Sometime around 1900, a great-great uncle of mine decided to collect all the “important” books in the English language. A Confederate veteran, he lived near the one-horse town of Reddick, Florida. Somehow, after he died, my grandfather ended up with his collection.
Those books sat in an unused room like a treasure trove, waiting for the lucky hunter to strike gold. As we were growing up, my two brothers and I spent four months of each year with my grandparents. I read hundreds of books from the collection, but what I remember most is a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle.
“The Adventure of the Red-Headed League” is atypical of most Sherlock Holmes stories in that it contains a thread of humor. As a young child who had never read a mystery story, I remember not knowing whether to laugh or enjoy the life-or-death game being played out beneath the streets of London. But I knew one thing: I had to read more stories about Sherlock Holmes and his partner, Dr. Watson.
Sometime later, I found The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes. Those tales took me from a stifling, un-air conditioned Florida farmhouse to Victorian London where carriages rattled over cobblestone streets and a great detective seemed to make the mysterious disappear like fog.
I love all the stories, but some of my favorites, in addition to “The Red-Headed League,” are: “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”; “Silver Blaze”; and “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.”
Doyle himself was a Renaissance man who wrote compulsively about his many interests. Throughout his long life he published historical novels such as Micah Clarke, The White Company, The Refugees and many other forgettable and forgotten titles. He also wrote historical non-fiction.
Late in life, after the death of his son, the grieving Doyle turned to Spiritualism and wrote many tomes on that subject. Finally, as he neared death, the creator of Sherlock Holmes stated that he hoped to be remembered for his “serious” works. But books such as The Doings of Raffles Haw and The Tragedy of the Korosko quickly sank into the mire of obscurity. Whatever their merits, Doyle today is remembered only for the great detective he created.
Several times, he attempted to kill off Holmes, but readers wouldn't have it. Only after World War I was Doyle able to gracefully send an aging Sherlock Holmes into retirement.
I keep coming back to my great-great uncle. I always wondered what prompted him to build his vast collection. Did his books transport him, like me, out of the dull now back to an exciting yesterday?
The game is afoot. Dr. Watson writes: “I had called upon my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, one day in the autumn of last year and found him in deep conversation with a very stout, florid-faced, elderly gentleman with fiery red hair…”