Retro Review: A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (aka: Shelock Holmes #1)- a novella.
If this book were a drink, it would be whisky and water, and lots and lots of blood.
How to dress for this book: Jacket, coat, top hat, mustache, white gloves.
If this book were an animal it would be a black cat with British accent! (Okay- I admit that that’s just silly)
available: Almost everywhere and in almost every possible format.
In a hurry? Here’s the capsule review: Until last month I was a Sherlock Holmes virgin, and might still be if it wasn’t for a great essay by Michael Chabon. I was happy to find the writing in “A Study in Scarlet” accessible and engaging, and pleasantly surprised at a great plot shift about ½ way into this groundbreaking novella… and what the deuce am I doing mentioning Mitt Romney in this review? (answer below!)
I am a Holmes virgin:
Here’s an interesting fact: I am 41 years old, and I just read my first-ever Sherlock Holmes story. Of course I’ve been aware of Mr. Holmes forever. In my mind, he sits right up there with the other legendary British exports in the field of genre and fantasy, people like Robin Hood and Merlin. And, of course, I’ve run into various renditions of the character via Hollywood films and TV, but I’d never actually sat down and read an original story until this year, and – I also have to admit- that I wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been for a great little book of essays called “Maps and Legends” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon. In a nice little essay about the origins of Sherlock Holmes, Michale Chabon pointed out to me that Sherlock Holmes, in his own way, was the great-great-great-granddaddy of so much of today’s fiction. You see, Sherlock Holmes is a somewhat flawed and complicated genius, and a man of action. He solves murders. He was wildly popular and starred in his own series. He works in an urban setting (not some mythical world) which was Victorian London. Certainly there was some detective literature before Sherlock Holmes (just like there were space adventure movies before Star Wars) but Sherlock Holmes crystallized things in a new way and raised the bar accordingly.
What I got was what I expected and more
A Study in Scarlet is the story of Sherlock solving two strange murders in London and a whole heck of a lot more. Besides the murders and problem solving, we get our first glimpse of Holmes through the eyes of Dr. Watson (who is- for the most part- our narrator). We learn about Holmes’ strange habits and odd flaws (he suffers crazy mood swings; he remains purposefully ignorant of anything that isn’t directly pertinent to solving mysteries; he thinks dead bodies are great because without murders he gets bored!), and the surprises kept coming- including an oddly sympathetic killer.
Another major surprise was the length of the story. I’d always thought that Shelock Holmes stories were short stories, and I was surprised to find that, when I finally got a copy of “A Study in Scarlet” in my hands, it was over 100 pages long. It was more of a novella really. Furthermore, while the writing it was well over a century ago, the narration, story and tone were immediately accessible. Whenever I read something from the 1800’s, I tend to be wary in my approach. Books of that era sometimes contain long digressions, philosophical dissertations, long episodic structures during which little happens, or social commentary on the time period. While none of that stuff is inherently bad or off-putting, finding a lot of it in one book makes me start to resent and resist the story. (In fact, I had this exact trouble with the middle 100 pages of Dracula which was a lot of Mina almost dying and Dr. Van Helsing going on and on without revealing much of anything). I happy to report that A Study in Scarlet doesn’t drag. In terms of pace and editing, the story zips along like a little sports car. There were some references that I couldn’t quite follow and a few historical elements I wasn’t familiar with, but the language and the actual story were never anything but engaging.
The great leap backwards
The best surprise was a sudden leap that the story takes about halfway through the text. (Spoilers here- but come on!- the books been around for over a century!) In fact, Sherlock solves the murders and captures the killer about ½ of the way through “A Study in Scarlet” (something that probably wouldn’t happen in a modern mystery thriller) and then the book jumps back about twenty years in time and half a world away (the the arid plains of the American West). The jump is so sudden and so complete (and comes so quickly on the heals of Sherlock capturing the London killer) that I actually went back a page to see if I’d missed something.
Suffice to say that presidential candidate Mitt Romney would not be happy-
-with Arthur Conan Doyle’s portrayal of the early history of the Church of Latter Day Saints which, in this story, comes across as a murderous, virgin-snatching cult, or as Doyle writes it: “Not the Inquisition of Seville, nor the German Vehmgericht**, nor the Sceret Societies of Italy, were ever able to put a more formidable machinery in motion that that which cast a cloud over the State of Utah.” Of course, Conan Doyle was writing at a time when writers would do that sort of thing: simply declare a whole group (race, ethnic group, religion) to be diabolical. Of course, this practice still happens in fantasy writing these days, but now the evil groups are races of demons, orcs or vampires instead of humans. And, yes, the Church of LDS does play a big role in a narrative rhat stretches from Utah in the 1860’s to London in the 1880’s.
**(I had to look that one up)
One great thing about Sherlock Holmes
-is that he’s a difficult man. In the novella, Watson documents that he has mood swings during which he hardly moves or speaks but instead, “…for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, not moving a muscle from morning to night. On these occasions I have noticed such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes…” Sherlock’s also full of himself to the point of being obnoxious, and when Scotland Yard’s finest detectives come to consult with him (that’s his job: he’s not actually a detective, but a consulting detective- which is to say that regular detectives ask him for advice), he is always happy to knock them down a peg or two with a sarcastic comment. Another odd aspect of Holmes is his complete unwillingness to learn about anything that’s not immediately related to solving mysetries. For example, Watson is shocked to learn that Holmes had no idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun. In retort, Holmes states, “What the deuce is it to me? … you say that we go around the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a penny-worth of difference to me or my work…” And, perhaps best (and most disconcerting) of all, is how excited Holmes gets when something really terrible happens, because that means he finally gets to use that crazy brain of his to solve the unsolvable.
In closing I would like to add that
I really like the phrase : “What the deuce?” and that if-like me- you are a Sherlock Holmes virgin, please take the time to read a Sherlock story or two and get back to the source material for so many great (and some mediocre) movies, novels and TV series.