A Study in Scarlet (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

  • By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • First published: UK: Ward Lock, 1887 in Beeton’s Christmas Annual; Ward Lock, 1888; US: Lippincott, 1890

Rating: 3 out of 5.
The Queen, 26 November 1887

So much of A Study in Scarlet is legendary. Struggling young Dr. Doyle weaving A Tangled Skein while waiting for patients who never came; that brilliant detective Sherrinford Holmes and his friend Ormond Sacker, before common sense prevailed, and they became Sherlock and Watson; the remarkable inspiration of Doyle’s Edinburgh lecturer, Dr. Joseph Bell; “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

Holmes, of course, was to become the most famous detective of all time, but that came later, with the short stories in the Strand. There had been detectives before Sherlock: Poe’s Dupin (“a very inferior fellow”) and Gaboriau’s Lecoq (“a miserable bungler”). There had even been detective stories: most famously Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone and Dickens’s Edwin Drood; in France, some of Eugène Scribe’s plays and operas qualify. (Certainly Le Shérif, an 1839 opéra-comique for Halévy, is a prototype: impossible crime, red herrings, investigators, and a least likely culprit that anticipates Wilkie Collins.)

But Doyle’s contemporaries, like most critics since, believed he had achieved something novel.

“Nobody who cares for detective stories should pass over A Study in Scarlet, by Conan Doyle,” wrote The Graphic. “The author has equalled the best of his predecessors in that popular line by bringing to light a seemingly impenetrable crime by means of severely logical deductions from apparently unconnected and well-nigh imperceptible traces; and he has actually succeeded in inventing a brand new detective, only reminding the reader of Poe’s in being an amateur of genius in that particular direction.”

Western Daily Press, 24 October 1890

John Dickson Carr (The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1949) credits Doyle with being the first scientific criminologist, when no system of scientific criminology existed. “By a study of minutiæ, footprints, mud, dust, the use of chemistry and anatomy and geology, this detective must reconstruct the scene of a murder as though he had been there; and casually fling out information into astounded faces.” In his day, the head of the police laboratory at Lyons even credited Doyle (and Dr. Hans Gross, four years later) with understanding the significance of dust. R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke would bring more rigorous science to the detective story, but Doyle sowed the seeds that Freeman harvested.

The crime that Doyle gives Holmes to investigate is a simple one: an American businessman is found dead in an empty house, the sinister word “Rache” scrawled in blood on the walls. By the standards of Golden Age detective fiction, it can seem disappointingly minimalistic: there are no real suspects or complexity, and the murderer only appears at the showdown. (It did, however, inspire Ellery Queen‘s brilliant Tragedy of X.)

But it is an impressive demonstration of the sleuth’s talents. Holmes immediately describes the murderer’s height and appearance, the boots he wore, the cigars he smoked, how he arrived, and the length of his fingernails. It takes Holmes only 18 pages to capture the murderer.

The second half of the novella is a flashback to mid-19th century Utah, and the terror and tyranny of the Mormon cult. When I first read Scarlet in primary school, I used to skip this section (like the battles in Lord of the Rings), but it has a certain grim power. The avenger from the past and the sinister American society (e.g., the Ku Klux Klan, the Molly Maguires) recur in later Sherlock Holmes stories.

For all its historical importance, Scarlet remains a minor work; only with the Adventures and Memoirs does Sherlock Holmes enter his majority.


2000 review

A Study in Scarlet is of great historical importance as the first Sherlock Holmes story, but it’s one of the least interesting Holmes tales. The first half introduces the Master himself, and his miraculous powers of deduction from footprints, bloodstains and dustmarks, which are brought to bear upon a rather minimalist case of murder, with neither the complexity nor the atmosphere of the later tales. Once the rather surprising murderer has been caught, little more than halfway through the book, there follows an overly lengthy flashback to Utah. While it is necessary to understand why the murders were committed, the flashback does not convince, and the reader is impatient to return to Holmes and Watson.


Reviews

Glasgow Herald (17th December 1887): Beeton’s Christmas Annual is now an old institution, and as regularly looked for as the holly and mistletoe. This year its contents are full and varied. The pièce de resistance is a story by A. Conan Doyle entitled “A Study in Scarlet”. It is the story of a murder, and of the preternatural sagacity of a scientific detective, to whom Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin was a trifler, and Gaboriau’s Lecoq a child. He is a wonderful man is Mr. Sherlock Holmes, but one gets so wonderfully interested in his cleverness and in the mysterious murder which he unravels that one cannot lay down the narrative until the end is reached. What that end is wild horses shall not make us divulge.

Bristol Mercury (21st December 1887): This is the title of the modern representative of a valued friend of a quarter of a century ago, “Beeton’s Christmas Annual.” Mr. Doyle has written a story which brings in the vengeful deeds by which the Mormons used to maintain their institution, polygamy, and tells how one of their crimes was avenged in London, and how the mystery thereof was traced out by an amateur detective, who regards Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin as a very inferior fellow, and Lecoq as a miserable bungler. The story is very exciting and well told after the first start, and as the narrator is a doctor we presume his pathology of aneurism is correct.

The Scotsman (9th July 1888):    Messrs Ward, Lock, & Co., London, have sent out a shilling edition of A Study in Scarlet, byMr. Conan Doyle. This is one of the best detective stories that have been written. It will gain new readers in this form, and those who know the tale already would have nothing to regret if they were tempted to read it again.

