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The canonical Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle comprise:

  • four novellas:
    • A Study in Scarlet
    • The Sign of Four
    • The Hound of the Baskervilles
    • The Valley of Fear
  • fifty-six short stories, separated into five collections:
    • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (12 stories)
    • The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (11-12 stories)
    • The Return of Sherlock Holmes (13 stories)
    • His Last Bow (7-8 stories)
    • The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (12 stories)

These were published between 1887 and 1927, and set between around 1800 and 1914. Some of them are set during the period when Holmes and Watson lived together at 221b Baker Street, and others during the period after Watson's marriage when they saw less of each other. But the cutoff point in-universe between these two periods is roughly marked by The Sign of Four, when Watson meets his wife, and this was only the second story to be published; so clearly the chronological and publication orders do not agree. Still other stories are set much earlier, before Holmes and Watson met (e.g. "The Adventure of the Gloria Scott", Holmes's first case) or much later, after Holmes retires (e.g. "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane").

My question is: given all these complications, in which order should one read the complete Sherlock Holmes?

Some suborderings are obvious: for instance, "The Final Problem" should be read directly before "The Adventure of the Empty House", and "A Study in Scarlet" should most likely be read first despite not being chronologically first in-universe. But has anyone worked out a complete list of all the Sherlock Holmes stories, in an order in which they can best be appreciated?

Publication order?
In-universe chronological order?
Something else?

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TL;DR:

Begin your Holmesian adventure with short stories from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Continue with the early novels before moving on to the later short stories. End with The Valley of Fear and then The Hound of the Baskervilles, to see Holmes (and Doyle) at his finest. The order is, for the most part, chronological.


Phase 1: Start with short stories from the first two series.

The classic Holmesian tale involves elements of deduction from seemingly nonexistent details, whether they be a piece of fabric or a burn mark. To understand the way Sherlock Holmes thinks, you need to read one of these to catch a glimpse of his methodology. Holmes is not just a man; he is a character for study, and his depth is what puts Doyle above so many other writers in detective fiction. He's inscrutable, irrepressible, and always unpredictable, and you cannot just pick up, say, The Hound of the Baskervilles and understand the complete persona of Sherlock Holmes.

The short stories are, of course, the best place to start. In 20 or so pages, you can see an example of the sleuth's mind and personality, while getting to used to observing him work, through Watson. While there's no typical story, I'd recommend starting with one from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. A Case of Identity would be my pick, as it begins with some marvelous deductions by Holmes and ends with a resolution nobody could have seen coming - yet at that point, you see the pieces fall into place as clear as day.

You might be tempted to start with the story published first in that collection, A Scandal in Bohemia. Don't. It is an outlier in the Holmesian saga, an unusual and compelling tale that I think is best appreciated only after you get to know the detective. It shows parts of his personality that are only rarely apparent elsewhere - love, even - and involves a case unlike any other. It is atypical, and while it might interest you, I'd recommend starting with something more ordinary.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes are rather similar in style, I feel, and so the stories can be read in various orders. There is extremely little overall plot change within them, and while in a certain story Holmes may reference past cases, they are largely self-contained. Doyle's style is roughly constant, if memory serves. This collection can be picked up and put down at any point.

I would, however, advise reading The Final Problem last out of all of them - for continuity's sake - as you acknowledged in the question. It is perhaps one of the most important short stories in the initial arc. I also happen to like reading The Adventure of the Naval Treaty directly before this, because I love it, but it's not mandatory.

Phase 2: Mix something else in - A Study in Scarlet or The Sign of the Four.

After a while, you may get bored. Each short story will challenge you, but the format can get tiresome after 24 of them. I encourage you to try one of the longer standalone works. I would prefer A Study in Scarlet or The Sign of the Four, which go into Holmes' methodology in more detail and present a story arc - which you don't see as much in any of the short stories. Both of these books were published before any of the short stories, but they can be challenging to slog through. I'd wait until you're comfortable with the style before going on to these.

I suggest mixing them in after reading perhaps ten or twelve short stories - or earlier, if you want. But read them in one sitting. Do not start one and then go back to the short stories. Confusion may follow. I also happen to think that there are many cases where reading a book from start to finish is the best way to appreciate it, and this is one of those times.

Phrase 3: Go back to the new short stories.

Note: Re-read The Final Problem, to refamiliarize yourself with it and see how the arc it begins evolves into the next series.

Doyle, feeling extreme pressure by fans, brought Holmes back from the dead after killing him off - in a fashion many may know about, but which I'm not going to reveal. He eventually published The Return of Sherlock Holmes, another series of short stories. In my mind, these are worse than the original two collections (after all, there was an 11-year gap between this and the originals!). They feel forced, and the plots get ever more intricate, astonishing, sensational and, quite frankly, hard to believe. I find some unsatisfying; at any rate, I can tell the difference in style.

