The Oxford World’s Classics Sherlock Holmes: A New Edition

Four days ago saw the release of the Oxford World’s Classics’ new editions of the Holmes canon. These editions contain fresh introductions and up to date explanatory notes. I was fortunate enough to win a copy of The Return of Sherlock Holmes on Twitter, so I thought I would use this reprint to shine a light on the new series as a whole. In particular I wanted to show why these latest editions might be of interest. What do they have to offer? What type of readers are they designed for? To answer these two questions, I will be paying close attention to the introduction written by Christopher Pittard for new edition of The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Oxford World's Classic cover for The Return of Sherlock Holmes. It has a mustard yellow background with a circle in the middle of a lighter shade. In front of this is a depiction of a man, presumably Holmes.

For the Reader Just Starting Out with Holmes

As you would expect from this publisher this new edition provides the beginner Holmes reader with a chronology of Doyle’s life, a suggested further reading list and revised explanatory notes for each story at the back of the collection, (although these can help veteran Holmes readers too).

If you are very new to the Holmes stories then it might be best to read the collection, alongside one of the earlier ones, such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, before returning to read the introduction. That way you can avoid any spoilers and you can better appreciate the way in which the introduction explores how The Return of Sherlock Holmes, fits within and interacts with other parts of the Holmes’ canon. For instance, Pittard writes that ‘Doyle reworks previous stories, not to cannibalize plots (as he would in later collections), but to cast them in new light.’ I thought the examples subsequently provided were well chosen and they were interesting to read about. Another idea which interested me, and which does not spoil the plots of earlier stories is how:

‘Holmes is not quite the same as in the Adventures or Memoirs, being slightly harsher in tone, and the often violent universe of the Return takes readers back to the start of the Holmes canon in A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four.’

This is not an idea that I had considered before.

For the Reader Who Enjoys the Nitty Gritty Details

The introduction also includes information concerning the contract and publication history of the series. This is a topic which will interest some readers more than others, but I think everyone will be impressed with the different estimates given for how much Doyle was paid for each story. $4000 is considered the most likely price, but some wilder contemporary newspaper estimates suggest up to nearly $16,000! In addition, I enjoyed finding out how the series ended up with 13 stories rather than 12.

Oxford World's Classic cover for A Study in Scarlet. It has a red/pink background with a circle in the middle of a lighter shade. In front of this is a depiction of a man, presumably Holmes, dressed in a long gentleman's dressing gown.

For the Reader Who Wants the Bigger Picture

A strength of Pittard’s introduction is that he does a good job of helping readers get a better idea of the wider literary context of this short story collection, in particular how it:

‘[…] needs to be understood in the context of developments in detective fiction in the 1890s beyond Holmes’ ‘death’ in ‘The Final Problem’ (1893), and his spectral not-quite-resurrection in the retrospective novel The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901). While there is no doubt that Doyle was ultimately the most successful writer of this genre in the 1890s and 1900s, modern detective fiction criticism has challenged accounts which unreflectively situate Doyle at the centre of late Victorian crime writing, a kind of popular culture sun around whom other practitioners orbited […]’.

Naturally there are limits to how much Pittard can discuss this large topic, but I think he gets the ball rolling well, inspiring readers to go on to do their own further research and reading. Three of the main detective story writers he looks at, which flourished in the decade between ‘The Final Problem’ and ‘The Empty House’ are L. T. Meade, Arthur Morrison, and Allan Grant. If this is a subject that interests you then I would recommend, like Pittard does, the work of Clare Clarke. Pittard mentions her earlier study, Late Victorian Detective Fiction in the Shadows of Sherlock Holmes (2014), whilst I have reviewed her more recent work, British Detective Fiction 1891-1901: The Successors to Sherlock Holmes (2020).

Contemporary reactions to The Return of Sherlock Holmes are also quoted and commented upon. This makes the introduction a handy resource for those seeking that kind of information.

Oxford World's Classic cover for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It has a blue background with a circle in the middle of a lighter shade. In front of this is a depiction of a man, presumably Holmes. He is wearing his dressing gown and he is sitting crossed legged and smoking his pipe.

For the Reader Who Wants to Know the Personal Details

An example of how Pittard writes his introduction in an intelligent but accessible way is that he opens with a pertinent anecdote from 1909, in which Doyle was faced with a Cornish fisherman’s serious criticism that Holmes was not the same after he went over the Reichenbach Falls. This is not just an amusing encounter to kickstart off the introduction, as it is also used as a springboard by Pittard for considering the short story collection more widely as a form of resurrection.

This next point could go in more than one section, but it felt like a more personal detail to me. Jean Leckie, who would become Doyle’s second wife, provided plot ideas for the stories found in The Return of Sherlock Holmes collection and Pittard mentions how Doyle discussed the stories more during the writing process. Her role is not something I was aware about.

