Review: A Study in Scarlet

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I have a lot of hair. (I swear this is relevant.) Blow-drying it takes some time, so I usually browse the Internet while I do; I’ve only got one hand and I’m going to get water on anything closer than a foot away from me. The last weekend in September, however, I decided to try and use those moments to do something productive–read the various digital books that have fallen into my hands one way or another. I decided to start it off with finally reading a Sherlock Holmes novel, which has been a glaring gap in my literary education for quite some time now.

A Study in Scarlet, the first novel in the Sherlock Holmes canon, starts off with Dr. John Watson, an Afghan War veteran recovering from grievous wounds, looking for a flatmate in London in the 1880s. A friend directs him to Sherlock Holmes, an eccentric and logical man with an equally eccentric occupation–consulting detective. The two move in together, and Watson finds himself along for the ride when Scotland Yard contacts Holmes to help in a seemingly difficult murder case.

I’ve always known that Watson was an unfortunate victim of Adaptation Decay (kiss your productivity good-bye!), but the 2009 Sherlock Holmes film adaptation was the first time I actually encountered a Watson that was, more or less, true to the books–as Kate Beaton puts it, “a brave, intelligent lady killer”. He’s a wonderful character, and I quite liked that he was very frank about his vices. Even Holmes is different from the conventional presentation of him as a Victorian gentleman–on the spectrum of Jeremy Bratt to Robert Downey Jr., he’s two steps from the middle towards Robert Downey Jr. (I am given to understand that Holmes will take a few more steps in that direction as the series goes on.) I was happy to see that Holmes wasn’t perfect; he does occasionally get things wrong, which only spurs him on to succeed even more. I was quite impressed with how the rest of the cast held up to the iconic Watson and Holmes, especially Lucy Ferriers, a woman who plays a role in the second half of the novel, which is set in Utah–we see her for a very small amount of time, but she’s wonderfully rendered.

The writing is quite straight-forward, which, coming from Watson’s point-of-view, it ought to be. Watson can occasionally be wry, as he is when he relates the various theories circulating in the London newspapers about the murder. Doyle gets a chance to get away from Watson’s perspective during the beginning of the second half, which is a bit more reflective and tries to be a little poetic, but not by much. What makes the novel shine is Holmes’ interaction with everyone he meets, especially Watson. Once the two first meet, Watson is not particularly impressed by Holmes’ methods, especially the way he carefully forgets anything not related to his occupation; he even, charmingly, makes a list of things Holmes knows and does not know. Holmes has several supremely logical theories about how to go about life, which Watson slowly comes to, if not like, accept. In a procedural, the cast must be interesting to give it a value beyond the shock of the initial mystery, and Doyle has created such a cast here. Even Lestrade and Gregson, Holmes’ Scotland Yard contacts, are quite good; when Holmes declares that the plot has thickened, Lestrade mutters that it’s thickened quite enough already. I don’t generally go in for mysteries, but I’m definitely sticking with Sherlock Holmes.

As I’ve mentioned, the novel is split into two parts. The first is, supposedly, a reprinting of a portion of Watson’s memoirs and the second starts off in Utah a few years earlier, to explain the chain of events that led up to the murder. I was a bit taken aback by that, not knowing much about the novel, but a quick dash to Wikipedia to ensure that I was still reading the right book cleared everything right up. I was quite impressed by Doyle’s sense of place; while his Utah is definitely the Wild West, it feels very American. (And no, I can’t really qualify that except by defining it in terms of England.) As you might know, the villains in this story are Mormon, which I wasn’t looking forward to, but while they’re still detracted, they’re not totally demonized as I’d feared (save for a line from Lucy where she suggests that they’re not Christians). Characters who otherwise embrace the Mormon faith disagree with certain tenets instead of rejecting it outright, but it’s still problematic that it renders the first Mormon community founded by Young as an oppressive place where dissent is punishable by death or disappearance. A Study in Scarlet is definitely both a product of its time and a product of the sort of sensationalism we still see on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit; bear that in mind if you pick this up–it’ll help you enjoy it to its fullest.

Bottom line: Holmes and Watson are iconic characters for a reason; they’re interesting and play off each other beautifully. While the short A Study in Scarlet suffers from its problematic depiction of Mormons, it promises great things to come with its banter and its fabulous cast.

I downloaded this free e-book from Project Gutenberg.

13 thoughts on “Review: A Study in Scarlet

  1. Sherlock Holmes mysteries are the only ones I like. In general, I’m not a mystery reader. I try a few here and there but it never works out for me. I’ve heard some good things about this one and plan to read it at some point.

  2. I have lots of hair tooooooo! But I never blow-dry it, just wash it in the evening and let it dry on its own overnight. When I decide I have to straighten it, which takes ages, I am always casting about for something to do during the arduous process. And my little sister, whose hair is approximately a foot and a half shorter than mine, always says “But it hardly takes any time! How can it take you an hour to straighten your hair? Mine only takes fifteen minutes! If that! You’re doing it wrong!” (I’m not.) (Long hair is hard.)

    • I used to do that, but then I started exercising in the morning (as opposed to the afternoon) and I would always wake up with one side of my hair flattened anyway.

      Your little sister has clearly never had long hair or thick hair, otherwise she would appreciate it. Eventually, I’m going to cut my hair fairly short and dye it brown (the Circle of Life of my hair is a beast unto itself), but I like having Viking princess hair at the moment.

  3. I’m not a huge mystery fan, but I have read a number of Holmes short stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles and Sign of Four. Unfortunately, you’ll find problemic descriptions of all sorts of groups throughout (this was colonial, nationalistic England–villains are often, though not always, the “other” of some sort), but the stories–from what I gather–become more nuanced with Holmes and Watson’s characters as they go on. I particularly like reading Sign then Baskervilles, because it really illuminates how badly Holmes treats Watson and the strange way they work together despite it.

    If you’re interested in a more about Holmes’ vices, The Sign of Four is the way to go. The novels first paragraphs with Watson and Holmes fighting about Holmes shooting up with cocaine. Good times!

  4. I’ve read almost every Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes mystery. I’m still in Volume II of my collection, but I’m nearing the end of it.

    The Sherlock Holmes mysteries are very enjoyable, and occasionally it is possible to figure out the end before Holmes tells you. The couple times I did that, I felt very smart indeed. ^_^ But the stories definitely present some social aspects of the Victorian era that are disagreeable with today’s. Holmes doesn’t exactly like women all that much, though when push comes to shove, he will say nice things about certain individuals. There’s also some racist comments that are scattered across the collections as a whole.

    • Yeah, I encountered that in The Sign of the Four; but I feel Holmes’ misogyny is dismissed by Watson, who, while it’s obviously a period appropriate response, will stand up for the ladies. (Certainly helps that Mary is awesome.)

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