After reading the new Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novel Pirate King (review to come) and watching (again) the finale of Sherlock, I had a yen this past weekend to go back to the source and read an original Holmes story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve hardly read any of the originals, despite being a massive fan of Laurie King’s version of the character.) And if I’m going to try out some Doyle, why not start at the beginning with the very first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet?
This short novel tells how Watson and Holmes first met, and this part is utterly delightful. Holmes is a piece of work. Stamford, the acquaintance who introduces Holmes and Watson describes him this way:
Holmes is a little too scientific for my tastes—it approaches to cold-bloodedness. I could imagine him giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects. To do him justice, I think that he would take it himself with the same readiness. He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge.
Holmes’s passion for knowledge includes only those things that are useful to him. Why bother knowing about the solar system? Or literature? Or philosophy? Better to fill his mind with botany, especially poisons, or soils or sensational crimes. Watson, who is depicted as perfectly intelligent in his own right, is completely bewildered by Holmes. But the mystery that is Sherlock Holmes gives Watson something to focus on as he tries to recover mentally from his time in Afghanistan.
Having just become enamored of the BBC Sherlock series, I completely recognized these characters. Bits of business and dialogue from that series came straight out of A Study in Scarlet. Fun! Holmes does eventually set out to investigate a murder, with Watson in tow, but the mystery itself is not nearly as exciting as Holmes the character. A man has been found dead, and the word Rache has been written in blood on the wall in the room where he was found. The man turns out to be Enoch Drebber, an American who has been in London with his friend Joseph Stangerson.
The second part of the book takes readers to the American frontier, where an omniscient narrator recounts a story of a man who was found near death with his adopted daughter by a group of Mormons (including Drebber and Stangerson) headed for Utah. This section has been subject to some controversy—the book was recently removed (not banned) from a 6th grade required reading list at a Virginia school. (I say not banned because the book is still available in that school’s library. The documents related to the decision are available here.) Having read the book, I can see why some would consider it a problem.
The Mormon characters are treated entirely as stock villains—a sort of “exotic other” who could be up to all kinds of vile wickedness. Although I don’t doubt that the Mormon church, like any church, has things in its history that it’s not proud of, the treatment here is downright cartoonish. And it’s not just a few individuals who are the villains here. Brigham Young himself is involved in the nasty goings on. The book could indeed provide for some great teachable moments about religious stereotyping and fear of people who are different, but a teacher would need to be reasonably knowledgeable about the history of the Mormon church to adequately separate truth from fiction here. If the goal of having it on the reading list is to introduce students to detective fiction and Sherlock Holmes, that aim might be better served with The Hound of the Baskervilles.
The third-person section—five chapters in all—is also a far too lengthy distraction from the main story of how Sherlock Holmes solves crimes. Holmes is the story; when he’s not around, it feels like a different book, and stereotyping aside, I didn’t like that non-Holmesian book nearly as much.