“A Study in Scarlet”

Science. Darkness. Vigilante justice.

ArthurConanDoyle_AStudyInScarlet_annual Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens allegedly said, “A classic is a book which everyone praises, yet nobody reads.” The inverse is equally applicable, in that a book which everyone is forced to read in high-school English is not, for that reason, a good book.

Published in 1886, A Study in Scarlet is the first story about Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. It introduces the world-famous champion of logic, the private “consulting detective” who specializes in solving sensational cases while patronizing the dumbstruck narrator, Dr. Watson.

I found it very interesting that I read this story shortly after reading Mark Twain’s parody of Sherlock Holmes, A Double Barrelled Detective Story. The two Holmes’ methods – observing the larger area of the crime, spotting clues invisible to the narrator (and thus the audience), and gathering samples of mundane crime-scene artifacts – are remarkably similar.

To Doyle’s Holmes, however, these scraps and details form a chain of interlocking logical deductions pointing back to exactly what happened. Large sections of Study in Scarlet are spent explaining the philosophy behind Holmes’ systematic program of detail retention, the crux of which is predetermining which facts and details he intends to retain, then training himself to be super-observant and capture minute indications which (conveniently) escape the notice of Dr. Watson.

To give you a taste of the plot: it starts with Holmes, and two rivaling Scotland Yarders, examining the mysterious body of an American covered in blood that is not his own. The two police detectives scurry around with their separate theories whilst Holmes methodically and superciliously draws his own conclusions (which turn out to be completely justified by the unfolding events).

Holmes has just collared his man (quite literally) when Doyle changes scene and timeframe to paint the background for the crime:

In the wild, wild American west, the Latter-day Saints – or more popularly the Mormons – are just moving westward in search of a “promised land” free of persecution where they may practice their ways and internal laws in peace. The 19th century author has no qualms painting them in a less-than-favorable light. This segment of the book unfolds with a growing feeling of disquiet, especially as names appear that we recognize from Part One. Doyle builds up our empathy for the “good” characters, cranking up the horror and unease as we see that no good end awaits them — after all, if their end was happy, the crimes of the first segment would make no sense.

It’s a deep theme. The original deeds of the backstory villains are eerily heartless and horrifying, but does that justify a man taking the law into his own hands to punish them?

While Arthur Conan Doyle casts light (and shadow) on this question, I don’t feel that he fully explores it. Of course, the tone of his story doesn’t reassure me that his worldview about the matter would be in line with mine.

This story has some dark passages.

It also has Sherlock Holmes – whose name has almost become synonymous with the mystery genre – demonstrating his own particular system of detail-observation and logical regressive-extrapolation to good effect. Just because he’s very proud when he’s right, is that any reason to dislike him?

And the book was gripping. I finished it in about 24 hours, anxious to discover just what was going to happen and what the explanation was.

This story is humanistic. Perhaps that’s what I’ve been trying to say: from Holmes’ evolutionary, Enlightenment-esque rationalism to the self-focused drive for “justice” in this life, the story lacks the spark that Chesterton’s Father Brown tales do, and even the tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation that Twain’s detective try does.

It’s also free. If you pick it up, don’t expect a light, fluffy mystery read. It’s a study in Scarlet. But as a historical, philosophical, and literary lesson, the price is right.


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Photo credit: wikipedia

The works of Arthur Conan Doyle, including A Study in Scarlet, are available as free ebooks (all formats) on Project Gutenberg because their copyright has expired in the United States. If you’re outside the US, we suggest you double-check the copyright laws in your own country.

Cover image is in the public domain, and comes courtesy of Wikipedia.org.

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