Morning Post (12th July 1888): Much of the interest of this scientific detective story, by A. Conan Doyle, lies in its description of the “Wild West,” of a previous time, and also in the harrowing episodes, which have for scene the Mormon city of Utah. Altogether it is a powerful tale of passion and crime, with more “back-bone” than usually enters into the composition of stories of the same class.

Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (29th July 1888): From Messrs. Ward and Lock we receive a cheap edition of A Study in Scarlet, by A. Conan Doyle. It is a story which reveals some of the hidden depths of Mormonism, and keeps the reader on the alert by the eventful search for a murderer.

Weekly Dispatch (19th August 1888): A Study in Scarlet, by A. Conan Doyle, appears in a new issue as a “shilling shocker”. It is a detective story of considerable ingenuity and freshness. Mr. Sherlock Holmes is preternaturally shrewd, and his success is a grave reflection upon the Gregsons and Lestrades of Scotland Yard. The Mormon part of the story is full of tragic intensity.

Graphic (1st September 1888): Nobody who cares for detective stories should pass over A Study in Scarlet, by Conan Doyle. The author has equalled the best of his predecessors in that popular line by bringing to light a seemingly impenetrable crime by means of severely logical deductions from apparently unconnected and well-nigh imperceptible traces; and he has actually succeeded in inventing a brand new detective, only reminding the reader of Poe’s in being an amateur of genius in that particular direction. His two professional clients, with their clues which, while running in opposite directions, lead equally to nothing, supply him with an entertaining foil. The plot is rather daringly constructed, inasmuch as the crime is cleared in the middle of the volume, the remainder being given to its preliminary history. But this unconventional departure is justified by success, and by the complete renewal and maintenance of fresh interest to the close. Concerning the plot, we shall, of course, say nothing. We may say, however, that the latter portion of the story deals considerably with the earlier period of the Mormon settlement in an interesting manner; and that there is no trace of vulgarity or slovenliness, too often characteristic of detective stories. Besides being exceptionally ingenious, it may be read with pleasure by those do not care for such things in a general way.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): The kind of masterpiece that holds its place despite its flaws because it came first, full-blown, and at a stroke made obsolete the accepted contemporary of manner.  Holmes’ introduction to Watson and the reader now has all the glamour of a historic event, and the adventures of the two in Lauriston Gardens and at 221B Baker Street that culminate in the arrest of Jefferson Hope and the diagnosis of his aneurysm are etched in the memory of every connoisseur of the detective genre.  With this tale the classic modern style was set.

10 thoughts on “A Study in Scarlet (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

  1. It’s always interesting to see reviews of novels like this from bloggers like you! A STUDY IN SCARLET is the sort of thing I just… expect people to have already discussed on their blogs. I agree with your review entirely, I’ve always felt that A STUDY IN SCARLET is less remarkable as a mystery novel than it is for its historical importance and its place in the Holmes mythos. Keep up the good work, Nick!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Isaac!

      I reviewed it in 2000, but haven’t read it since. I was prompted by a book club I was going to attend – they were discussing this and Ian Fleming – but I’ve been down with a virus (not COVID!) for the last fortnight. Still, I read Scarlet in a morning.

      That said, I intend to review more detective fiction I *enjoy*. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to read the books on my TBR list, both detective fiction and other genres. That meant a lot of minor / second- or third-rate books from the ’20s and ’30s, moderately entertaining, but hardly memorable. Formulaic, Scotland Yard investigations, not much characterisation, solutions lacking any panache.

      So, of the nearly 80 books I’ve read this year, easily the best detective story was Masaya Yamaguchi’s Death of the Living Dead.

      Otherwise, I’ve most enjoyed Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Lion Feuchtwanger’s Jew of Rome trilogy, and Jack Vance’s Lyonesse.

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      1. I’m quite a fan of Sir Walter Scott.

        As for A STUDY IN SCARLET, it’s like Poe’s detective stories. Not terribly impressive until you remember that these were the first voyages into an unknown country. When you remember that they seem a whole lot more impressive. And Conan Doyle really didn’t take long at all to master the new genre.

        Since we’re on the subject of historical fiction (Walter Scott) and Conan Doyle, have you read Conan Doyle’s historical fiction? I personally think his achievements in that genre are the equal of his achievements in detective fiction. Plus the guy wrote fine gothic horror and science fiction. They don’t make writers like that any more.

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      2. I’ve read Sir Nigel and The White Company, as well as the Challenger tales and a lot of the short stories. (I read some of the horror stories a week before; “Lady Sannox” is memorably nasty.) He was a born storyteller. The Victorians and Edwardians were masters of prose fiction. These days, most of them would work in TV and film.

        What are your favourite Scotts?

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      3. Yes, Masaya Yamaguchi’s DEATH OF THE LIVING DEAD is very good! Have you read the novel that inspired it, Masahiro Imamura’s DEATH AMONG THE UNDEAD?

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      4. That’s a shame! I hope you get to finish it one day, I mentioned it on my blog as one of the most brilliant locked-room mysteries I’ve ever read. I’m glad you had some good reading this year, though!

        Liked by 1 person

      5. IVANHOE is my favourite Scott novel. It just has everything you could possibly ask for. I was pleasantly surprised by THE TALISMAN as well.

        Liked by 1 person

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