Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Few authors have had the impact on crime fiction that Arthur Conan Doyle has, and few fictional sleuths the enduring popularity of Sherlock Holmes. So a series about crime fiction novels would not be complete without at least one story that features Conan Doyle’s brilliant, eccentric, fascinating detective. And it makes sense to begin at the beginning, with the first novel to feature Sherlock Holmes. So let’s take a closer look at A Study in Scarlet.
As the novel begins, Dr. John Watson has recently returned to London after a stint as a doctor attached to the military in Afghanistan. He’s looking for a place to live and a room-mate, so a friend introduces him to Sherlock Holmes, who’s also looking for a room-mate. Before long, the two have moved in together. Watson is fascinated by his new flat-mate; here’s the way he describes Holmes:
“As the weeks went by, my interest in him and my curiosity as to his aims in life, gradually deepened and increased. His very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer. In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination. His hands were invariably blotted with ink and stained with chemicals, yet he was possessed of extraordinary delicacy of touch, as I frequently had occasion to observe when I watched him manipulating his fragile philosophical instruments.”
Watson’s interest in Holmes is piqued further when Holmes gets a letter from Tobias Gregson of the police, asking him to give his opinion on the mysterious death of Mr. Enoch Drebber. Drebber, a visitor from America, had been staying at a rooming-house with his secretary Joseph Stangerson. At first, Arthur Charpentier, whose mother keeps the boardinghouse, is suspected of the murder; Drebber had made unwanted advances at Arthur’s sister and had made himself a very unpleasant boarder. But then, Stangerson, too, is killed, and it son becomes clear that the two deaths are linked. Since Arthur Charpentier was in police custody at the time of the murder, there’s no way he could have committed the crime. Another theory of Drebber’s murder is that Stangerson committed it; that theory, too, is scuttled by Stangerson’s murder.
Holmes puts his deductive powers to work and figures out who killed Enoch Drebber and Josepth Stangerson. It turns out that their murders are linked to events in their pasts. You might even say that their pasts catch up with them in this novel.
Several important elements run through this novel. One of the most important, from the perspective of crime fiction, is Holmes’ approach to solving crimes. Arthur Conan Doyle has said that fictional detectives of his day came to their conclusions almost miraculously. Conan Doyle wanted a detective who solved crimes and came to conclusions through scientific means. He succeeded. Here’s just a bit of Holmes’ reasoning as he explains his thinking on his arrival at the first murder scene:
“I saw the heavy footmarks of the constables, but I saw also the track of the two men who had first passed through the garden. It was easy to tell that they had been there before the others because in places their marks had been entirely obliterated by the others coming upon the top of them….the nocturnal visitors were two in number, one remarkable for his height (as I calculated from the length of his stride), and the other fashionably dressed, to judge from the small and elegant impression left by his boots.”
Throughout the novel, we see this kind of deduction based purely on Holmes’ observations and his reasoning from what he has seen and heard. This was innovative, and criminal investigation has used this kind of logic since then. As a matter of fact, crime scene units still provide this kind of evidence and detectives still use it.
Another element that runs through this novel is the set of characters who later become integral to the Holmes stories. There are Holmes himself and Watson; this novel introduces both characters and gives us backstory for each. There are also the London detectives Lestrade and Gregson, whom Holmes describes as
“…the pick of a bad lot.”
There are also the Baker Street Irregulars, a group of young boys led by the eldest, Wiggins, who reports directly to Holmes. These boys know the city very well, since they basically live in its streets. They see everything that happens and what they don’t see, they often can find out without calling attention to themselves. All of these characters add interest and depth to the Holmes stories, and they all play roles in this one.
And then there’s London itself, which, cliché as it may seem to say so, really does become an important character in this novel (although interestingly enough, about half of the action doesn’t take place there). Conan Doyle describes the city’s alleys, neighourhoods, major streets and landmarks vividly, so that the reader feels a strong sense of place:
“Audley Court was not an attractive locality. The narrow passage led us into a quadrangle paved with flags and lined by sordid dwellings. We picked our way through groups of dirty children and through lines of discoloured linen until we came to Number 46…”
We also see the element of the past affecting the present. That plot point’s been used in a lot of crime fiction since A Study in Scarlet, and it’s an effective device in this novel. Once Holmes deduces who the murderer of Drebber and Stangerson is, he tricks the killer into a meeting and once the killer is caught, we learn what the motive for the murders is. It turns out that Drebber and Stangerson are hiding something in their pasts. Someone bent on revenge knows what that secret is and is determined to right a terrible wrong.
Because the plot depends a great deal on events from the past, we also see an element of flashback. Most of Part II of the novel, in fact, is a long flashback that tells the story of Drebber and Stangerson and explains why the killer is determined to get revenge.
Holmes’ detection methods, his eccentric character and the other “regulars” in the Holmes stories are introduced in this novel. So is Holmes’ London. All of these elements combine with the element of the past’s effect on the present to create this case of two murders. But what’s your view? Have you read A Study in Scarlet? What elements do you see in it?
Coming Up on In The Spotlight
Monday 8 November/Tuesday 9 November – In a Dark House – Deborah Crombie
Monday 15 November/Tuesday 16 November – The Fourth Side of the Triangle – Ellery Queen (Not to worry, those of you who voted for another choice. I’ll do those novels, too, in due course.)
Monday 22 November/Tuesday 23 November – Murder at the Kennedy Center – Margaret Truman