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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.