The 12 Best Sherlock Holmes Stories, According to Arthur Conan Doyle
After All, He Should Know
In June of 1891, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” the first short story featuring everyone’s favorite consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, was published in The Strand Magazine. (A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four, both novels, had already been printed elsewhere.) Readers loved it, magazine sales soared, and Conan Doyle would go on to publish a total of 4 novels and 56 short stories about Sherlock Homes, with most of the stories published in the Strand between 1891 and 1927.
In March of 1927, just before the final volume of Sherlock Holmes stories, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, was due to be published in book form, the Strand introduced a competition for its readers. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself would select the very best (that is, his own favorite) Holmes stories, and whichever fan guessed the author’s list “most nearly” would win £100 and an autographed copy of Conan Doyle’s Memories and Adventures. “It is as a little test of the opinion of the public that I inaugurate the small competition announced here,” Conan Doyle wrote in the Strand. “I have drawn up a list of the twelve short stories contained in the four published volumes [that is, excepting The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, for reasons he explains in full later on] which I consider to be the best, and I should like to know to what extent my choice agrees with that of Strand readers. I have left my list in a sealed envelope with the Editor of the Strand.”
In June of 1927, the Editor (presumably) opened the envelope. The list appeared with Conan Doyle’s explanations:
When this competition was first mooted I went into it in a most light-hearted way, thinking that it would be the easiest thing in the world to pick out the twelve best of the Holmes stories. In practice I found that I had engaged myself in a serious task. In the first place I had to read the stories myself with some care. ‘Steep, steep, weary work,’ as the Scottish landlady remarked.
I began by eliminating altogether the last twelve stories, which are scattered through The Strand for the last five or six years. They are about to come out in volume form under the title The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, but the public could not easily get at them. Had they been available I should have put two of them in my team—namely, “The Lion’s Mane” and “The Illustrious Client.” The first of these is hampered by being told by Holmes himself, a method which I employed only twice, as it certainly cramps the narrative. On the other hand, the actual plot is among the very best of the whole series, and for that it deserves its place. “The Illustrious Client,” on the other hand, is not remarkable for plot, but it has a certain dramatic quality and moves adequately in lofty circles, so I should also have found a place for it.
However, these being ruled out, I am now faced with some forty odd candidates to be weighed against each other. There are certainly some few an echo of which has come to me from all parts of the world, and I think this is the final proof of merit of some sort. There is the grim snake story, “The Speckled Band.” That, I am sure, will be on every list. Next to that in popular favor and in my own esteem I would place “The Red-Headed League” and “The Dancing Men,” on account in each case of the originality of the plot. Then we could hardly leave out the story which deals with the only foe who ever really extended Holmes, and which deceived the public (and Watson) into the erroneous inference of his death. Also, I think the first story should go in, as it opened the path for the others, and as it has more female interest than is usual. Finally, I think the story which essays the difficult task of explaining away the alleged death of Holmes, and which also introduces such a villain as Colonel Sebastian Moran, should have a place. This puts “The Final Problem,” “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and “The Empty House” upon our list, and we have got our first half-dozen.
But now comes the crux. There are a number of stories which really are a little hard to separate. On the whole I think I should find a place for “The Five Orange Pips,” for though it is short it has a certain dramatic quality of its own. So now only five places are left. There are two stories which deal with high diplomacy and intrigue. They are both among the very best of the series. The one is “The Naval Treaty” and the other “The Second Stain.” There is no room for both of them in the team, and on the whole I regard the latter as the better story. Therefore we will put it down for the eighth place.
And now which? “The Devil’s Foot” has points. It is grim and new. We will give it the ninth place. I think also that “The Priory School” is worth a place if only for the dramatic moment when Holmes points his finger at the Duke. I have only two places left. I hesitate between “Silver Blaze,” “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” “The Crooked Man,” “The Man With the Twisted Lip,” “The ‘Gloria Scott’,” “The Greek Interpreter,” “The Reigate Squires,” “The Musgrave Ritual” and “The Resident Patient.” On what principle am I to choose two out of those? The racing detail in “Silver Blaze” is very faulty, so we must disqualify him. There is little to choose between the others. A small thing would turn the scale. “The Musgrave Ritual” has a historical touch which gives it a little added distinction. It is also a memory from Holmes’s early life. So now we come to the very last. I might as well draw the name out of a bag, for I see no reason to put one before the other. Whatever their merit—and I make no claim for that—they are all as good as I could make them. On the whole Holmes himself shows perhaps most ingenuity in “The Regiate Squires,” and therefore this shall be twelfth man in my team.
It is proverbially a mistake for a judge to give his reasons, but I have analyzed mine if only to show any competitors that I really have taken some trouble in the matter.
The list is therefore as follows:
1. The Speckled Band
2. The Red-Headed League
3. The Dancing Men
4. The Final Problem
5. A Scandal in Bohemia
6. The Empty House
7. The Five Orange Pips
8. The Second Stain
9. The Devil’s Foot
10. The Priory School
11. The Musgrave Ritual
12. The Reigate Squires
As Peter Haining, editor of The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the collection of Holmes-related artifacts and ephemera from which I have sourced Conan Doyle’s Strand essays, has pointed out, after this essay, Conan Doyle never wrote another word about his most famous creation. He died only a few years later, in 1930.