Try to read these 13 together, as a group (start with The Adventure of the Empty House, Holmes' return). Don't mix them in with the other two collections; there's just something wrong. Maybe others disagree. At any rate, quality aside, I do feel like The Return of Sherlock Holmes was written with suspense in mind, not the pure intellectual investigation. My same criticism holds for His Last Bow and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. However, I don't remember them all as clearly as I remember the first three series.

Phrase 4: Finish up the novels.

First, read The Valley of Fear. It's likely my least favorite of the four novels - again, I think suspense plays a bigger role than pure mystery - but it's still worth a read. I'd recommend reading it last, so you keep a rough chronological order for the novels, but I think it lacks a sense of closure.

Finish off your Holmesian adventure with The Hound of the Baskervilles. Doyle wrote this to fight off the clamor of fans when Holmes was "dead", and so it was a throwback, in a sense, but it is quite self-contained. Doyle creates a unique cast of characters - none too hard to believe, in fact - and keeps suspense and intellectual mystery in a good balance. It does have a sense of closure, which The Valley of Fear does not, even though it is not part of the larger canon. It can be read apart from everything else, of course, but you really should know Holmes, in all his full glory, to appreciate his struggles in this book.


Summary

So, here's my recommendations:

  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, in no particular order. Mix and match from the two as you wish.
  2. A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four - again, in no real order.
  3. The Return of Sherlock Holmes
  4. His Last Bow and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, in any order.
  5. The Valley of Fear
  6. The Hound of the Baskervilles

This is somewhat chronological - which makes some sense; I think Doyle's best work was at the beginning.

  • 1
    I like most of this (+1 especially for NOT starting with A Scandal in Bohemia), but I have a few doubts. Most importantly, would someone completely new to Holmes get a good introduction to him by starting with the short stories, instead of meeting him together with Watson in A Study in Scarlet? – Rand al'Thor Jan 20 '17 at 2:24
  • It might also be worth noting that each of A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear devotes the entire second half to a completely different kind of story, a flashback tale of adventure set on a different continent and not featuring Holmes at all. This can be somewhat jarring, especially to new readers (I certainly found it so). I might even recommend reading only the first half of each of these stories, maybe coming back to the second half later if you're really keen or a completist. – Rand al'Thor Jan 20 '17 at 2:26
  • @Randal'Thor I think I'm a bit on the fence on starting with one of those novels vs. starting with the stories. I think the quintessential Holmes lies in the short stories, and not in the novels. If you want to get a good picture of him, read some of those first. It's also better for readers who may not know if they even want to read Doyle at all. You can do a better evaluation after reading a few of the stories and getting a feel for the characters. – HDE 226868 Jan 20 '17 at 2:30
  • @Randal'Thor Regarding those two novels: You're right; it's been a while since I read those. I forgot about how I felt about the ends. – HDE 226868 Jan 20 '17 at 2:30
  • @Randal'Thor I think starting with the short stories makes reading the first meeting later all the more enjoyable, because of the anticipation. – muru Jan 20 '17 at 2:34
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HDE's great answer is much more detailed than mine and has more reasoning for each of his reading order choices, but with that in mind, I thought I'd chime in.

I've read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I'd say to have a full appreciation for the literary masterpiece Doyle created, an absolute beginner to the series should start with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, in which Doyle is in the prime of his writing ability. Reading it first will give you a good feel for his writing style as well as what to expect from other Sherlock stories. My favorite story within that collection is The Speckled Band, which I'd consider to be one of the best Sherlock stories Doyle ever wrote.

I'd personally follow that with A Study in Scarlet, because it really allows you to appreciate how far Doyle advanced in terms of pure writing ability from his first to his last story. While you're at it, I'd opt for reading both The Valley of Fear and The Sign of Four, as they both contain similar literary technique and the plot isn't half-bad.

As for the rest, I really don't see a large difference in the order you read them in, but my personal preference would be to go from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes to The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes to The Return of Sherlock Holmes. That progression, I think, at least, provides a good sense of natural continuity (well, as naturally continuous as you can get with Sherlock Holmes).

I'd finish with His Last Bow and complete your Sherlock experience by finishing with The Hound of the Baskervilles.

In all,

  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
  2. A Study in Scarlet
  3. The Valley of Fear
  4. The Sign of Four
  5. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
  6. The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes
  7. The Return of Sherlock Holmes
  8. His Last Bow
  9. The Hound of the Baskervilles

If this is of any significance to you, this Sherlock fan site, has this recommended reading order:

A complete beginner should probably start with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, either the whole book at one whack or a couple of selections, particularly "The Speckled Band" and maybe "The Boscombe Valley Mystery". Those are among the best and at the same time the most characteristic of the stories. After the Adventures, maybe The Hound of the Baskervilles, and after that, whatever. Reading the stories in order is a very bad idea because the first one in particular, A Study in Scarlet, was written when Doyle was young and still learning, and is not by any means either strong or typical.

