A Study in Scarlet

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.

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15 Responses to A Study in Scarlet

  1. If only this book had been removed from the reading list because the second half was badly written!

  2. I’ve never read anything by Doyle but though I’m a big fan of all TV series about Holmes.

  3. Steph says:

    I read and reviewed this a few years ago, and while I had dipped into some of the Holmes stories as a girl, I didn’t really remember much, so I was really shocked to discover that this one went on such a religious tirade! I admit, I did enjoy the story because I did think the first part was really engaging and it certainly wasn’t what I expected, but it is definitely one that hasn’t exactly aged well.

    • Teresa says:

      The first part was wonderful, and the very end was good too, but that whole middle section was so different and would have been a complete surprise to me had I not seen something about the controversy online.

  4. Alice Wright says:

    Having a knowledge of the Doyle stories, what is called Canon by devotees, really enriches ones enjoyment of the “Sherlock” series. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss who produce the series (Mark Gatiss writing some of the best episodes) are long time fans of Sherlock Holmes and they have woven in so many wonderful references back to the original stories. Their genius is shown in the fact you don’t need to know the Doyle stories to enjoy the series, but if you do you are rewared with a wealth of references done with wit and affection.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve really enjoyed the Sherlock series so far, but now that I’ve read this book I totally see what you mean. I’m hoping to read a little more from the Canon before the new series airs.

  5. I haven’t read a whole lot of the original Holmes mysteries either, although I feel as if I have LOL. Thanks for the warning about the 5 third-person chapters. I may move Study in Scarlet further down my list.

    • Teresa says:

      I know exactly what you mean. Holmes is so ubiquitous that you can easily feel you know him with limited exposure to the original.

      This is worth reading for the initial Holmes and Watson meeting, and it’s very short, but I’m sure there are better stories about them out there.

  6. Kailana says:

    I just pretended that part didn’t exist… The Holmes part was really good and I really need to read more in this series.

    • Teresa says:

      I think I read somewhere that there are versions that leave that part out (maybe anthologized versions). And yes, the Holmes parts were wonderful!

  7. Bina says:

    I’ve always been more of a Poirot fan but I did enjoy the Holmes books, even if he does scramble from footprint to footprint while the great Poirot does not have to leave his armchair ;) And I love the new Sherlock series as well, they did really well with the contemporary setting.

    • Teresa says:

      I used to be a big Poirot fan, but I went off him after a while. I think I like the detectives who roll up their sleeves a little more! And isn’t the new series amazing? I’m looking forward to the next season already.

  8. Joe says:

    If you enjoy Sherlock and maybe even Elementary, you have to see The Granada series from the 80’s featuring Jeremy Brett as Holmes, and David Burke/Edward Hardwicke as Watson respectfully. Jeremy Brett is the consummate Holmes!

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