If the stories are clues, and the mystery is Sherlock Holmes, then a reader can come to the conclusions that contradict the “common knowledge” mythos that surrounds 221b Baker Street.
Firstly, Holmes’ attitude toward women. In this, he is both strikingly chivalrous and possesses a deep sympathy for women who are victims of tyrannous men (usually their fathers). He becomes almost a father figure to Miss Mary Sutherland in “A Case of Identity,” to Miss Helen Stoner in “The Speckled Band,” and to Miss Violet Hunter in “The Copper Beeches.” He also acts with great solicitude toward Miss Kate Whitney and Mrs St Clair in “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” even though neither lady shows the self-sufficiency or intelligence of the single ladies previously mentioned. Indeed, it is independence in women, especially those forced into employment, that impresses Holmes, especially in the case of the confused governess in “The Copper Beeches.” Still, these kinds of attitudes are not wholly surprising (unless one wants to imagine the entire male population of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as hard-hearted misogynists—many of the villains in these pieces certainly are). Holmes also seems to have sympathy, to an extent, for the women whose motivations have led them astray, such as Miss Hatty Doran in “The Noble Bachelor” and Mary the niece in “The Beryl Coronet.” However, we should not imagine this empathy confined to only one gender, as it’s Holmes’ affinities with young men which is usually instrumental in saving them from wrongful punishment, like Arthur Holder in “The Beryl Coronet” and young Mr McCarthy in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.” However, by saying “affinity” I would probably offend Holmes, given he insists all of his powers are purely intellectual/scientific. If he was honest with himself, however, I think he would admit experience à instinct which, with the right application of the Scientific Method, can be very useful in detective work.
Now, we’ve talked about women and Holmes in general, what about THE woman? Irene Adler has become a postmodern cult figure, so it surprising to find in “Scandal in Bohemia,” Adler is unconventional only in the sense that she is an actress with a slightly quicker brain than Holmes’. She behaves in a sorrowfully stereotypical manner when she takes the “poor, wounded clergyman” into her home. And yet, this is probably what impresses Holmes about her; just the right touch of conventional femininity (nowhere is their evidence that she is particularly radical, subversive, or graphically sexual—she behaves in pretty much the manner any stage personality in her position would have; the difference being she got away with it) matched with a penchant for disguise.
While several of the stories were insubstantial fluff (“The Red Headed League,” I’m looking at you) I was pleasantly surprised to get past the notion of Holmes-in-London: several of the stories are better if you were familiar with the US in the 1870s, or Australia at about the same time, and my favorite story, “The Speckled Band,” brought Indian fauna to rural England. Holmes and Watson did not hesitate to pursue crime and villainy to the provinces. Holmes made full use of his ability to go undercover, as in “The Beryl Coronet,” “A Scandal in Bohemia,” etc. “The Noble Bachelor” was one of my favorites, simply read as farce, but “The Engineer’s Thumb” did not really seem to fit—as a suspense story, certainly, but there was very little detective work going on.
Watson began to annoy me a little. Holmes was constantly telling him to “observe,” and though Watson got marginally better, his progress was so slow, I wonder sometimes that he was much help at all! And that brings s to another fallacy about Holmes: the brooding misanthrope. Far less than in Sign of Four was I struck by Holmes’ annoyance, impatience, or boredom. The Holmes of these stories is a humorous man, who can even give a Christmas-themed mystery with a happy ending in “The Blue Carbuncle.” In a few places, he seemed to dismiss the police and make fun of them, as personified in LeStrade, especially during “The Noble Bachelor.” Yet overall, he remained remarkably courteous to all; in fact he could spare a lot more time for governesses like Miss Violet Hunter than he could the King of Bohemia and Lord St Simon.