Review: A Study in Scarlet (1887), by Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes is so familiar a figure that it’s hard to imagine a time before the pipe-smoking, violin-playing sleuth was a household name. So it’s always interesting to see where the legend began. In the case of the famous Baker Street detective, the legend begins with A Study in Scarlet.

Like the majority of the Holmes stories, the tale is told through the eyes of Dr Watson. Watson returns to England from Afghanistan, where he has been wounded in battle and struck with fever. His experiences and his ensuing illness have left him languid and depressed. He arrives back in London, the city he himself describes as “… that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained” (Chapter I). Watson, it appears, is the sort of person to look on the bright side of things.

While apartment-hunting Watson is introduced to Sherlock Holmes by a mutual acquaintance. There is quite a build-up to Holmes’ first appearance, as you might expect. Watson and his friend Stamford discuss the character of the man that Watson will end up sharing lodgings with; we are told he is good with anatomy and “a first-class chemist” (Chapter I). He is also “eccentric … he has amassed a lot of out-of-the-way knowledge which would astonish his professors.” What exactly Holmes does with his time is unclear; he is neither a doctor nor a professional chemist. For the first few chapters, even when Watson has met Holmes and begins living with him, the novel is preoccupied not with solving mysterious murders, but with solving The Mystery of Sherlock Holmes.

Funnily enough, Watson is rather suspicious of Holmes; it’s interesting when you consider that in later books Watson’s attitude to him is less that of ‘admiration’ and more that of what I’d class ‘boot-licking hero-worship’. But in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes has to prove himself to both Watson and the reader. He and Watson have many little discussions where Holmes proves his brilliance as a detective and reveals his philosophies of life. At one point he announces, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose” (Chapter II).

Your mind is like an attic… poky, prone to collapse, and occasionally home to passing vermin. (Image Source).

Watson, not entirely convinced of the brilliance of this even draws up a little list about his curious new roommate (included here because I couldn’t resist):

SHERLOCK HOLMES—his limits.

1. Knowledge of Literature.—Nil.
2.              Philosophy.—Nil.
3.              Astronomy.—Nil.
4.              Politics.—Feeble.
5.              Botany.—Variable.  Well up in belladonna,
opium, and poisons generally.
Knows nothing of practical gardening.
6.              Geology.—Practical, but limited.
Tells at a glance different soils
from each other.  After walks has
shown me splashes upon his trousers,
and told me by their colour and
consistence in what part of London
he had received them.
7.              Chemistry.—Profound.
8.              Anatomy.—Accurate, but unsystematic.
9.              Sensational Literature.—Immense.  He appears
to know every detail of every horror
perpetrated in the century.
10. Plays the violin well.
11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

(Chapter II)

And there he is, more or less. The Sherlock Holmes we all know and love so much, summed up very neatly for the unimaginative reader. There’s also an interesting moment when Watson tells Holmes, “You remind me of Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories” (Chapter II). Holmes doesn’t seem to find this such a compliment; he’s rather dismissive of Poe’s detective and other well-known crime-solvers of the era. Whether this would have endeared him to readers who followed the exploits of these earlier detectives with enjoyment is uncertain.

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Mr Poe is not impressed.

With the character of our hero-detective finally established, we can get to the actual murder. The investigation itself only takes up about thirty pages, at the end of which Holmes announces he has found the murderer and, just to prove how clever he is, handcuffs the suspect while he is bending down to pick up a wooden chest.

Then something strange happens, something which made me stop reading and look my e-reader up and down to see whether maybe it was just playing tricks with me. Apparently it wasn’t, because other people have reported the same problem; midway through the book, we are abruptly taken out of the rather fascinating world of Victorian London, the company of one of history’s most famous literary detectives, and deposited somewhere in the American desert with a group of migrating Mormons. It’s a signal of fun times ahead.

Now, the American story is directly relevant to the murder, as you might have guessed. But whether Doyle needed to spend a third of the book explaining what could have taken Holmes a few sentences to summarise is less obvious. My only guess is that he wanted to make his reader sympathise with the murderer on some level, in an attempt to humanise him and make us feel that he is a victim of fate and cruelty as much as the men he killed were.

Or maybe Doyle was indulging in his desire to write Western epics? Disgruntled, perhaps, that his British upbringing prevented him from penning the next great Cowboys and Indians tale? Either way, I don’t think I’m the first person to get a little tired of that middle section of the book.

Don’t let that section deter you, though; Sherlock Holmes is out in full force here. He’s fresher and younger than he becomes in some of the later books (the worrying cocaine habit has yet to surface) and it’s interesting to read this introduction to one of the best-known detectives of all time. For lovers of the modern adaptations, it might be quite intriguing to see where their favourite characters originated. More old-school readers will like seeing the familiar aspects of the later books gradually fall into place.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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