marshes, suspense, candle signals from nightly windows, and impenetrable fog. Chilling, immersive, and incredibly satisfying, this truly frightening novel will not disappoint. Expertly blending suspense, mystery, and supernatural horror, The Hound of the Baskervilles is an extraordinary literary achievement.
🕵️ Fun fact: The inspiration for this novel came in part from the real legend of Squire Richard Cabell in Devon. The squire was famously immoral and considered evil by the community, and his tomb was said to be visited at night by the ghosts of a pack of hounds that would howl near his grave. Not exactly tourist attraction material!
If the nine original books in the Sherlock Holmes canon still aren’t enough, worry not. Sherlock’s afterlife is still going strong, and now that the character has entered public domain, many Sherlock Holmes books continue to be written even now. So if you’re still thirsty for more, here’s a few recommendations:
1. Shadows Over Baker Street, eds. Michael Reaves and John Pelan
Shadows Over Baker Street is a short story anthology edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan. Here, twenty contemporary writers (including Neil Gaiman!) contribute a story where Sherlock must solve a mystery in the world of H. P. Lovecraft. These creepy and atmospheric tales are the perfect fusion of the mathematical world of logical deduction and the supernatural world of horror.
2. The House of Silk and Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz
Anthony Horowitz, author of the popular Alex Rider series, was authorized by the Conan Doyle estate to write some new Sherlock Holmes pastiche. This has taken the form of two novels, The House of Silk and Moriarty. In the former, which is set in 1890, Sherlock is hired by an art dealer, whose art business has been in trouble with an Irish gang — but as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that the detective has chanced upon a loose thread of a formidable global conspiracy. The latter novel, set after the events of ‘The Final Problem,’ sees detective Frederick Chase team up with Inspector Jones to pursue an emerging criminal mastermind hoping to take Moriarty’s place. Fast-paced, suspenseful, and immensely satisfying, these novels are a wonderful opportunity to re-enter the world of Sherlock Holmes.
3. The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King
The first in a long and very popular series, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice sees a retired Sherlock meet teenage detective talent Mary Russell. The young American’s life is changed when she becomes the detective’s pupil. The book follows the pair from the Sussex Downs to Oxford, Wales, Palestine and back, as they realize they’re facing an opponent more formidable than either of them had anticipated.
4. The Final Solution by Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution sees a retired Sherlock Holmes, referred to only as the “old man,” decipher the meaning of a parrot’s listing of seemingly random German numbers. The parrot belongs to a young German-Jewish refugee boy (the novel is set in 1944), and the bird abruptly disappears as soon as interest in his mumbling begins to grow. Add to that the classic murder ingredient, and Sherlock Holmes has another mystery cut out for him. This suspenseful novella is guaranteed to please Sherlock fans with the clever, funny mystery it poses.
And that’s it! With so much to choose from, we hope your Sherlock needs will be met, and that you’re ready for the incredible journey that lies ahead of you. Put on your deerstalker hat (a detail, by the way, that never appeared in the original text, only in the illustrations), grab your pipe, and let’s go!
Hungry for more? Check out this list of the 30 best mystery books of all time!