  • Interesting how both you and HDE recommend ending with The Hound of the Baskervilles. My edition of the Complete SH ends with His Last Bow and The Casebook of SH, which does feel like ... something of an anticlimax. I imagine finishing off with the most famous Holmes story of them all would probably be much more satisfying. – Rand al'Thor Jan 20 '17 at 2:33
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I just have to say I've only just started reading the books after watching the series. I've read Study in Scarlet and Hound of the Baskerville's (didn't realise Sign of Four, which I just started, was the one that comes after Study in Scarlet) and I'm very content with where I've started. I absolutely loved Scarlet and really enjoyed the flashback personally, and felt like seeing Watson's very first impression of Sherlock is a good place to begin? I'm surprised that no one here has recommended starting with Scarlet, and you all seem to even discourage it haha. Maybe watching the modern series (the Cumberbatch one, and watched the Irons one when I was little) has made getting into the books easier for me, I don't know. But I'm loving them so far and as of now, would recommend a beginner start with Study in Scarlet. I'll update this comment after I've finished the rest of the books (should be done in the next few days) to see if I think there's a better place to start after I've read more! :)

  • Welcome to Stack Exchange, and thanks for your answer! I tend to agree that A Study in Scarlet is a good place to start because it provides an introduction to Holmes for unfamiliar readers. Looking forward to your edits to this answer :-) By the way, if you haven't used Stack Exchange before, you might like to take the short tour, since this site doesn't work in the same way as a typical forum. – Rand al'Thor Aug 20 '18 at 9:23
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OK, here's my two cents.(or How I read that book)

PART 1:

Start with The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes. Complete that or read as many as you can. You could go as it is in your book or mix up a few chapters, it doesn't matter since almost every story is independent. Don't go to the memoirs, just yet. Again, The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes is the best to begin with since it would actually pique your interest more than the novels can. Plus, it contains one of the better stories like "The Speckled Band".

PART 2:

Go on to the "The Study in Scarlet" It gives you an insight into the early days of Sherlock and Watson and some horrible habits of Sherlock. In any case, you could either finish the novel or read just the first half of it. The Second half is in no way related to nor does it features Sherlock. My experience is that the second half really drains you. I read the first half and after reading a little of the second half, abandoned it. Then, move on to "The Sign Of Four". Do the same, read the first parts and if you can, without getting bored, read the second part as well. I prefer reading only the first part.

PART 3:

Now, go on with the Memoirs Of Sherlock Holmes. I believe this is the best part of the whole book(at least, in my opinion). You could go on in just about any order you want, but save "The Final Problem" for the last. Then, move on with to "The Return Of Sherlock Holmes" and begin with "The Empty House" since The Final Problem and The Empty House are tangentially related. Again, "The Return Of The Sherlock Holmes" is one of the finest part of the whole book, with "The Dancing Men" being my personal favourite. AT this time, you would have completed around 50-60% of the book. One of the problems with "The Return Of Sherlock Holmes" is that it isn't chronological. At one point, Watson lives alone while in the next story, he is Found in Baker Street.

PART 4

Read "The Valley Of Fear" I sincerely believe that it is way better than The Study in Scarlet or The Sign Of Four. Here, You would get a tangential connection to Moriarty. And, it's here that Arthur Conan Doyle makes a small error. In The Valley Of Fear, Watson claims to recognise Moriarty as The Famous Scientific Criminal Mastermind, but in "The Final Problem", Watson claims to have never heard of him. Also, The Valley Of Fear tangentially connects Moriarty's sidekicks to the main protagonist, if I remember correctly and hence, this would be somewhat of a continuation to either of "The Final Problem" Or "The Empty House".Then continue with "The Last Bow" and "The Casebook Of Sherlock Holmes" in whichever order you like.They just contain some other stories of Sherlock and his great detective skills and don't really have an overall "meta" plot and don't really give a sense of finality.

PART 5

Finish up, if any, the Study in Scarlet or The Sign of Four and end with "The Hounds Of Baskerville" Leaving the best for the last. As others have noted, you could read this novel entirely on its own, but Getting familiarity with Holmes's method would actually help you appreciate this novel more. It also gives a pretty much satisfying conclusion to the whole book.

  • Could you edit this answer to include less unsupported opinion and more objective reasoning? (See also this meta post on reading-order questions.) Especially in Part 4 of your answers, which is almost purely subjective. I'm not downvoting this, because you have included some reasoning for parts of your ordering, but I don't feel I can upvote until you flesh it out with more explanation. – Rand al'Thor Feb 4 '17 at 19:51
  • @Randal'Thor I have tried to offer a bit more explanation on the said parts. – Sid Feb 4 '17 at 20:29

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