In his delightful new book, The Great Detective, Zach Dundas recalls that magic moment when he first encountered Sherlock Holmes:
I discovered a thick, brick-red-covered, dog-eared book in my school library in Montana one suitably frigid winter’s day when I was about eleven years old. The volume bore some pre-gender-equity title like The Boys’ Sherlock Holmes. It smelled faintly of mold and many small hands. I opened to the first story, spied the exotic, very adult title “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and tumbled in. In some sense, I suppose, I was never seen again.
Later he refers again to “The Boys’ Sherlock Holmes (or whatever it was).”
That’s exactly what it was. At least, there is a very fine book of that title edited by Howard Haycraft, best known as the author of the classic Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story. And it is a volume that means a lot to me, for it was the first Holmes book I ever read. I borrowed it one Saturday in the early 1960s from the main branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. (I later cleverly arranged my life so that I now work right across the street from that very building.)
In my opinion, the line-up of stories for readers new to the Great Detective is an excellent one. In addition to an introduction and an essay on Dr. Joseph Bell as the model for Holmes, Haycraft included A Study in Scarlet (with the American section summarized for young readers), The Sign of Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and a half-dozen of the finest short stories from The Adventures and The Memoirs. (“A Scandal in Bohemia” is among them, but not the first.)
When I had a chance to buy a 1961 edition of the book some years ago, I couldn’t resist. I’ve held it in my hands many times since, but never read it. Therefore, I was taken aback when Dundas commented that the editor expurgated some scenes for younger readers. I opened the volume to The Sign of Four and immediately saw that he was right. The shocking opening passage with the cocaine – gone! Holmes coming full circle at the end with cocaine again – gone!
No matter. I’m not normally in favor of tampering with perfection, but in this case that eccentricity just adds to the charm of a book that I encountered more than half a century ago and am pleased to have in my library now.