A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.
Well, well, well. I suppose I should have known that enjoying this first book in the Sherlock Holmes series would be elementary, my dear – indubitably! Seriously, though, I am taken aback by how much I enjoyed this book. I am not typically a murder-mystery reader or lover, and I took up the Sherlock Holmes collection out of a sense of obligation to the mass popularity it has gained and out of a sense of nostalgia for the old black & white television episodes I watched with my Dad, as a kid; and, of course, to the very amazing (in my opinion) recent film starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law (which I loved, loved). So, okay, what I am saying is – even though I am not a lover of the genre in general (my only experiences with it are some Agatha Christie and E.A. Poe), Doyle certainly made a believer and cautious-fan out of me. A Study in Scarlet introduces us to Holmes and Dr. Watson, as well as some of the bumbling London investigators, whom Holmes has a somewhat patronizing contempt for. A murder takes place, an odd one, and Holmes is called-in to investigate. Just when certain police detectives believed they had cracked the case, the suspect is found dead! In what I assume to be typical Holmes fashion, the unsuspected killer is lured to 221B Baker Street, where he is apprehended, and then the reader is afforded his complete back story, including an incredibly detailed and interesting regional history, which brings us twenty years earlier, to the southwestern United States deserts. The reader learns that so much more is involved than imagined, and what little clues were discovered actually amounted to just about nothing. Did I have anything figured out? Nope. Did I believe Holmes’s deductive reasoning, as he explained how he “analyzes backwards?” Sure – because there is no other choice. I’m more of a Dr. Watson – intrigued, capable, sometimes helpful but, more than anything, simply along for the ride.
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.
Doyle does a very nice job of giving the reader a clear understanding of these characters’ personalities and, to some extent, their histories and motivations. Far more is learned about Dr. Watson than Holmes, though, which is partially frustrating but also extremely clever, because Holmes and his talents are such fascinating mysteries in their own right – it helps to propel the overall mystery of the story. What is most impressive, though, is the amount of time and attention paid to the “villain” and villains (the supposed and the actual). Doyle writes an intriguing history for this man – evoking a great sense of empathy from the reader, and a fantastic understanding of time and place. We learn, just in time, who is this man, and to what lengths he has gone to avenge himself of an unspeakable crime, committed by a deeply sinister group of people (a group who I will not expose in order to prevent any type of religious debate from breaking out in response). The minor characters, too – the incompetent detectives and their noble counterparts (Holmes’s gang of merry-men – street urchins) are given enough page time to be recognizable as characters long-familiar, though we are meeting them for the first time. All-in-all, the first meeting is done so well that this reader cannot help but want to spend more time with the characters, to see how they will develop and what type of predicaments they may find themselves in later.
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
For a book published in 1887, I cannot believe how well-paced and easy to read it is, overall. It does not have simple language or easy prose, by any means, but the narrative voice is so witty and engaging that the pages just turn and turn. Dr. Watson’s narration via journal form is great and, though it is epistolary in form, it is written as if the reader is witnessing the events in real-time, which allows for a greater depth of involvement and connection to the characters and plot. I also enjoyed the break between “present” narration and the flashback, provided for the benefit of the murderer – that it was separated into two parts to accomplish this was well-planned and received (it kept the main plot from being convoluted or over-powered by the sub-plot). It was also interesting to get that history and back-story after the crimes had taken place – it was almost as if we were thinking like Holmes – back-tracking from “resolution” to causes, as he claims to do, whenever he is confronted with a mystery.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
The attention paid to modern science and medicine, plus historical criminal studies and psychology, really helps to progress the story and to allow the reader a real sense of Holmes’s genius and tenacity. Holmes is certainly innately gifted, but A Study in Scarlet does give the reader glimpses of how much time and effort Holmes puts into thinking about clues in each case, and about the vast amount of reading and research he has done, in general, to allow himself to become the greatest crime-solver in history. All of this did not come from nothing – Holmes is talented, yes, but he is not superhuman, though he enjoys being thought of as such! (See quotes 1 & 2 below). Also, as mentioned above, the sub-plot and back-story of the criminal in America is just brilliant. The attention to detail that is paid to the Mormons, the establishing of Salt Lake City, and the very real dangers that dissenters to the religion were faced with was wholly unexpected and almost breath-taking. I was caught completely off-guard by this sub-plot and, while reading it, I could not believe how much new information I was getting – it took the idea of “mystery novel” to an elevated level.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Mystery, Murder-Mystery, Mormonism, Vengeance, History
“I’m not going to tell you much more of the case, Doctor. You know a conjurer gets no credit when once he has explained his trick, and if I show you too much of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all.”
“They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains,” he remarked with a smile. “It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.”
“There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”
“There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.”
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.”
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