Sunday, 30 November 2014

'A Study in Scarlet' by Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)

Synopsis: A Study in Scarlet is the first book in the Sherlock Holmes series. John Watson is a former army doctor who has been forced to return home to England after sustaining an injury during the Anglo-Afghan War. Watson spends several months living in a London hotel before he decides to move to a more affordable residence. Watson then runs into an old acquaintance called Stamford who previously worked with him at St Bartholomew's Hospital. When Watson mentions that he's looking for somewhere to live, Stamford tells him that he knows an eccentric man called Sherlock Holmes who is looking for someone to split the rent at a flat at 221b Baker Street. Stamford introduces Watson and Holmes and within a few days the pair are living at Baker Street. Watson is fascinated by Holmes. His new friend has a profound knowledge of chemistry and sensational fiction but he knows next to nothing about astronomy, politics and literature. He guessed that Watson had served in the army during their first meeting. Holmes also gets mysterious guests visiting him at various times throughout the day. Eventually Holmes reveals that he is a "consulting detective" and that these guests are clients. Holmes then receives a telegram from Scotland Yard and invites Watson to accompany him to a crime scene. Holmes takes Watson to an abandoned house in Brixton where an American has been murdered. The Scotland Yard detectives Lestrade and Gregson are utterly perplexed. No violence has been done to the victim and there are no signs of a struggle but there is blood all over the crime scene and the corpse has a look of sheer hatred and horror on his face. Holmes is eventually able to solve the mystery and identify the murderer. The story then flashes back to Utah during the late 1840s and the backstory of the murderer is explained.

I'll start at the very beginning, it's a very good place to start :) When I was a little child one of my favourite Disney films was The Great Mouse Detective. It's still one of my favourite films to this day and I class it as my introduction to Sherlock Holmes. When I was about 12 or 13 I then read Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles and I really liked it. I re-read the story as an adult and loved it! After I read that novel I then watched the first series of the BBC's Sherlock and became a super massive fangirl of that show. Since then I've read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four and The Return of Sherlock Holmes. I've seen series two and three of Sherlock, the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films, and the first season of the CBS show Elementary. I've also read a couple of Sherlock Holmes pastiche novels. Now I've set myself a challenge: I'm aiming to read all of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes books in their published order during the next 12 months.

A Study in Scarlet might be the original Sherlock Holmes story but I think a newcomer to the canon would be better off starting with The Hound of the Baskervilles or The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. In the eyes of many Sherlockians what I'm about to say is tantamount to blasphemy but it's my honest opinion: Sherlock's A Study in Pink is a huge improvement on this book! A Study in Scarlet is... an odd novel. It has quite a weird structure and is basically two stories in one. The first half of the book is excellent. Sherlock Holmes is witty, mysterious, eccentric, compelling, conceited and brilliant. The mystery is intriguing, there's plenty of humour, and the interactions between Holmes and Watson are highly entertaining: e.g. Watson's bewilderment at Holmes' ignorance of the solar system :D Then at the halfway point the story completely changes. The murderer gets a jarring and unnecessarily long backstory that involves evil Mormons in America. I wasn't keen on this part of the novel on my first read and during this re-read I liked it even less. Quite frankly it just isn't something that I'd want to read about in a Sherlock Holmes story. If it wasn't for this backstory the book would probably get a 4.5/5.

Rating: 3.5/5


Manette said...

Oooh, I'm writing a review on this myself :) I might make it a joint review with The Sign of Four. The cover that you have in the picture is really pretty, I've got the same edition.

Hannah said...

I'm looking forward to reading it! I can see why you'd want to combine it with The Sign of Four. From what I remember those books are quite similar. Hey, are you still working on that Hound of the Baskerville adaptations review you said you were going to do? No pressure! :)

It is a really pretty cover! I don't have that edition unfortunately. I have the Penguin Red Classics cover and it's pretty ugly. I didn't want to pick it for this post. Some of the book covers that I pick for my posts are my own though: the North and South book cover is my own edition :)

Hamlette said...

I completely agree that this is not the greatest detective novel ever. Doyle seems really fond of the whole "and now let's devote the second half of the book to a long, rambling backstory set in America" thing, doesn't he? "The Valley of Fear" is the same way.

Have fun reading the whole canon in a year! I did just that in 2013, and it was a total blast. I loved getting to see how the characters evolved (or didn't) over time.

Hannah said...

Yeah, I've heard that's true of 'The Valley of Fear' as well except that the villains are Evil Freemasons instead of Mormons. Correct me if I'm wrong! Got to be honest I'm not liking this side of ACD's writing. It seems a little bit too... Dan Brown for my liking.

Yes, I'm really looking forward to reading the whole canon :) I've read your reviews of the books in the canon that I've already read and I really enjoyed them!

Hamlette said...

Hahahahahaha! I never thought of comparing ACD and Dan Brown. Possibly because I've never read anything by Dan Brown, tho I did see the movie version of "The DaVinci Code." I remember Ian McKellen being fun. As always. But anyway, the comparison tickled me :-)

It seems like Mormons and Freemasons were easy targets back in the late 19th/early 20th century. They keep cropping up en masse as bad guys, even in westerns like Riders of the Purple Sage. Kind of how today, the KKK and Nazis are our go-to groups for Instantly Recognizable as Evil bad guys.

I'm so glad you've enjoyed my reviews! Thank you :-)

Hannah said...

I felt dreadfully mean comparing ACD to Dan Brown after I wrote that comment! ACD doesn't deserve that! I've tried to read The Da Vinci Code twice but gave up because the writing was so bad. I never saw the movie although I did hear that Ian McKellan was really good in it. Surprise, surprise!

You're welcome! :)