A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This is the first Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson mystery, published in 1887. A Study in Scarlet is a novel in two parts. The first, narrated by Dr John Watson, begins in 1881 with Watson on nine months convalescent leave from the army, having been shot in his shoulder whilst in Afghanistan, followed by an attack of enteric fever. As a result he was weak and emaciated – ‘as thin as a lather and as brown as a nut.‘ He was looking for lodgings when he met a friend who introduced him to an acquaintance who was working in the chemical laboratory at the hospital – Sherlock Holmes, who he described as ‘a little too scientific for my tastes – it approaches to cold-bloodedness. … He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge.’ 

They get on immediately and take a suite of rooms in 221B Baker Street, after Holmes astounded Watson by deducing that Watson had served in Afghanistan. Holmes describes his occupation as a ‘consulting detective‘ solving crimes for both private individuals and the police, using his intuition, observation and the rules of deduction. Tobias Gregson and Lestrade both Scotland Yard detectives regularly ask Holmes for his help.

Very soon they are involved in investigating the murder of Enoch J Drebber, an American found dead in the front room of an empty house at 3 Lauriston Gardens, off the Brixton Road,  with the word “RACHE” scrawled in blood on the wall beside the body.

A Study in Scarlet is a superb story introducing Conan Doyle’s characters – Holmes reminds Watson of

… a pure-blooded well-trained foxhound as it dashes backwards and forwards through the covert, whining in its eagerness, until it comes across the lost scent.

Holmes is his brilliant best, leaving the police officers behind as he discovers the killer. And there then follows a flashback, narrated in the third person, to Part II The Country of the Saints to America in 1847, specifically to a Mormon community, explaining the events that led up to to the murder, where John Ferrier and his adopted daughter Lucy are first rescued from death in the desert and then subjected to the community’s rules, specifically with regard to Lucy’s marriage. At first I just wanted to get back to the murder inquiry and find out how Holmes discovered the murderer’s identity, but soon I was engrossed in the American story. Eventually the two parts come together in Chapter VI as Watson resumes the narrative and  Holmes reveals how he solved the problem by reasoning backwards and from a ‘few very ordinary deductions‘ was able to catch the criminal within three days.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, written in a straightforward style with enough description to visualise both Victorian London and the American Wild West. I’d watched the TV version A Study in Pink in the Sherlock series, which although very different in some respects is surprisingly faithful to the book in others. I like both versions.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh in 1859 and died in 1930. He studied medicine at Edinburgh University, becoming the surgeon’s clerk to Professor Joseph Bell said to be the model for Sherlock Holmes’ methods of deduction. He gave up being a doctor with his success as an author and became involved in many causes – including divorce law reform, a channel tunnel, and inflatable life jackets. He was instrumental in the introduction of the Court of Criminal Appeal and was a volunteer physician in the Boer War. Later in life he became a convert to spiritualism.

See Fantastic Fiction for a list of works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Challenges: Read Scotland 2014, the Colour Coded Challenge, Mount TBR 2014 and My Kind of Mystery.

Crime Fiction Alphabet 2012: Letter A

Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet begins this week with the letter A.Letter A

Here are the rules:

By Friday of each week participants try to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week.

Your post MUST be related to either the first letter of a book’s title, the first letter of an author’s first name, or the first letter of the author’s surname, or even maybe a crime fiction “topic”. But above all, it has to be crime fiction.
So you see you have lots of choice.
You could write a review, or a bio of an author, so long as it fits the rules somehow.
(It is ok too to skip a week.)

My choice for the letter A is Arthur Conan Doyle and The Sign of Four, sometimes called The Sign of the Four. Set in 1888 this is the second Sherlock Holmes book written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, published in 1890.

Description from Goodreads:

Yellow fog is swirling through the streets of London, and Sherlock Holmes himself is sitting in a cocaine-induced haze until the arrival of a distressed and beautiful young lady forces the great detective into action. Each year following the strange disappearance of her father, Miss Morstan has received a present of a rare and lustrous pearl. Now, on the day she is summoned to meet her anonymous benefactor, she consults Holmes and Watson.

My thoughts:

Although I have a copy of this book on my Kindle, I listened to an audiobook of the novel, narrated by Derek Jacobi. Holmes is bored, hence the cocaine and Dr Watson is concerned about the effect on his health, although he hesitates to protest at his use of the drug because:

Again and again I had registered a vow that I should deliver my soul upon the subject, but there was that cool, nonchalant air of my companion which made him the last man with whom one could care to take anything approaching to a liberty. His great powers, his masterly manner, and the experience of his many extraordinary qualities, all made me diffident and backward in crossing him.

So they are both keen to investigate the mystery Mary Morstan presents to them. Holmes is intrigued by the mystery, involving the murder of Bartholomew Sholto, the Agra treasure stolen during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and a secret pact between the four thieves – the ‘Four’ of the title, resulting in a chase down the River Thames in a super-fast steam launch.

It’s narrated by Dr Watson, who falls in love with Mary during the course of the investigation, but it is only at the end of the novel that he plucks up his courage to propose to her. Derek Jacobi does an admirable job, with easily distinguishable voices and reasonable versions of the women’s voices. The story is complex and fast-paced, with Holmes seemingly solving the mystery from clues which he then explains to Watson. But I thought the last chapter was too long, explaining Jonathan Small’s involvement in the theft of the treasure and his attempts to retrieve it, but as Dr Watson is the narrator and he didn’t know any of this I suppose it was the only way of including it.

There are a number of minor characters that stand out, even though they have minimal involvement and are only sketched in. I’m thinking of the Scotland Yard Inspector, Athelney Jones, who Holmes describes as ‘not a bad fellow’. He arrests the whole of Sholto’s household, even his brother. There is also Toby, the dog, described as an ‘ugly long haired, lop-eared creature, half spaniel and half lurcher, brown and white in colour, with a very clumsy waddling gait.’ Also notable are the Baker Street Irregulars, a gang of ‘dirty and little street-Arabs‘ Holmes employs to chase down the criminals. He pays them a shilling a day, with a guinea prize for the first boy to find the vital clue.

All in all, an enjoyable ‘read’ and as I was listening I could visualise the scenes. It begins and ends with Holmes reaching for his cocaine.