Friday, August 14, 2020

"A Study in Scarlet," by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle--Fiction Review

For this Friday, my obscure gumshoes, we’re dusting off our magnifying glasses and deerstalker caps and heading back to the end of the 1800s with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet” the story that introduced us to the legendary Sherlock Holmes. 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

“A Study in Scarlet” is the classic story that introduces the archetypical detective. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes wasn’t the first detective in classic fiction. Edgar Allan Poe may have done that with his C. Auguste Dupin before there was a word for “detective”—but all the same, I’d argue Sherlock Holmes is the one whose larger than life persona shades all others. A lot of the reason for this, I feel, is because Holmes is such an eccentric character, which is why we keep remaking movies and tv shows about the character. In his first appearance with this novel, he doesn’t disappoint in being the full-fledged weird know-it-all he’s consistently portrayed as throughout the generations—and I’ve always loved this oddball coke addict.

I should reveal now that, no, I can never figure out any of these mysteries before the solution is revealed. Nor would I want to, I imagine, if I can figure it out, it would take away the mystique of the character.  

What I don’t love about this book:

There is a hard shift in part two of this book to a story about the American west, and the founding of Salt Lake City, and Mormons—and honestly, I thought I was suddenly reading something else, the break in narrative flow is that extreme. It circles back to London, and Baker’s Street, and Sherlock Holmes after a while, but it isn’t a short interlude this whole sordid Mormons tale. It’s a significant component of “A Study In Scarlet” and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—doesn’t feel right to me to call him anything other than his full name—does eventually explain through the narrative when we do return to London with Holmes and Watson. The device is to tell who the murderer was and why he murdered his victims. Still, I don’t really like it because it makes the narrative seem to become a completely different story, and if you’re not prepared for it, the whole experience is jarring.   

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The narrative opens with Dr. Watson, recently mustered out of the army after an injury and a prolonged recovery trying to find acceptable lodgings that his dwindling army pension will provide him. He eventually is put in touch with an odd character, a man named Sherlock Holmes, who needs a roommate at his apartment on Baker’s street. 

Soon after meeting Holmes, Watson agrees to live with him and also discover’s that his roommate has a rather odd profession. He claims to be the world’s first consulting detective and has made studying criminals his life’s work. Holmes is so successful at this that the detectives at Scotland Yard frequently make use of his services, and he impresses Watson immediately by making logical deductions about him that almost seem prescient. A thing Sherlock Holmes does with everyone.

Then what happens is what always happens in future Sherlock Holmes stories, someone commits a crime, typically murder, it’s a mystery, and the professional detectives call in Holmes. The victim is a wealthy man named Enoch Drebber. There is blood all around the room, but Drebber has no wounds. On the wall, written in blood, is the word “RACHE.” The professional detectives are all fixated on the name written on the wall, and its significance, but Holmes believes it’s a red herring meant to throw off the police. He also suspects that the victim has been poisoned, which is why they can’t find a wound or a murder weapon. Under the body, they discover a woman’s wedding ring.

After hearing about a seeming drunk approaching the crime scene, Holmes deduces that the murderer was on his way back to recover the ring. Later, Holmes attempts to set a trap for the murderer by putting out a notice in the paper about a recovered ring. But, an accomplice of the murderer and not the murderer himself shows up, an old woman, claiming the ring belonged to her daughter. Holmes gives her a fake and then tails her, only to have her vanish on him after taking a cab.

Later, after the murderer strikes again, killing Drebber’s secretary, a man named Stangerson, a box of poisoned pills is discovered near the body. Stangerson wasn’t poisoned, though. He’d been stabbed in the heart with a knife. As one of the detectives is telling Holmes this at his apartment at Baker’s street, Holmes’s assistant comes up the stairs to tell him that the cab he ordered is here. Holmes tells the boy to bring the cabby up to assist him with his things and tells the police that he’s off to catch the murderer. When the cabby comes up, Holmes asks him to lift something, and when he does, Holmes takes that opportunity to handcuff him—revealing that the cabby is the murderer.

