Friday, July 27, 2012

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Original CSI
Little needs to be said of the profound influence that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has had on detective fiction or in the broader realm of literature in general, as well as film. A Study in Scarlet is where it all began. Originally published in 1887, this novel features the first appearance of the great fictional detective and his faithful colleague Dr. Watson. Here Conan Doyle establishes all the familiar elements of Holmes’s world—the apartment at 221B Baker Street, landlady Mrs. Hudson, Inspectors Lestrade and Gregson of Scotland Yard, Holmes’s research into criminal forensics and his exercise of deductive reasoning, and the enjoyable repartee between Holmes and Watson.

Conan Doyle is primarily known for his short stories, most notably the series of mysteries beginning with the collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Though he only wrote four novels featuring Holmes, A Study in Scarlet proves that Conan Doyle’s skill as a novelist may even surpass his facility for crafting short fiction. While his shorter pieces do a great job of showcasing the characters of Holmes and Watson, often the supporting characters are shallowly developed and the actual mysteries are not sufficiently mystifying. In the longer format of the novel, Conan Doyle has the opportunity to construct a more intricate, confounding plot that leaves the reader guessing from chapter to chapter.

The book opens with Dr. John Watson recently returned from service in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Temporarily unemployed, he is living off of a government disability check while recuperating form injuries suffered in combat. Due to his strapped financial situation, he seeks a roommate to share lodging expenses, and a friend introduces him to Sherlock Holmes. The two new acquaintances inspect a room at 221B Baker street, find it to their liking, and become flat mates. The rest, as they say, is history. Soon afterward, a dead body is discovered in an empty house, with no visible sign of the cause of death. The word “RACHE” is scrawled in blood on the wall. It takes Holmes little time to discover and apprehend the killer, but it takes Watson and the reader until the end of the book to figure out how he did it.

The story switches perspective in the middle of the book in order to relate the back story of the crime. During this extended flashback, Holmes and Watson are entirely absent for five chapters. This would be an annoyance were it not for the fact that the story is so well written and captivatingly suspenseful. Instead of simply creating cardboard supporting characters designed to act out a mystery for the two leads to solve, Doyle creates memorable characters that the reader actually cares about. When the story finally returns to Watson’s narration, we learn how Holmes solved the case, and, as usual, his talent for the art of deduction is mind-blowing.

Everyone knows who Sherlock Holmes is, and either you like this sort of thing or you don’t. If you belong in the former category, and you haven’t read the book that started it all, then you are doing yourself a great disservice. More than just a historical monument to the birthplace of Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet is a masterful work of literature that certainly ranks as one of Holmes and Watson’s most intriguing adventures.

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