Scott's Reviews > A Study in Scarlet

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
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's review
Oct 05, 2008

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bookshelves: victorian, crime, 1880s, london
Read in October, 2008

In A Study in Scarlet (1888), Arthur Conan Doyle introduces his master sleuth to the world, warts and all. Aside from his well-known arrogance and tactlessness, Holmes’ other flaws, as well as his odd but impressive knowledge, are cataloged by his astonished new roommate, Dr. Watson:
 1. Knowledge of Literature. — Nil.
 2. Knowledge of Philosophy. — Nil.
 3. Knowledge of Astronomy. — Nil.
 4. Knowledge of Politics. — Feeble.
 5. Knowledge of Botany. — Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
 6. Knowledge of Geology. — Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks, has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.
 7. Knowledge of Chemistry. — Profound.
 8. Knowledge of Anatomy. — Accurate, but unsystematic.
 9. Knowledge of Sensational Literature. — Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
10. Plays the violin well.
11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman.
12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.
Holmes is clearly a rara avis, and his oddities and eccentricities are as surprising as his formidable powers of detection. The first half of A Study in Scarlet, the most entertaining part of the book, is a finely drawn study of Holmes’ character, peculiar habits, and methods for solving crime. Anyone interested in Holmes will enjoy this intriguing introduction to the great consulting detective.

Unfortunately, the actual crimes that are committed in this novella aren’t nearly so intriguing as Doyle’s portrait of Holmes. The detective’s first documented case is uncommonly violent: two Americans are murdered – one in an empty house, the other in his hotel room; the crime scenes are littered with evidence – a wedding ring, a box of pills, tobacco ash, footprints, and the German word RACHE, scrawled in blood on the walls. Scotland Yard is stymied; Holmes’ services are called upon.

To explain the murders, Doyle flashes back some twenty years to the early Mormon settlement of Utah Territory. The transition from late Victorian London to the great alkali deserts of the North American West is jarring and confusing, and his treatment of the settlers there is just as rough. Working from prejudiced sources hostile to the Mormons, Doyle sketches a "historical" romance that casts the Saints as bloodthirsty white slavers dominated by the belligerent figure of Brigham Young. Doyle’s tale spirals off on this tangent for far too many tortuous chapters until we are suddenly back in the drawing room of 221B Baker Street, where the mystery is resolved, rehashed, retold, and awkwardly laid to rest.

A Study in Scarlet, in spite of its flaws, is still required reading for any Sherlock Holmes fan. To meet Holmes in all his quirkiness is worth the perplexing, sometimes unsavory slog through the tale’s second half. Or, as some readers have suggested, you could save yourself some tedium by skipping over all the flashback, reading just the first seven chapters and then the last two, which actually feature the super sleuth solving the case.
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message 1: by Joel & Christie (last edited Oct 08, 2008 08:00PM) (new)

Joel & Christie Three of Doyle's long stories--Study in Scarlett, Sign of Four (which you are reading now, I see) and my favorite, Valley of Fear--have long extended naratives that have absolutely nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes. Its almost as if Doyle had stories he wanted to tell that weren't strong enough to stand on their own, so he stuck them in the middle of his Holmes stories. His fourth long story, Hound of the Baskervilles, doesn't have any unrelated plot. What keeps us fascinated with Sherlock 100 years after his death are his flaws, as you noted Scott. Holmes is racist. He doesn't like women. He is arrogant and conceited as all get out. All traits we do not admire, but traits that make him real and believable.

Interestingly, this is exactly my problem with movies in our day and age. Back in my youth, when I would walk up hill barefoot in the snow to go to the movies, daredevil stunts were performed by stuntmen and stuntwomen. Since the stunts were performed by real people, the actual stunts themselves could not fall outside the realm of what a human body could do. Movies were very believable. Todays special effects are so good that they allow protrays outside the realm of possibility and movies aren't nearly as enjoyable. But we don't realize this because the special effects are soo good. An example--The Dark Knight. The Joker is driving the 18 wheeler and Batman causes it to flip over backwards, 180 degrees. An incredible stunt. Joker crawl out of the cab without a scratch, hardly dazed and confused. I thoroughally enjoyed the scene, but the movie became unbelievable to me. Joker nor any human could walk away from such a crash in real life. Do the stunt with real people, meaning the stunt won't be so elaborate, but I'll care more about the characters!!! Example 2 - at the end of the first Spiderman, the Green Goblin has Mary Jane hanging precariously over the water, and 25 yards away, a cable car full of girl scouts or something is also hanging precariously over the water. Mr. Green cuts both cords and both fall to the water below. Who will the Spider save? That scene could not be filmed with a stuntman as Spiderman, because the human body cannot attend to both situation with the 10 seconds it would take for both to hit the water. But with special effects, the Spiderman saves them both, totally cool to watch, but totally unbelievable. In movied like Psycho and Vertigo, you had real people showering and standing on ledges, so the scenes perhaps weren't as thrilling, being void of special effects, but were very compelling because real people did the work.

100 years from now, our grandkids writing each other on Goodreads will be talking about Sherlock Holmes because his is a flawed and believable character.

Scott JC: thanks for the heads up. I didn't realize I was about to plow in to another 30-page aside ... hopefully Doyle leaves all the luvvy-duvvy stuff out of it. He's really at his worst when he mixes romance into his tales of detection. I'm finding Watson's lovemaking particularly repellent in The Sign of Four ... worse even than the nonsense about the Mormons and their harems! Gimme a good mystery and leave all the hand holding and barely bridled emotional fury for Danielle Steele & Co.

I see what you're saying about the modern cinema. I get awfully annoyed with it too. But it's not the incredibility of it all that ticks me off. I just get really bored with its self-conscious showing off ... it's "look, Mom, no hands!" approach to telling a story. A lot of contemporary fiction suffers from the same self-infatuation. Readers and movie-goers really don't open a book or stand in line for a movie in order to pay homage to the author or director. They read or watch to be entertained. I think the best books and movies are the ones that don't really dazzle me as much as they make me feel good or somehow tinker with my wiring so that I understand something about life a little better.

Joel & Christie Hollywood is always talking about drop in attendance, blaming it on high ticket prices and other entertainment choices available to the consumer. Other choices never put anyone out of business. Other superior choices put people out of business. If Hollywood would invest more in the script and less in the effects, it would reemerge as the superior choice.

But nothing beats lying on the beach, does it? Do you ever fish?

Scott Fish? It makes perfect sense to, and I see a lot of fellows on the beach with very long poles, lines as thick as telephone cables, and a huge cooler full of "refreshment." They spend the whole day in the shade of a palm tree, sipping and listening for the little bell attached to their lines to tinkle. I spend whole days watching them watching their lines; odd, but I've never seen anyone land anything. I've never even seen anyone spin their reel in vain imitation of someone catching a whopper. Come to think of it, I'm not even sure that they bother to put reels on their rods. Looks like good work, but the pay, apparently, is lousy.

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