I also found it interesting to read about Doyle’s reaction to contemporary criticism concerning the stories, alongside his own misgivings about his work. One example Pittard includes in his introduction is about ‘The Solitary Cyclist’ as in a letter dated 14th May 1903, Doyle wrote: ‘It has points but as a whole is not up to the mark. But if I get two right out of three it is as good a proportion as I have ever had.’ I found this resigned attitude intriguing, as I wondered what it said more widely about Doyle’s response towards returning to writing Holmes short stories. Evidence from Doyle’s letters is consistently well used in Pittard’s introduction.

For the Reader Who Prefers a Thematic Approach

Several themes are used as lenses for considering The Return of Sherlock Holmes as a whole and I felt these themes were discussed engagingly. There are two which caught my attention the most. The first is theme of education. Pittard notes in this collection that:

‘Watson’s previous role is now taken by the young police inspector Stanley Hopkins in stories such as ‘Black Peter’ and ‘The Abbey Grange,’ in which Holmes takes on the position of mentor interested in Hopkins’ career […] In this regard, then, Hopkins embodies the recurrent fascination of the Return with metaphors of pedagogy and education. So closely associated is Holmes with the genre of detective fiction that it is easy to overlook how the stories also draw on other forms. The Adventures foregrounded comedy (the ironic reversals of ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ and the absurdism of ‘The Red-Headed League’), while later stories approached science fiction (the biological experiments of ‘The Crooked Man’) and war adventure (‘His Last Bow’). The genre most often invoked by the Return, however, is school and university fiction.’

The theme is unpacked more fully in the introduction, and it is not one I had given much thought to. Nevertheless, I think Pittard makes a strong case for examining the collection in light of this theme, connecting to Doyle’s own attitudes towards education, in terms of its purposes and how it should be conducted.

The second theme which interested me was the idea of how the depiction of violence has changed in this collection of Holmes short stories. Pittard asserts that:

‘The earlier short stories had employed a sophisticated strategy in both displaying and disavowing the influence of more sensationalist crime narratives, in that they occasionally suggested lurid events but defused sensation by revealing that these explanations had never been a possibility in the first place (a narrative move most successfully employed in ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ (1891)). The only story in the Return to fully embrace this logic is ‘The Norwood Builder’’.

Pittard homes in on ‘the moral problems of this newly violent realm’ which Holmes finds himself in and in particular he explores this theme through a close reading of ‘The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton’ (1904). Once again Pittard builds up a well-supported argument and more importantly disseminates his ideas in a prose style which is easy to understand and follow.

Oxford World's Classic cover for The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. It has a light blue background with a circle in the middle of a lighter shade. In front of this is a depiction of a man, presumably Holmes. He is kneeling near to the edge of mountainside. He is dressed  in his famous deerstalker hat and his accompanying tweeds.

For the Reader Who Thinks They Know It All

So maybe you have read all the Holmes’ stories at least once or even twice. You might have read articles about the canon and have a reasonable idea of how Holmes and Watson develop over the series. What does this new edition hold for you? Well, this is a hard category to give examples for, as everyone’s knowledge base is different. Consequently, I have picked out below some new-to-me information, which hopefully demonstrates some of the less well-known facts the introduction has to offer.

  • L. T. Meade, one of Doyle’s writing contemporaries, ‘concocted possibly late Victorian fiction’s most inventive method of murder, a catapult disguised as a garden chair.’
  • ‘After ‘The Final Problem’, the Strand’s sister publication Tit-Bits launched various Holmes-related competitions, including a twelve-question Sherlock Holmes examination, and invited readers to submit their own pastiches of Doyle for publication, as a prototypic fan fiction.’
  • In 1896 Doyle penned a Holmes sketch for the University of Edinburgh’s Student magazine, entitled ‘The Field Bazaar’ to assist them in raising funds for a pavilion.
  • Pittard also looks at some of the geographical inspiration for certain stories such as ‘The Dancing Men’. He writes that it ‘had been dually inspired by Doyle’s stay in Happisburgh in May 1903 (where he had seen the proprietor’s son’s use of a writing based on stick figures) and by Doyle’s reading of Poe’s ‘The Gold Bug’, another cryptographic tale.’
  • ‘In September 1903, P. G. Wodehouse contributed a satirical episode to Punch, ‘The Prodigal’, pre-emptively staging the reunion of Holmes and Watson’, which UK readers were anticipating later that year. (The stories were published in America first). Also, in 1903 Punch revived an earlier parody of Holmes printing a series of stories featuring Picklock Holmes by R. C. Lehmann. One of the things this introduction has reminded me of is that when we read a collection of Holmes short stories in modern times, we are reading them outside of their original newspaper publication context and it is therefore easy to forget or be unaware of the way these stories were interacted with between print publications.

I can only base this on Pittard’s introduction, but if this standard is maintained throughout the whole of the series, then I think the new Oxford World’s Classics reprints are a great choice if you are looking to upgrade your existing copy or you are wanting to dig deeper into the canon.


  1. Lovely new editions; great to think that these out of copyright titles are still being treated with respect, despite all the “meh, it’s free, here’s a cheap and terrible edition” versions available out there.

    Liked by 1 person

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