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Book review: <i>A Study In Scarlet</i> by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A Study In Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was originally published in 1887, and it's still around, reprinted as recently as 2004. Sherlock Holmes sure has stood the test of time, and A Study In Scarlet is one of his most well known stories - probably because it's the world's introduction to the illustrious Sherlock Holmes, and documents his meeting with Watson and their first mystery together, and also because it's a bit longer and more detailed than Doyle's later stories.

The story

Doctor Watson, returned fresh from Afghanistan with an injured arm and shattered nerves from illness, moves to London on a pension and needs to board with somebody, rent prices being as they were in the late nineteenth century. He is most fortuitously introduced to a budding young Sherlock Holmes, with whom he rooms for some time without quite ascertaining what it is that Holmes... does. He is skeptical about Holmes' self professed deductive powers, and so Holmes allows him to tag along on a case that the police can make no head or tail of. Needless to say, Holmes thoroughly impresses Watson with his deductive powers, and promises to keep records of all of Holmes' cases so that his excellent detecting doesn't go unrewarded. A Study In Scarlet is divided into two parts; the first part the story up until the arrest of the murderer, and the second part a detailed back-story of the murderer's life and motives, previously unexplained. Part two takes the reader across the ocean to the original settlement of Salt Lake City in Utah, and a story of hardship, love, greed, Mormons, and revenge, and then back to London to sort out the explanations.

I must admit, when I began reading part two, I thought that maybe Doyle had decided to just wrap up part one with no good explanation and launch into a sweeping description of Mormons in the American landscape. It took some time before the names of some of the players came up, and then I realised he was giving the reader a thorough back story... practically the same size as the story itself. Anyway, who said Mormons can't be fun?

The style

The man was writing in the late nineteenth century, so the style of writing is very proper, very English, very lots-of-striding-around-rooms-with-ruddy-faces, and much "crying" things instead of "saying" things. Obviously this isn't your modern detective story, but Doyle was the forefather of most of those guys so he needs some credit for that. I enjoy this style of writing personally, and Doyle has an eye for detail and an excellent imagination, combined with descriptive powers that make Sherlock Holmes and his other characters live. Doyle's description of the undiscovered bits of America were majestic and breathtaking, and his London was dirty and full of lives and criminals. He was also somewhat political for his time; and he manages not to be too judgmental or biased in his storytelling. He does have some interesting quirks of speech though; I don't think we could get away with calling the London street Urchins "Arabs", but you know, it was a long time ago. He also goes into extra motivational detail with the story, assuring the reader that the two murdered men were murdered for justice and revenge, and he does seem to relish the good in human nature and the idea of retribution that way.

The story is, as are most Sherlock Holmes stories, narrated primarily by Watson, who not only has his own distinct personality but also narrates that of Holmes very nicely and truthfully - Watson may be devoted to Holmes, but he sees his faults also. However, A Study In Scarlet differs in that most of part two is written in the third person, and I think I'm so used to having Watson there that I was a bit put off. Furthermore, as his earliest story, there are some inconsistencies with later Sherlock Holmes stories that don't gel... even down to Watson's wound changing from his arm to his leg in the fullness of time. However, these are trifles only for the most pedantic of Sherlock Holmes fans. There is the larger problem for modern readers, which is that Doyle doesn't see fit to give the reader sufficient clues to solve the mystery him/herself. The murderer's name and intention is only revealed at the end, and it doesn't matter how snazzy Sherlock's methods where, the reader didn't have all the information at his disposal. While this may irritate some readers, I didn't mind that much. I mean, the guy is considered the forefather of detective fiction! Someone had to start somewhere for it to get where it has in a hundred years!

Who is this book for?

Lovers of detective fiction, wanting something light without the obligatory gore and sex of today's thrillers.

If you like this book, you would also like...

More Sherlock Holmes! Or, some modern detective fiction, my favourite detective authors being Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley - you just can't beat good hard-boiled detecting!

In short

Title: A Study In Scarlet
Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Publisher: Wildside Press
ISBN: 0809597411
Year published: 2004
Pages: 168
Genre(s): Classic Literature, Detective fiction
Review Type: