Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet (review)

A study in scarlet, eh? Why shouldn’t we use a little art jargon. There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it. 

A Study in Scarlet was the first Sherlock Holmes story in print, written by a twenty-seven-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle about an eccentric detective of the same age. 

Dr. John Watson, an army surgeon with shattered nerves, arrives in London, ca. 1881, looking for respite from his experiences in the Middle East.  By a mutual acquaintance, he is introduced to a medical student and future roommate, Sherlock Holmes, whose mysterious talents seem to point to some greater purpose that Watson can’t quite grasp.  A murder, a ring, and a tangle of muddy footprints set them both into the midst of a criminal investigation, where strange signs are leaving the public in fear of secret societies.  In spite of his health, Watson follows his new friend Holmes wholeheartedly into the kind of adventure he thought was the stuff of fiction.

This is, I think, the third time I’ve read A Study in Scarlet, so the mystery fails to impress me as it did the first time.  As a Holmes story, too, it falls short of such greatness found in The Sign of Four or many of the short stories.  The thing to remember is that this was Doyle’s debut novel for Holmes – as such, it’s quite impressive.  Though Doyle, via Holmes, mentions such precursors as Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin (more of a hobby analyst than a detective), there really was no character quite like Holmes before, in English literature.

As a character, Sherlock Holmes is flawed from the get-go.  He is quite proud of his knowledge and talent for analysis, just as he is unconcerned about his (purported) ignorance of the solar system.  He is little moved by the sinister details of the case he is investigating, even as Watson learns of them with horror. Watson’s initial reaction is natural enough; he can hardly believe how conceited his friend acts.  However, as Holmes begins to weave webs where the official investigators are lost, the incredulity of the doctor is swiftly replaced with a new respect and fascination.

The plot is rather sensationalist, which varies at times between genuinely moving and unfortunately cheesy.  What I like most is the development of Holmes and Watson’s friendship.  By the end of the story, Watson feels Holmes has been treated unfairly by the police, and he wants to set the record straight.  This is the reason Watson started writing, and – if it takes years – even Holmes will appreciate it, in the end.