At this point, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle treats us to a very long interlude taking place in the United States, and of all places, specifically in Utah and the founding of Salt Lake City. You discover, eventually, that this is all a very long-winded device that explains the motivations of the murderer, a man named Jefferson Hope. In short, it’s a sordid tale of star crossed lovers being ripped apart by the local power, the Mormons, and Hope’s paramour is forced to marry a Mormon and not him. That Mormon being Drebber himself. She dies soon after of a broken heart. Hope swore revenge, which culminated in the murder of Drebber and Stangerson, who had helped Drebber with the whole forced marriage thing and ruining Hope’s life.

A few details about the mystery wrap up at this point. Including the detail of where all the blood came from at the crime scene where Drebber was discovered. Hope is dying of an aneurysm. During all the excitement of getting his revenge on Drebber, he suffered a nosebleed. He used the unexpected blood to his advantage and confirmed to Holmes that he had written “RACHE” on the wall in his own blood for no better reason than to throw off the police. Hope is arrested but dies of his aneurysm before ever facing a trial—a smile on his face. 


Even with its obvious age, initially published in 1887, “A Study in Scarlet” is still erudite and a clear, understandable story, even for a modern reader. Sherlock Holmes is one of the earliest protagonists that rely on cold logical and scientific methods to solve the problems he faces—an early champion of the scientific method. It’s a little disappointing to find out that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, himself, believed in all kinds of whacked-out nonsense, but that’s a topic for another day.   

One of the things that do date this novel, other than the obvious setting and whatnot, is the old-timey insensitivity to religious differences. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle isn’t particularly kind to the Mormons in this book, making them out to be greedy, murderous rapists. I am not a Mormon myself, but I can understand why they weren’t thrilled with this characterization. The problem isn’t that you can’t portray a fictional Mormon that way, or even a group of Mormons as such. More than once, it’s kind of insinuated that fundamentally, all Mormons are that way, mainly when characters discuss their beliefs on marriage, and that’s where the line is crossed.    

Furthermore, the whole Mormon bit goes on for way too long in my estimation. My reckoning is it takes about forty percent of the entire narrative, all to explain why Hope murders those two guys and make us sympathize with him. Then after we do sympathize with the antagonist, it’s clear that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wanted to trot out the higher ideal of for good law and order, Hope still needed to be stopped, arrested, and punished by the heroes. Maybe this was revelatory back in 1887, it’s hard to judge zeitgeist outside of your own, without being a dedicated scholar, but today it’s pretty boilerplate crime fiction. My intuition is this literary mechanic of this story is one of the things that probably helped forge that particular boilerplate. 

Parting thoughts:

To state Sherlock Holmes’ impact, and the stories about his adventures, on literature, is a feat in of itself. His name has become synonymous with the very idea of being a good detective or is ironically employed sarcastically to point out a bad one.

I’ve seen arguments that assert that Holmes can’t actually be a coke addict because he’s so high functioning—so good at his job. I find that to be an odd argument at best because you can knock that logic over by merely pointing out that Kieth Richards did all the drugs back in the day and yet was considered—by some—one of the greatest musicians of his generation. 

Still, no matter how you slice it, through Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pioneered a genre and put crime fiction on the map of the literary world. Establishing a new genre is a rare thing, even a new subgenre, is hard and unpredictable to create. I don’t believe it’s a thing anyone actually sets out to do, not consciously or wholly deliberately in any case, because the act of creating fiction is about trying to tell a good story. Genre is a method of classification—not a good or bad story in of itself—and for there to be new classifications, it requires a specific kind of luminary at just the right time in history who taps into an audience ready to experience something new. With all those moving pieces involved, it’s like watching someone predict where lightning will strike and when, but when it does, the world is a little different.     

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