Conan Doyle: A Study in Scarlet

November 28, 2022

A Study in Scarlet
Arthur Conan Doyle
(Dover, 2003) [1887]
92 p.

Somehow I made it well into middle-age without reading any Sherlock Holmes stories. How, and why, this happened is a mystery worthy of Holmes himself, but in any case I have now begun to remedy the fault, beginning at the beginning.

A Study in Scarlet was the first Holmes story. It is a full-length novel, rather than a short story, and it tells how Holmes and Watson met and came to be associated, and it introduces us to Holmes’ distinctive methods of detection. As such, it makes a splendid starting point.

The structure of the novel is ingenious. There are murders, of course, up front, and an investigation, and, in time, the apprehension of the culprit, but this apprehension comes not at the end but in the middle. In the second half of the book, Conan Doyle reverses course and gives us the backstory of the murderer and his victims. I found this structure dramatically effective, for although we know (having read the front half) whowilldunit, we don’t know why, and the dramatic interest of the backstory is that it shows us circumstances aligning to give rise to the murderer’s motive. Normally I find the part of the mystery novel that comes after the murderer is identified tedious, but not so here.

This second half of the novel is set in the United States, in Utah, in the early settlements of the Latter Day Saints, and as I was reading I was wondering whether Mormon children today are especially fond of this literary portrait of their forefathers? How nice to have that period of their history captured in a classic of detection! But no. Having read a little further, I think it likely that few Mormon children are encouraged to read A Study in Scarlet.

Conan Doyle wrote another Holmes novel, The Sign of Four, before he switched over to the short story format, so, unless I am murdered in the meantime, that’s where my Holmes reading will take me next.

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