Review: A Study in Scarlet

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)

The first of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories; it is also one of only two to be split into two very distinct parts and one of only four classed as novels.

Synopsis: Looking for a place to live in London after his Afghan service, Dr. John Watson is thrust head-long into the world of Sherlock Holmes. When Scotland Yard summons Holmes to a crime scene, Watson is invited to observe the detectives techniques; an opportunity he jumps at. It soon becomes clear to Watson, as they follow the trail of crime and murder across London, that this Sherlock Holmes is quite an extraordinary fellow…

Review:

Story – The story begins with our being introduced to Doctor Watson who has just been sent home from service in Afghanistan. Making his way to London, he realises he is in need of shared lodgings as he doesn’t have enough money to initially get by on his own. As Fate would have it, he meets up with an old colleague, Stamford, who apparently knows just the person to suit his needs. Thus, he is introduced the singular character of Sherlock Holmes. The short meeting is more than enough to intrigue the doctor about this man and they confirm their living arrangements.

Within a few weeks and a series of unexplained goings-on at 221b Baker Street, Watson discovers that Holmes is in fact a consulting detective. After a murder is discovered at Lauriston Gardens, Gregson and Lestrade of Scotland Yard request Holmes’ assistance and Holmes invites Watson along to observe. So begins the mystery of the woundless victim and the strange german scrawl left in blood on the wall. Watson is swept up in the whirlwind of activity that is Sherlock Holmes and the criminal underbelly of England’s great capital.

The second half of the story is told in flashback, explaining the backstory of the murderer and his reasons for committing the crimes. It takes place in America, specifically focusing on the culture of the Mormons.

One thing I have noticed with the Sherlock Holmes stories is that the mysteries may not always be hugely difficult to solve or prove overly dramatic, because it is the process that is the key here. The story, to use a cliché, is in the journey, not the destination. It’s a joy to follow Watson in his bewilderment (which frequently mirrors our own) as he blindly follows Holmes’ often erratic and unexplained missions, to tie all the threads together. When everything finally does come to ahead and Holmes announces the murderer in a flurry (as is his wont), much to the surprise of everyone involved, we are later treated to the series of paragraphs that illustrate exactly how Holmes came to this conclusion.

After this apparent end of the story, it feels a little strange to then go on to the backstory which doesn’t involve these characters that we have just become acquainted with. I initially found it rather jarring, especially with the change in narrative from first to third. But after the first chapter or so, you begin to find the momentum again, intrigued to find out how this father and daughter that we are introduced to have an effect on the murders that have now taken place on a totally different continent.

I have to admit to being rather partial to this part of the story because, since school, I have found the Mormon religion fascinating. This story particularly focuses on the polygamy aspect of their culture and certainly doesn’t show them in a positive light, making them out to be something more like a cult. Back in the 1880’s, there wouldn’t have been a huge amount of information available this side of the pond on a religion that was primarily American based and so there are many inaccuracies that the Mormons have declared rather damning. It has been said that Arthur Conan Doyle did actually apologise privately for any offense he may have caused due to his limited resources on the Mormons.

However, I don’t really think this was necessary. While it may paint the entire encampment in a slightly negative way, it is really only specific people that are given the criminal qualities, just as in any crime story.

Lastly, we are provided with a final chapter, back in the present day, wrapping-up the entire mystery and opening it up for many further adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in the future.

Characters – With Watson being our link to this world, we feel a certain camaraderie with him right from the start. He’s a very likeable character; genial, sharp and with a bubbling curiosity that is all but infectious. The opposing force to this is, of course, the great detective himself. Seeing him through Watson’s eyes, he is portrayed as an aloof, single-minded enigma; a man who will stop at nothing to solve a problem and fails to actually keep people informed on this journey of mystery solving. It’s refreshing to have a prejudiced opinion of a character, rather than feeling omniscient and knowing everything about them. We are amused and amazed, just as Watson is, at Holmes’ extensive knowledge of criminal history and anatomy and yet how he doesn’t care that the earth goes around the sun. We watch/read in awe as this man pieces the smallest clues together to form a perfectly succinct image, making it seem all so simple.

For so many years, Watson was always portrayed as a side-kick to Holmes, someone there to look insanely slow and stupid for the detective to bounce his brilliance off of. So I was pleasantly surprised upon reading this, that that really isn’t the case at all. Instead, Watson is the observer, the one to constantly question Holmes and react to everything going on around him. Yes, he isn’t as intelligent as Holmes but, quite frankly, no-one is but he is far from stupid otherwise Holmes wouldn’t give him the time of day.

