A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The game is afoot!  The Sherlock Holmes buddy read is officially — finally — underway.   I, for one, could not be happier to once more delve into the fog-shrouded backstreets and alleys of the Great Detective’s London.  Ah, it’s been far too long…

A Study in Scarlet is the first Sherlock Holmes story, published in 1887 and first appearing in Beeton’s Christmas Annual for that year after multiple rejections.  I’d never heard of Mrs. Beeton; my buddy reader tells me she’s largely known for publishing kitchen recipes.  (Thanks for that insight, BT!)  So, naturally, Sherlock Holmes is the perfect fit for such a publication?  I’ve heard stranger things, I suppose, but… yeah, this one’s going to stick with me for a while.  So odd…  Anyway…  A Study in Scarlet is one of only four original novels in the Sherlockian canon, and it has the distinction of being the first work of detective fiction to use the magnifying glass as a tool for crime scene investigation.

The novel is divided into two separate parts.

The first part, “The Reminiscences of Watson,” establishes Dr. John H. Watson as narrator and chronicler, a literary device that will be maintained for the majority of the canon.  The story opens with our first meeting between Watson and Holmes, establishing the personality, quirks, genius, and potential foibles of Holmes as Watson’s curiosity gets the better of him over time.  As we learn more of Holmes’ methods, we are invariably drawn in via Watson to accompany the Great Detective to consult on a murder investigation that’s confounded the two best inspectors from Scotland Yard, Gregson and Lestrade.  The case centers around two men, Drebber and Stangerson, and a single word written on the wall in blood: “RACHE,” which Holmes reveals is the German word for “revenge” after Lestrade thinks it obvious they’re looking for a woman named Rachel.  As Drebber is the victim, killed by poison, the investigation points to Stangerson.  Stangerson, however, is murdered in short order, the word “RACHE” written once more at the scene above the body.  Watson then introduces us to a street urchin named Wiggins, the leader of the Baker Street Irregulars sometimes employed by Holmes for various tasks.  in this case, Wiggins is to hail a specific cab and claim that Holmes needs help with his luggage.  When the cabby appears to claim the trunk, Holmes cuffs him and proclaims him to be Jefferson Hope, the murderer.

The second part, “The Country of the Saints” begins in the American Salt Lake Valley in 1847.  John Ferrier and a young girl named Lucy are the only survivors of a pioneering expedition.  Near death, they’re rescued by Brigham Young and his party of Latter-Day Saints who force upon them the condition that they must adopt their faith and live in the community under its rules.  Ferrier adopts Lucy and a large land grant is given to them to build a farm after the construction of Salt Lake City.  Years pass, and Lucy falls in love with a hunter and tracker named Jefferson Hope.  The two are engaged, but Young tells Ferrier that the marriage is forbidden as Hope is not a Mormon.  He instructs that Joseph Stangerson or Enoch Drebber, sons of the church’s Council of Four, are Lucy’s choices, and there is one month given to make the decision.  Ferrier, however, has sworn never to marry Lucy to a Mormon and sends word to Hope.  You see, perhaps, where this is going and how this might be so terribly exciting to a British audience of the era.  Hard-bitten tales of the American West remain a pop culture staple.  This was written in a time when that mythology was forming, as the reality of it wasn’t quite assured of its own expiration date.  I’ll expound more on the intersections of fact and fiction that popularized matters momentarily.

Words cannot do justice to the importance of this book to the world of fiction, and while I will never discount the talent of the author, the intersections of history would play their parts as well, which I’ll expound upon before this review is over.  In the whole of literature, there are two characters who have so thoroughly engrossed audiences to the point of breaking from the confines of their original print, becoming the most portrayed characters in all of multimedia: Dracula and Sherlock Holmes.  More than that, the verisimilitude of Watson as narrator has created a popular misconception that Holmes was a real person.  This conceit that he absolutely existed is the backbone for the various chapters of The Sherlock Holmes Society as they persist in “The Game.”  That same conceit has become a literary device among pulp novelists in various eras whereby the pulp stories themselves are said to be hyperbolic chronicles of actual events.

