Conan Doyle, Arthur: (01) A Study in Scarlet

Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet is the first Sherlock Holmes story and kind of an odd one. The title refers to the famous image of “Rache” written on the wall in blood above a murdered man, which I imagine any number of writers have borrowed over the years (I seem to recall Diana Gabaldon doing so in Drums of Autumn, for instance, though I don’t have my copy to check).

Though I believed this is considered a novel, it’s really more a novella, running to a hundred pages in my paperback copy. What’s more, nearly half of it is a strange interlude, which provides the backstory for one of the characters. It strikes me as a poor narrative choice; not only does it kill the momentum of the story, but it’s presented in a very awkward omniscient voice. (It also contains a highly unflattering portrait of the early days of the Mormon Church, if that matters. I have no idea how accurate it is [a quick Google mostly turns up sources with axes to grind], but I wouldn’t be surprised if Doyle had taken some liberties; “The Five Orange Pips,” for instance, struck me as rather too sensational to be based in fact.)

I did get more of a sense of Watson’s character from this book, as I’d hoped. He seems like a reasonably decent sort, for his time and place. What’s more, the introduction to this edition (“On the Significance of Boswells,” by Loren D. Estleman; it’s the Bantam Classic two-volume complete collection, those very brown paperbacks) indicates that Holmes continues to evolve as a character over the series (and not just in how many times he’s been married). I’m looking forward to seeing that, because Holmes really is a jerk at times—more noticeably so in this story. Then again, I suppose the drugs may have something to do with that (having just read the first page or two of The Sign of Four) . . .

I note in passing that it’s interesting that, in this story, Holmes speaks of actually earning money from his detecting. In the short stories in Adventures, I recall nary a mention of Holmes pocketing any fees, and indeed, a few people say they’ve come to him because they’ve heard he’ll help poor people for free. I wonder if the few wealthy clients paid him off-camera, or maybe he’d amassed a private fortune in the meantime?

Going back to the story: I think A Study in Scarlet is a perfectly good fifty page story with an unfortunate growth in its middle. I imagine one could skip the historical digression entirely and not miss much, and I rather recommend doing so.

[ In other news, I’ve installed a new version of BlogKomm. You can now subscribe to comments threads that you’ve posted to—just check the appropriate box, and you’ll get any new comments in the thread via e-mail. (Of course, this means you have to 1) post and 2) leave your e-mail address when you do so, so not everyone will be able to use it.) Do let me know what you think of it, and please send me any bugs or issues. The developer is very responsive and I’ll pass your comments along.

(The new version also has an alternative notify feature, where you can e-mail a particular person to tell them that you’ve responded to their comment. I’ve chosen to enable the subscription instead, since comments threads on this book log tend to be fairly focused, but again, I’m open to feedback.) ]


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  1. I haven’t actually read A Study in Scarlet, but I understand it’s a fairly lurid hatchet job on the early Mormon church. I recall a professor at BYU writing in an essay somewhere that his family used to read that section on road trips solely for its amusement value.

    It used to be really difficult to get anything approaching a balanced history of the early Church; it was either frothing denunciation on the one side, or reverent hagiography on the other. I think that’s changed somewhat in recent years, as more objective historians have entered the fray, but there’s still plenty of both the earlier type material around. And I have to concede that for writers like Doyle (and Twain, who also had plenty of fun taking cracks at the Mormons), the scenario of the glowering, fanatic, bearded Elders of Zion, with their scandalous, secretive, polygamous harems, was probably irresistable.

  2. It was more on the fanatic elders, though Doyle clearly disapproved of polygamy as well. I am perfectly willing to believe that the early members of a religion would be particularly enthusiastic about that religion, but this pushed my suspension of disbelief a bit too hard…

  3. Oh, I’d be the first to acknowledge that early Church members were, shall we say, extremely dedicated to their religion…

    By the way, your new “subscribe to thread” feature doesn’t seem to be working; at least, I checked the box and haven’t had any e-mail notification of your subsequent comment. Just FYI.

  4. If you want to see more of Watson, read
    The Hound of the Baskervilles
    ; it’s very Watson-centric. Holmes isn’t even in half of it.

  5. Trent: I have no idea why, since your e-mail address seems to be stored in the correct place. Sorry. (It worked when I tried it.)

    Pam: I intend to, but I’m reading in published order, so it will be a while.

  6. I’ve found the problem with the subscription feature and it should work now. Bug report submitted.

    Also, if you subscribed once to the thread, you don’t have to check the box again. (It won’t hurt anything if you do, but it’s not necessary.)

  7. It’s working now for me, too.

  8. thanks for the report and suggestions … i checked the original version and it worked … so i leave into the weekend …

  9. Charles Dickens wrote a nice little essay about watching a boatload of Mormon Emigrants embark from a London dock.

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