review by Gabriel
A Study in Scarlet is the premier Sherlock Holmes adventure, and therefore a pretty influential text in the detective fiction genre. It’s a hell of a lot of fun and could be held up as an example on how to write sentences, create a sense of place and establish important characters. However, I assume that Conan Doyle was still perfecting his craft when he wrote it, because there are some poor structural choices that really dampen the excitement of the book. There are also some thundering clichés, especially surrounding one character that becomes a sinkhole for bad writing.
There’s not much point in providing a summary of the main plot, since it’s a pretty straightforward murder mystery. The narrator, for those who don’t know, is Dr John Watson, an army-trained surgeon who is idling around London recuperating from a war wound. The text is apparently a reprint of his journal, suggesting that he has a photographic memory and the occasional out-of-body-experience. He’s a passive character, which is fine, because his real purpose is to tell us how cool Sherlock Holmes is. And Holmes is pretty damn cool.
Before the Great Detective enters the scene, Conan Doyle piques reader’s interest by having other characters discuss the peculiar nature of the protagonist. He is finally introduced in a scene in a science laboratory that establishes him as manic, brilliant and preoccupied with morbid matters. He’s a fantastic character who dominates every page he appears on and energises the whole text.
I like, too, that he is flawed. I expected to find him to be some super-human proto detective, but instead he’s a bit of a nutter. He’s arrogant, proud, patronising, prone to flattery, susceptible to mood swings and pursues criminals as a kind of game, as opposed to believing he is meting out justice. He’s also theatrical and secretive, traits which are very convenient for a detective novel because they mean that he withholds his knowledge of the mystery’s solution mystery until the climax.
But he’s likable for his enthusiasm and, of course, for his skill in practicing the “science of deduction”. Generally, the thing I don’t like about detective fiction is that everything is fabricated to make the mystery solver seem awesome. But in Holmes’ case, I found I could accept it because it’s not taken too seriously.
Almost despite myself, I was thoroughly engaged in the mystery, but just as Holmes nabs the culprit and an explanation seems imminent, the scene shifts to America. My disappointment made me flick back and forth between pages to make sure I hadn’t missed something. Prolonging the reader’s gratification is a risky move, but Conan Doyle almost pulls it off thanks to an exciting scenario and his evocative description of the plains of Utah.
This digression is a nice enough little story involving hardcore killer Mormons, but it doesn’t really compare with the main narrative, especially considering we know the ultimate outcome. And when finally we do return to London, the wind has been taken out of the conclusion because everything has been already been explained, and there’s not much left for Homes to do. It’s also a strange tactic to have Holmes’ first adversary be sympathetic.
The only thing that really grated me, though, can be summed up in two words: Lucy Ferrier. Why does it seem that almost all children in eighteenth century literature are twee, simpering little snots? And she gets worse. She grows into (ugh) “the flower of Utah” with ruddy cheeks and flowing hair, a “lithe, girlish figure tripping through the wheatfields” whose greatest ambition is to get married. She is a yawning black hole of cliché who sucks the life out of every scene she appears in. I suppose the two-dimensional depiction of women, along with the now-hilarious racism that depicts white Christians as the only decent people in the world, are a product of the times in which the book was written.
While it has its flaws, A Study in Scarlet is still a great read. I’ve got the 1000 plus page Vintage Classics edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, and I’ll definitely be dipping into whenever I feel like the book equivalent of a pop-corn movie.