Of course, not everyone was happy with this first story.  The estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is still apologizing to the Church of Latter-Day Saints because enough can seemingly never be enough considering the popularity of Holmes and the infamy this novel has produced, insinuating the church’s involvement with kidnapping, enslavement, and murder.  ACD himself stated: “all I said about the Danite Band and the murders is historical so I cannot withdraw that, though it is likely that in a work of fiction it is stated more luridly than in a work of history.  It’s best to let the matter rest.”  His daughter likewise is quoted: “You know, father would be the first to admit that his first Sherlock Holmes novel was full of errors about the Mormons.”  It is stated by a descendant of Brigham Young that ACD himself privately apologized for “being misled by writings of the time about the Church.”  Personally, I’d counter all of that by pointing out that history is still history, and while it’s true that fiction has a way of blowing things out of proportion… can deeds of this nature truly be blown out of proportion when they are based in facts that speak for themselves?  One can look up the history between the Mormons and the Danites and draw their own conclusions.  From my own perspective, I personally have in my home library a set of their books from the 1970s and 80s that are supposedly never to be seen by non-Mormon eyes detailing how their religion began, their rites, their methods of recruitment… everything.  It’s rather interesting to have such things outlined directly from first hand insider sources, pre-internet.  Thusly, I’m inclined not to believe anything in the “wholesome” origin story from a group of people who wear magic underwear and found their beliefs on woefully incorrect reinterpretations of Egyptian hieroglyphs.  The only thing sadder to me is how church apologists attempt to explain Joseph Smith’s “translations” of what he called “The Abraham Scroll.”  Feel free to drop down that rabbit hole sometime if you’re so inclined.  It’s at once enlightening, entertaining, and more than a bit disturbing as to how many people across multiple generations completely bought in.

The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 would ultimately lead to greater understanding of what those papyri — and indeed a great many ancient glyphs — actually say.  We can thank Karl Richard Lepsius for first translating and publishing The Book of the Dead in 1842, Samuel Birch for the first extensive English translation in 1867, and Sir E. A. Wallis Budge for making knowledge of such things widespread with his own translations.  As time moves on, we have far more accurate and up-to-date translations, and everyone can rest assured that at no point did Abraham or any other Biblical characters appear in ancient Egyptian writings of this nature.  I’m not entirely certain if this speaks to the cunning of Joseph Smith or to the lack of common sense of his followers at the time.  So, ask yourself… if an entire cult religion can be formed in the expanse of the fledgling American West, away from prying eyes, based on outright lies and enforced with an iron fist, what else might such a cult be capable of doing to people, both within its organization and to those it encountered along the way, to ensure its survival and growth?  That’s the trouble with history.  You can’t ever bury something so completely as to erase it.  As Holmes himself readily states in the next novel, The Sign of Four, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”  It’s really not a stretch that ACD would use such a tale to thrill British audiences with a tale of the exotic and horrific to shock the “considerably more civilized” Victorian sensibilities.  Keep in mind, the Mormons had already found plenty of unwanted spotlight on the world stage when the United States Supreme Court struck down their arguments defending polygamy as part of their religious practice in 1879.

When it comes to the enduring negative image this novel churns out, the church simply did not anticipate factors beyond its control.  Its founders could not have known that in 1922, all things Egyptian would become all the rage in popular culture with the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen, thus more widely circulating information regarding Egyptian history and mythology ever since.  Likewise, the church could never have anticipated that, after being branded the antagonist in this little mystery novel, the presence of Sherlock Holmes would be forever etched in popular culture as the would-be savior when, only one year later, London’s Whitechapel district became the hunting grounds of the most notorious serial killer in the annals of history: Jack the Ripper.  The legends of Holmes and the Ripper would become inseparable, thus driving up demand for future Holmes stories… and reprints of this first novel.  In America, demand for Holmes stories would likewise be on the rise following the killing spree of H. H. Holmes, the serial killer who stalked the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.  His real name was Herman Webster Mudgett.  His nom de plume was inspired by none other than Sherlock Holmes.  In the wake of such evil, it’s only natural that audiences would look for a savior in any form.  And in the truest legacy of top shelf science fiction, Holmes led the way for the popularization of scientific methodology already being used in forensics by Dr. Joseph Bell, the Scottish surgeon who provided the real-life inspiration for the Great Detective.  Clearly, then, this book has done far more good than harm.  To my mind, apologies should never have been forthcoming.  ACD performed a public service, so far as I’m concerned.  Quite honestly, if the church had nothing to hide on this or any other front, their best defense would simply have been to state the obvious about the novel, that it’s a work of fiction.  Oops.  Crying shame such notoriety should be dramatized in the debut novel of one of literature’s most enduring characters.

Suffice it to say, this would not be Holmes’ last confrontation with and exposure of organizations with something to hide.

The first part of this story is a perfect 5 stars, setting the tone and character that would make Sherlock Holmes one of greatest characters of all time for the right reasons.  We can infer so much from so little, and it’s expertly told.  The second part, while certainly interesting, wears on perhaps a bit long.  Given the details of the story, that’s understandable, but it also feels a bit disconnected due to the near absence of Holmes and Watson until the final chapters.  Such is the nature of the flashback beast.  It’s a 3-star story, solid in the telling but not as engaging for me without the interplay between our superstar protagonists.  That said, I split the difference, strongly supported by the incredible dramatic performance of Stephen Fry.  As picky as I am, Fry has more than earned a place in my Golden Circle of Holmes in terms of those who just nail the material perfectly after only a single story.  I’m more than happy to have him along for the entirety of the journey.  This is going to be fun.

4 stars

One thought on “A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. Pingback: Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet – Broken Tune's Blog

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