A Study In Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A Study In ScarletSo, as a self-professed crime fiction obsessive, you might assume that I’ve already read this one, but as followers of my Sherlockian Shorts will know, I’m rather under-read on Sherlock Holmes, never having read the novels. But as I’m having a Golden Age month, I thought I’d break that theme and go to an era before the Golden Age, namely 1887 and the debut of the great detective.

Dr John Watson, looking for affordable rooms, comes across one Sherlock Holmes. As they set up rooms together, he becomes more and more fascinated with Holmes’ work until he accompanies him to the scene of an apparent murder – a man lies dead without a mark on his body, the word RACHE written in blood on the wall. As another body turns up, it falls to Holmes to piece together the mystery. But things take a very odd turn about halfway through…

Halfway through the book, that is. I try and keep spoilers out of my posts, and try not to discuss anything that happens more than a third of the way through in any detail at all. I might have to bend the rules for this one, as the second half of the book is one of the most bizarre changes of direction I’ve ever seen.

We’ll come to that in a bit though. Let’s take the book on its merits. It’s a great read, things rolling along at a good pace with some interesting twists and turns. It’s not a play-along mystery, but it’s closer to it than other entries into the Holmes canon – there’s still bits where you are told that there are lots of footprints on a path, say, but Holmes can interpret what they mean as he’s seen them, whereas all you know is that they are there. It’s not a criticism, simply the way that Doyle structured his stories. I’m not sure I want a detailed description of a muddy path, to be honest.

I wonder – what exactly did Doyle have against the Mormons? It’s said (admittedly on Wikipedia) that the basis of the backstory that appears in the latter half of the book was a book that Doyle had read on the Mormons that he had taken as gospel (sorry) but was in fact far from the truth. But you wonder why on earth does Doyle spend so long having a pop at them, including Brigham Young, who’d only been dead for about 10 years. There was a lot of scandal concerning the Mormons at this point in history – people were still talking about the Mountain Meadows massacre, for example, but the second half of the book does feel like Doyle has a bit of a grievance that he wants to air.

What surprised me was that the odd second half, once I’d got over my surprise, worked really well, and the whole book was an entertaining read. A bit rubbish as a mystery – far too much that the reader can’t work out – but reading this, you can see why Sherlock took off. Recommended.

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11 comments

  1. I must say that – with one exception – I prefer the short stories to the novels. That exception, however, is the extraordinary “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” which really is a delight all the way through. I tend to agree with your assessment of “A Study in Scarlet,” however.

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  2. There is only one Sherlock Holmes novel I really liked namely ” The Hound of the Baskerviles”, which is exceptional. I didn’t find the other novels particularly interesting. More interesting are the short stories..

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  3. With the exception of HOUND, I’m not sure that he ever wrote a Holmes novel. SIGN OF FOUR comes the closest, but even there we have a longish flashback. STUDY and VALLEY OF FEAR are both essentially books consisting of two linked novellas. The latter has possibly the best second half-it is a tale of the cleaning up of a corrupt American mining town, and feels more like Hammett’s RED HARVEST than anything Doyle normally wrote. The Mormon bashing in STUDY was really a case of the author appropriating current prejudices against them in order to supply him with villains. I’ll bet that he never considered that possibility that we would still reading it over a century later.

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  4. I agree with your assessment of this book. When I first read it on my Kindle, I thought I had gotten a mis-downloaded copy because I couldn’t believe what I was reading in the second part. As you say, it all works out in the end. The reference to Holmes’ identification of 140 types of cigar ash comes up in later books too.

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  5. I have read no Sherlock Holmes novels or stories, and I plan to read this soon. As my introduction to Holmes, I hope I like it. I don’t care for short stories, so I don’t want to start there.

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    • I think it’s a highly entertaining, if rather unconventional (probably because the conventions weren’t around yet) detective story. Odd but very enjoyable and, most importantly, very readable, even when it does go off on a bit of a tangent.

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