Vintage Mysteries: A swaybacked study

Review: A Study in Scarlet
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A keeper? Yes, but I’ll skip the middle section

What a strangely constructed story. The first half is a wonderful introduction to young Dr. Watson and young Sherlock Holmes, as they meet and get acquainted. Holmes shows off his trademark ability to glance at a stranger and deduce all sorts of odd details about the person; Watson shows off his trademark amazement.

Then Holmes is called in by Scotland Yard to analyze the scene of a murder. The dead man is lying in an abandoned house, with no wound, no obvious cause of death. Nearby, someone has scrawled the strange message “RACHE” on the wall, in scarlet letters. It almost looks as if blood was used for ink!

Holmes and the official detectives squabble over what it all means, and Holmes turns out to be right. (Is anyone surprised?) Of course, in this story Holmes is a young man, full of himself, but not yet accepted as an error-free expert. There’s another death, and a violent brawl, four men struggling to subdue one, before the killer can be arrested. That’s the first half of the story.

And then we leapfrog west several thousand miles from London to Utah and back in time several decades to around 1850, for a drawn-out western that only ties back into the mystery thirty-odd pages later. It could all have been summarized by a sentence or two explaining that the victims killed people who were dear to the murderer; motive is always a good thing, but not when it drags you so far from the story you intended to read. I suppose this part comes from the murderer’s confession – who else could have known about it? But it’s really not needed.

And at last, we find ourselves back – suddenly – in London, listening to Dr. Watson tell us about how the killer was questioned and explained the few details that Holmes hadn’t already figured out about how the crimes were committed. Nice wrapup, but it’s a shame Doyle took such a long detour.

I’ll keep it, though, mostly because it’s only the first hundred pages of a collection of much better, later Holmes stories, and also because I do enjoy the way we’re introduced to Sherlock the One and Only.

(And by the way, I love the cover of my edition. It’s a late-nineteenth-century photo, I suppose of a street in London, and kind of mysterious in its own way. What was the woman we can glimpse on the right doing? What about the man in the bowler hat who’s walking away from us? Is the man a little farther down the street turning around to look at, or speak to, Bowler Hat? What became of the little girl? Because, of course, these were all real people who are caught in a real instant of their lives. And this picture is all we’ll ever know about them.)

4 responses to “Vintage Mysteries: A swaybacked study

  1. I love Sherlock Holmes and Watson but to my shame, only know them through TV & film. I shall take up my own challenge and read a Sherlock novel. Any suggestions as to which one?

    • Let’s see. Most of them are short stories, really – a couple that I enjoyed are The Red Headed League, The Speckled Band (this one is frightening – at least, it scared me), and the Adventure of the Copper Beeches.

      The first half of Study in Scarlet is very good – I’d just suggest that when you find yourself on the great alkali plain, skip to the end and read the last two short chapters – about 11 pages in my copy.

      The very best of the novels – maybe the best Holmes story of all – is the Hound of the Baskervilles. And speaking of dogs, if you want to know where the famous line about the dog doing nothing in the night time comes from, read Silver Beeches (though if you’ve seen it on TV/film, I’m sure they wouldn’t leave that remark out!)

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