Book Review: A Study in Scarlet

Some years ago in another town, the local radio station would play classic radio programs on Friday nights, and occasionally some of these would be Sherlock Holmes stories. I enjoyed them, but I was never inclined to read any of the books about him. However, over the past few years we’ve seen several film and TV adaptions or shows loosely based on the Holmes’ character, and I was curious to find out what the “real” (or maybe I should say original) Sherlock Holmes was all about.

Study in ScarletA Study in Scarlet is the first Sherlock Holmes book written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was first published in a magazine, and it’s one of the few Sherlock Holmes stories to be made into a full length book: the rest are short stories.

The book is told from Dr. John Watson’s point of view and opens with his coming back to England to recover after being wounded as an army doctor in Afghanistan. He runs into an old friend and, after sharing that he is looking for someone to share living quarters and expenses, the friend introduces him to Sherlock Holmes, who is looking for a roommate. The friend forewarns Watson that Holmes is a bit eccentric, but Watson feels he can get along with him well enough.

Upon their first meeting Holmes tells Watson he perceives he has been in Afghanistan, but doesn’t explain how he came to that conclusion yet. The two move into 221B Baker Street, and as they get to one another, Watson discovers that Holmes knows very little about literature, astronomy, politics, and other subjects, but knows a great deal about chemistry and sensational literature and a bit about geology and botany. Holmes feels he only has so much room in his brain and only wants to put into it what will help him in his craft. Watson can’t quite figure out what Holmes does for a living until Holmes reveals he is a consulting detective. Watson doubts Holmes abilities until Holmes tells him all about a telegram deliverer by observation, and Watson has the opportunity to question the messenger about Holmes’s speculations which are, of course, correct. Watson then becomes Holmes’ biggest fan.

The telegraph Holmes receives concerns a case in which his opinion is wanted. Holmes invites Watson to come along to meet Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade at an abandoned house where a male corpse has been found. There is a bit of competition between Holmes, Gregson, and Lestrade, but of course Holmes notices clues and makes deductions that the others miss.

Just when Holmes has identified the killer (but hasn’t yet explained how he did so), the story abruptly shifts to a desert scene in America where the only two people left in a caravan, an older man and a young girl, are about to die from hunger and thirst. At first I thought maybe this was a book of short stories after all and this was the next story, but after a while characters pop up with the same names of some of the characters in the first part. The man and girl are rescued by a caravan of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) who are traveling to Salt Lake City, and they invite them to come along on the condition that they adopt the Mormon religion. Not having much choice, they do so, and the man, John Ferrier, adopts the girl, Lucy. Lucy grows and Ferrier prospers until Lucy falls in love with a man who works in nearby mines. The man in not a Mormon, though, and Brigham Young tells Ferrier that this is against Mormon rules and he has thirty days for Lucy to chose one of two other men, or something dire will happen. Each day a number is painted somewhere on Ferrier’s property, counting down to the 30 days.

Though at first I resented this time away from Holmes and Watson, the story about Lucy did get interesting and suspenseful. I won’t ruin it by telling what happened except to say that it does connect with the corpse in London that Holmes is investigating.

Then the story shifts back to Watson’s retelling of the arrest of the killer, his confession and his side of the story, and Holmes’ explanation for how he found him out.

I very much enjoyed this adventure with Sherlock Holmes and will probably delve into some of his other stories in the future. I listened to this story via an audiobook read very nicely by actor Derek Jacobi.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

This also completes one of my requirements for the  Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate.

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14 thoughts on “Book Review: A Study in Scarlet

  1. Knowing of your fondness for missionary stories I was wondering if you have ever read On the Far Side of Liglig Mountain. It is about a doctor in Nepal. One of my friends is a missionary in Asia and she told me it was her favorite missionary book.

    I’ll have to add A Study in Scarlet to my library wish list!

  2. I shall begin working backwards. (I didn’t realize I was THAT far behind! I was thinking I was less.)

    Anyway, it’s been a long time since i’ve read classic mysteries period. I read every Sherlock story (I THINK) when I was in high school or thereabouts. Lately I picked up a Christie though and that made me appreciate some older mysterious. I think I could stand reading some Doyle again!

  3. Though I love a wide range of mysteries, I’ve always had a hard time getting into SH though I’ve tried a time or two. Then I saw a few of the modern renderings based on the original stories (with clever allusions here and there) so that I’m now curious enough to try reading them again. Your review is timely indeed! Maybe I’ll start with this one.

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