Monday, November 24, 2014

Thoughts on the Classics: A Study in Scarlet

 In the debut of literature's most famous sleuth, a dead man is discovered in a bloodstained room in Brixton. The only clues are a wedding ring, a gold watch, a pocket edition of Boccaccio's Decameron, and a word scrawled in blood on the wall. With this investigation begins the partnership of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Their search for the murderer uncovers a story of love and revenge-and heralds a franchise of detective mysteries starring the formidable Holmes.

A Study in Scarlet
Conan Doyle, Arthur (1887). [Genre: Mystery]
Is it weird that I can no longer read Sherlock Holmes without imagining Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman? Anyway . . .

A Study in Scarlet was an enjoyable read, if a little odd. Being the first appearance of the famous characters, much is made of initial introductions – we are introduced to Watson, and are introduced to Holmes through him as they meet each other for the first time and subsequently move into rooms on Baker Street together. It takes a little while to rev up into the actual mystery, which involves a man found dead in the middle of a room, with the German word for ‘revenge’ painted in blood on the walls (lovely).

We get sucked into the mystery for a while and all seems to be moving along nicely, until we hit Part 2 of the novel just as Holmes is hitting his explanatory climax – at which point the story very very suddenly becomes a book about a father and daughter lost in frontier USA who are rescued by Mormons. At the point I hit this part I was reading on the train, during my commute home after a rather long day, and in all honesty I found myself a chapter into Part 2 and wondering whether in my tired state I had accidentally hit the wrong button on my Kindle and was now reading a different book. And once I’d established that wasn’t the case, whether (and you can tell from this how tired I obviously was) the free Kindle edition I had downloaded had been hijacked by radical members of the faith. It quickly became obvious that this wasn’t the case, as the Mormon focused part of the novel took a turn and we find that they are the ‘badies’ of the story. In some ways this was just as odd - Mormonism is portrayed as evil, its members as murderers and child snatchers. The viciousness with which Conan Doyle attacks it seems a little unjustified? There is no rhyme or reason.

It all connects together in the end and as it turns out, the interlude does have relevance to the overall story (just, not enough perhaps to justify literally half the novel). Here came my second point of contention, although it is admittedly more due to the newness of the genre at the time Conan Doyle was writing - the reader cannot predict 'whodunnit.' There is literally no way in which the reader could possibly guess until Holmes reveals his conclusion . . . there is no foreshadowing, no hints. Indeed we don't even meet the culprit until the moment Holmes reveals him as such.

I enjoy Conan Doyle's writing greatly and will return to Sherlock Holmes without a doubt. But A Study in Scarlet certainly felt like a literary debut (as indeed, it is) - it just doesn't have the polish of the mysteries that follow it. 

A Study in Scarlet counts both towards my Classics Club list and the 'A Classic Mystery' category of the Back to the Classics Challenge.

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