Holmes himself is not what you would call a likeable character, which is why it is crucial to have Watson there to humanise him in a way. If we were to follow Holmes alone, or just without Watson’s private input, then I don’t doubt that he would be a harder character to connect with. But his tenacity and often belittling attitude towards everyone around him is softened somewhat by an insight into how he works. At this stage, Holmes was really just a rough outline so there are many elements that change about him over the course of the series but his core personality is the same; the work is everything and he thrives on the thrill of the chase but not necessarily the acknowledgement. This is illustrated right in the closing paragraph where he points out to Watson with some amusement that Gregson and Lestrade got all the credit for the case while he gets a mere brief mention, much to Watson outrage. This, in turn, leads to Watson writing these “sketches” in the first place, because he believes that Holmes’ talents should be common knowledge and appreciated by the public.

Speaking of Gregson and Lestrade, this novel introduces us to Scotland Yard and their connection with the detective. It’s a tense relationship, we discover, as they don’t like to be shown up and made to look like they don’t know what they’re doing. Holmes knows this and you are led to suspect that a lot of his reasons for keeping observations to himself is just to rile them up for his amusement. But, while he does take enjoyment out of besting the Yard, he doesn’t begrudge helping them or letting them take the credit, which is most likely why the arrangement continues. Lestrade, in particular, is the Inspector that has appeared most frequently in subsequent stories and is often referred to by Holmes as one of the best of a bad lot (somehow still making it seem like an insult).

“A Study in Scarlet” also provides the first appearance of the Baker Street Irregulars, a group of young street Arabs that Holmes “employs” in order to have eyes all across London. Just like Watson, they help to show a softer side to the detective as he isn’t as brusque and demanding with them, genuinely appreciating their services. It’s a shame they didn’t have too many more appearances after this as it helps to demonstrate just how wide sweeping Holmes’ powers reach; across the classes and into any part of his great city.

Writing Style The very first thing that struck me about this book (and you would be hard pressed to miss it!) is the fact that it is written in first person. Usually, I dislike this style of writing, purely because I feel it can limit the author from expressing a range of scenarios and emotions with the characters. However, in the case of Sherlock Holmes (all but one being in first person), it is perfection. The main reason being, we don’t want to see everything that is going on. We want the thrill of the chase, the unravelling of the mystery and the satisfaction of the confrontation in the closing paragraphs. Arthur Conan Doyle delivers in spades and it’s no surprise that he is considered a pioneer within the crime genre.

As I have mentioned before, having Watson as our narrator allows us to become a part of the story and to be able to get inside these characters, perhaps moreso than if we were told everything about them. It also helps to add weight to the reveal because we have almost no idea how this conclusion could have been achieved and we wait eagerly, along with the rest of Holmes’ audience, to hear how and when he picked up these clues.

This is one of the few stories that is split into chapters; each chapter ending at such a point that you are keen to continue straight on.

Other Points I’m a little biased when it comes to this story because it was written in my home town (and even has a reference to my city in the opening pages) so I feel something of a connection with it right from the get go. It’s also been the subject of many adaptations for the big and small screen, mainly because it features the introduction of Holmes and Watson. The only version I have seen is the recent BBC version, “Sherlock”, that takes the elements of the poison pills and the cab driver, but does away with the whole America/Mormon storyline. It also shows a similar introduction although it is updated to suit the present day format of “Sherlock”.

Worth Reading Y/N? – A big, fat yes. Obviously, if you are not into the crime genre then maybe this isn’t the best choice for you but there is so much more to the crime at hand in this story. Seeing the relationship develop between Holmes and Watson is a delight, and Holmes’ interactions with those around him are always worth reading. I wasn’t expecting it to be as amusing as it was, Doyle certainly injected the perfect amount of humour into the characters. Highly recommended.

Favourite Quote – “‘You know a conjurer gets no credit when once he has explained his trick; and if I show you too mich of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all.’ ‘I shall never do that,’ I answered; ‘you have brought detection as near an exact science as it will be brought in this world.’ My companion flushed up with pleasure at my words, and the earnest way in which I uttered them. I had also observed that he was as sensitive to flattery on the score of his art as any girl could be on that of her beauty.”

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