Monday, November 1, 2010

In the Spotlight: Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet

Hello, All,

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


  1. Thanks for this spotlight on my favourite sleuth of all time! :)

    This was the very first mystery read by me and a lot of nice memories are associated with it.

    About the theme of the story, I remember a Sanskrit verse from the UPANISHADS that encapsulates it very nicely.

    "You are what your deep, driving desire is
    As your desire is, so is your will
    As your will is, so is your deed
    As your deed is, so is your destiny"

  2. Like Amey I have a special fondness for Holmes. I have always enjoyed his combination of cleverness and fallibility. He was the first sleuth I came across who had a darker side and you do start to see that a little here though it isn't as developed as later - I think this is the one where Watson starts to describ some of his odd behaviour like his erratic violin playing.

    Off topic a little but did you see the recent TV movie they made of this with Holmes and Watson in modern times? They called it A Study in Pink and changed the story quite significantly but one of the things that they didn't have to change was the beginning...when Holmes meets Watson for the first time and deduces that he has been at war in Afghanistan. It seemed very sad to me that at some random time in history over 100 years since the story was written a contemporary take could still incorporate a character just returned from a war in Afghanistan. It seems we humans learn little from our past.

  3. Amey - Thank you so much for sharing that verse. You are right that it really does capture what Sherlock Holmes is and what drives him. I'm glad you enjoyed this novel as much as I did; it's a real classic, in my opinion. Sherlock Holmes is a terrific sleuth. As a matter of fact, he was the first sleuth I read, too :-).

  4. Bernadette - You're right about Holmes' darker side. He is by no means a happy, balanced person. It's true we don't see his really more disturbed behaviour (the drugs, for instance) until a bit later, but even in this novel, we see his melancholy and his antisocial habits. In a way, that makes him more endearing (or at least it does to me).

    Yes, I did see A Study in Pink, and I'm glad I did. It did change the story quite a lot from the original, as you say, but the new story (if one accepts it as different to the original) is compelling. And I was struck by exactly the same thing you were: there's still a conflict in Afghanistan that leaves people wounded. It's sad to think how little we humans have learned over the years. I hope some day we will learn better.

    My favourite line from that story comes when Holmes is accused of being psychopath. His response is I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research!. I loved that line!!

  5. There is an essay at the end of my annotated version of A study in scarlet by Dr Joseph Bell, who I believe Conan Doyle used as the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes.
    I do have a soft spot for Conan Doyle because he was one of my father's favourites, but he loved his Brigadier Gerard stories rather than Holmes.

  6. Norman - I would have loved to read that essay! You're right that Conan Doyle patterned Sherlock Holmes after Joseph Bell in terms of Bell's ability to deduce. I'd love to know what Bell thought of it...

    It's interesting how we develop soft spots for sleuths because of our own pasts. Holmes was the first "grown-up" sleuth I read (Like many crime fiction fans, I read children's mysteries when I was young), so I've got a soft spot for him, too. It's also interesting that your father preferred Gerard to Holmes. Holmes isn't everybody's cuppa, but there's no doubt of Conan Doyle's influence.

  7. Another great spotlight. I've often wondered why Holmes continues to be such a favorite even today. I realize after reading your post it's the combination of Doyle's writing and the person he created. We not only enjoy the descriptions, but also the person we see as Holmes and even Watson. Looking forward to your next spotlight.

    Thoughts in Progress

  8. I am rushing off to work, and logged in to check my mail and 'Margot' addict that I am, I started reading.

    BUT, this is the first mystery I ever read (if you discount the Enid Blytons and Nancy Drews), and I know I have to do it justice. So will be back in a couple of hours to read.

    Thanks for shining the spotlight on the first mystery I knew- I am going to assume you did it for me :-)

  9. Mason - Thank you :-). I think you're absolutely right. It's partly the way that Conan Doyle wrote, and quite a lot the characters he created. Holmes is unique, and I think he's a cultural icon partly for that reason. There are so many Sherlock Holmes societies, too, and fan clubs, etc.. He's just as populate now, I'd guess, as he was when Conan Doyle created him...

    Rayna - You really are very kind! It's so interesting to me how many people tell me that A Study in Scarlet or one of the other Holmes mysteries is the first adult mystery they ever read. So Holmes is not only a cultural icon; he also brings back memories for a lot of people. That's amazing to me. I've read, too, that Conan Doyle had no idea when he created Holmes that he'd be creating such an enduring, popular character. And if you'd like to assume I chose this for you, that's fine with me :-).

