Book Review: A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

A Study in Scarlet (Sherlock Holmes, #1)A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”Most people, if you describe a train of events to them, will tell you what the result would be. They can put those events together in their minds, and argue from them that something will come to pass. There are few people, however, who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to the result. This power is what I mean when I talk of reasoning backwards, or analytically.”

Solving murders almost always begins with the well…murder… requiring the detective to show the work that gave us this murderous result, much like an algebraic equation. Remember when the teacher would give us a problem with the answer and some parts of the equation and ask us to fill in the missing bits? Little did you know, while sitting in that school chair, that you were puzzling over the algebra equivalent of solving a murder.

So what Sherlock Holmes has with A Study in Scarlet is a murdered man, quite possibly poisoned, a woman’s wedding ring, the word “Rache” written in blood upon the wall, square-toed boot prints, and the muddy wheel prints of a carriage. Quite a lot for Holmes’ intellectual abilities. Despite the well-meaning but fumbling efforts of the detectives Lestrade and Gregson, Holmes is able to deduce, using the pieces of the equation, what further efforts will have to transpire to find the murderer.

The book is split into two parts. The first half is the initial investigation, and the second half is the backstory which takes place in America, among the Mormons of Utah. This transition feels rather abrupt, and for the first chapter of the second part, I was really missing Holmes and Watson, but soon I was swept up in this new narrative and waiting with great anticipation to see how the events in Utah would match up with the murder(s) in London.

We can’t imagine the detective genre without the looming shadow of Sherlock Holmes, but if a few things had gone differently, Sherlock Holmes might have remained a mere fancy in the mind of his creator Arthur Conan Doyle. We needed a few things to go wrong for Doyle, such as a physician partnership to go sour and then for him to move to Portsmouth to set up his own independent practice. Next, we needed the people of Southsea to ignore his practice, which would allow him the time to pick up his quill and start writing stories to while away the long hours while waiting for patients. We can imagine Doyle sitting there in his surgery, hoping every set of footsteps outside his door was a patient, but then as this character Holmes began to roam the corridors of his mind, we can understand why Doyle might have started hoping that the footsteps outside his door continued to pass on by.

Sherlock Holmes is partly modeled upon the characteristics of Doyle’s University of Edinburgh professor Joseph Bell. Another native of Edinburgh, the writer Robert Louis Stevenson was able to recognise the strong similarity between Joseph Bell and Sherlock Holmes: ‘My compliments on your very ingenious and very interesting adventures of Sherlock Holmes. … can this be my old friend Joe Bell?’ Bell must have been a megalithic figure to inspire such admiration in Doyle and Stevenson, not to mention the legions of fans who saw his mind as a pinnacle of human achievement. While I was attending the University of Arizona, we had the celebrated M. Scott Momaday and Edward Abbey teaching classes. Getting confirmed to be able to attend those classes was equivalent to winning the lottery, with about the same odds of success. I never was able to secure one of those coveted desks in their classrooms, but I did meet Abbey at a book signing. The lecherous, old fart flirted outrageously with my girlfriend, and maybe glanced at me once disdainfully. Needless to say, this meeting was not a Bell worthy level of inspiration.

It has been a few decades since I’ve read A Study in Scarlet. It was a blustery afternoon, and there was something cozy about settling into a Doyle mystery with a cup of Earl Grey and a Scottish Terrier on my lap. I was not disappointed: the plot proved as good as I remembered. My plan is to reread the Sherlock Holmes stories in order, leading up to The Hound of the Baskervilles which will be one of the entries in the Gravelight Press Classic Horror Collection. This rereading journey is all part of my research for writing the introduction.

The aforementioned Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the first entry in Classic Horror Series. The Casebook of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which includes my new introduction. I relate my Gravelight Press origin story in my review of this book:…
It was a blast to write, and the readers, so far, have had fun reading it. Next up will be The Picture of Dorian Gray, Frankenstein, followed by Dracula, and then The Hound of the Baskervilles.

If you find introductions to works of fiction boring, you won’t find that to be the case with mine. Those who have followed my reviews all these years know that I stoke the fire of burning curiosity rather than smother the spark of interest.

Please do sign up for my updates on my website: I will keep you abreast of my journey through these horror classics and occasionally even tantalize you with excerpts from my novel and short stories.

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