  10. We tend to think of our time as being particularly crime-riddled but when Conan Doyle was writing, Londoners were plagued by criminals from pickpockets to murderers. The police were in their infancy. In one film a bobby turns up on his bicycle and blows his whistle for back-up, and this response, laughable now, is quite authentic. So a detective who was in essence one of the original superheroes, who always catches the criminal, really caught the imagination of the populace. Of course the brilliance as well as the originality of Conan Doyle's creation has made him iconic in our literary heritage.

  11. I read as much Sherlock Holmes as I could get my hands on when I was younger, but it has been a long, long time since I've read any of the classic mysteries. Maybe it's time to revisit this series. I also have the new Sherlocks on Masterpiece Mystery to check out. I think some are already on my DVR.

  12. Leigh - Thanks for the reminder of the context within which Holmes worked. As you say, a professional police force was a relatively new idea, and certainly the police of the day weren't equipped as today's police are to deal with the amount of crime London saw at the time. Then, too, the move from the country to the city had swelled London so much so quickly in that era that the chaos of urban sprawl made the crime situation that much worse. Little wonder that Sherlock Holmes fired the imagination of readers. You're right that Conan Doyle's writing and the kind of sleuth he created have made Holmes iconic, and might in nearly any setting, but all the more so in the context of Conan Doyle's day.

    Patricia - I hope you do get a chance to check out the new Sherlock Holmes series; I'll be really interested to see what you think of it. I think it's good at times to go back to the very classic mysteries, especially if one's a crime fiction writer. There are so many lessons to learn from those authors (at least there are for me).

  13. I love this author and I'm so glad you did him. I agree with all the commenters as to how influential and important this author was. The complete collection of Doyle's works sits beside me on my self everyday. I should start reading the stories again. They're so small that they wouldn't take long. Hmmm, I should buy them for my Kindle!

    It's been awhile since I read the Study In Scarlett but your post bought back some memories as did the show Study in Pink. I remember watching the older Holmes series and I think the Sherlock they had then was great. He really captured who I had visualized from reading the stories.

    Great post.


  14. Clarissa - Thanks :-). You're absolutely right that Conan Doyle (and Holmes) have had a profound influence on popular culture and on crime fiction. Those stories are, in many ways, as alive to day as they were over a hundred years ago when they were written. I always enjoy looking through them; they remind me of some of the important things that go into making a good crime story...

    I liked the Sherlock Holmes series featuring Jeremy Brett, too. I agree that they really captured the essence of the Holmes stories.

  15. Thanks, too, for this post Margot as it bought back happy memories of my childhood discovery and love for Sherlock Holmes. Bernadette makes a very telling point about Amsterdam. I did not see this new version but my daughters both enjoyed it - as they have done the short stories. It is fascinating how he continues to appeal to new generations not just via TV and film, but via the books themselves. There is something about the edgy unstable brilliance of Holmes the intellectual rebel that is timeless!

  16. Amsterdam?! What are my fingers doing? Afghanistan, sorry.

  17. Great spotlight, Margot! I really am in the Holmes mood now...especially with the great rendition that's running on Masterpiece Mystery right now!

  18. Maxine - Isn't it interesting how Holmes is really appealing to people across generations and geography. I love the way you describe him, too - edgy, unstable brilliance. That description is absolutely perfect for Holmes. I actually recommend the new TV series; it's rather well-done, I think, and although it doesn't have that wonderful Victorian London air that the original series and, of course, the stories did, they've nailed the character of Holmes well. It is sad and telling, though, as Bernadette has pointed out, that we still have not learned...

    Elizabeth - Thank you :-). I'm so glad you're enjoying that new series. I am, too, and normally I'm rather a purist. I like shows that really stick to the original stories. This doesn't but it's still quite good, in my opinion.

  19. I haven't read it, but every time I hear about Sherlock Holmes, I smile. I walk down Baker Street every Monday night on the way to my writers' group.

  20. Talli - Oh, that is so cool that you get to walk down Baker Street :-). What an interesting connection between you and the famous detective :-).

  21. I really enjoyed this post. I haven´t read the book for 25 years so don´t recall it at all, but I do admire Conan Doyle for the very modern detective he created!

    Off to work, will have to catch up with my blog reading later (today or in life! :O)

  22. Dorte - Thank you :-). You put that quite well, too, that Conan Doyle created a very modern detective all of those years ago. And I like the fact that this book introduces him.

  23. I started with Study in Scarlett- read it not as a book, but as an illustrated comic (the first story I read, read, was Hound of the Baskervilles, and this was the second), and I was hooked. Holmes is such a compelling character, and Watson is such a perfect foil for him. And you are right, in all his books/ stories, London is a character too. So much so, when I first went to London, everything seemed familiar since Holmes had taken me around.

    The only thing I do not like about this particular book is the long digression into Mormon land. And interestingly, you have glossed over it too!

    Thank you for the wonderful spotlight.