Crime Fiction Alphabet: S is for A Study in Scarlet

I must confess that, though I have read a lot of detective fiction and a fair few Victorian novels over the years, I have veered away from Arthur Conan-Doyle.

I blame my English teacher for this. He was a very good teacher and a lovely man, but one particular exercise created a certain prejudice in my mind. Looking back now it was actually a very interesting exercise. We read one half of a short story – The Speckled Band – in class and then asked to write our own conclusions. I was very pleased with mine, and I seem to recall that I got a good grade. But when I rad Conan-Doyle’s ending I was unimpressed. It seemed very far-fetched, and I thought that mine was definitely superior.

Oh, the confidence of youth!

But that’s why I have always thought of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle as not my kind of writer.

Recently though Sherlock Holmes, his most famous creation seems to have been everywhere: repeats of the classic serial on ITV3, a high-profile modern reworking on BBC1, and an even more high-profile feature film. Not to mention a good few books inspired by the man.

I decided that it was time to investigate the Holmes phenomenon and that, just in case my older self decided that she liked them, I decided to start at the beginning. And so it was that I brought a very nice new Penguin edition of A Study in Scarlet home from the library.

I enjoyed Conan-Doyle’s storytelling and prose style from the very beginning. And I was very pleased that the beginning was a proper beginning. John Watson, invalided army surgeon, and Sherlock Holmes, scientist and man of mystery, were brought together by a mutual acquaintance who knew that both were seeking rooms.

I’m naming no names, but I have often felt the absence of a proper backstory when I have read certain crime series.

The rooms were, of course,  at 221b Baker Street. And it was to that address that the police came to consult with Holmes. Which reminds me of something else that I really wanted to mention. There was a professionalism and respect in the relationships in this book, between detective and police, and between detective and associate. No one-upmanship as one investigator tried to outdo the other. No foolish sidekick necessitating slow and simple explanations. Just concern that objectives were achieved and proper accounts were given. I did like that.

Now, back to the mystery. And what a mystery it was. A dead man, seemingly unscathed but with his face frozen in terror, found in a derelict house. Found lying in blood that was not his own. And a single word written in that blood on the wall.


But a little knowledge, a little observation, a little understanding of human nature swiftly lead Holmes to the solution. And it led me on an extraordinary journey through the darker side of Victorian London. My bafflement continued, as Holmes gave little away, but I was intrigued by the mystery, caught up in the journey, and so I kept the faith.

I was rewarded with the identity of the murder halfway through the book. I wondered if it was a false ending, if there was to be another twist, or maybe even another mystery. In fact though there was another story entirely. The story of the man who would become a murderer. A story of adventure, love and religion set on the other side of the Atlantic.

The change of style and pace startled me, but it worked. I understood.

And I think that I might, finally, be beginning to understand the appeal of Holmes.


The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

And so next week T is for … ?

10 responses

  1. I found this book so disappointing — I thought it would be purely British, but there was so much about the American West. Not how I imagined Sherlock Holmes at all. However, I love the short mysteries and The Hound of the Baskervilles.

  2. It worked for me, going back to London and then on over the Atlantic, but I can see that from where you are it wasn’t such an appealing journey!

  3. Great review! I read this when I was in High School (sadly not as part of the curriculum) and fell in love with the prose and the cleverness of it all… I’ll always remember Holmes telling Watson how our brains are like an attic – with a limit to what you can store – and you have to be selective in what you choose to store so that it can be easily retrieved and utilised when required… or something to that effect. It’s stayed with me and I keep meaning to read more some day but the excellent Jeremy Brett series have done a very good job in bringing the stories to the screen. To my surprise, I really enjoyed the BBC’s modern take on Sherlock which seemed spot on and included a lot of faithful references to the books. I have yet to try the movie, though, as I’m not a fan of Robert Downey Jnr and Co.
    I hope the appeal endures and I’ll always be happy to read your thoughts on the topic 🙂

  4. Many Holmes fans list ‘Scarlet’ as their least favorite – as the very first story, it might lack the pure Victorian/London appeal of the following ones: it’s forced to share center stage with the rough-hewn American underworld! But I found it fascinating and twisting.

    And yes, ‘Sherlock’ – surprisingly (to me) – is spectacular. Love the in-jokes. (“I’d be lost without my blogger” – ha!) Can’t wait for Season Two!

  5. Jane – What a great choice for “S!” I’ve always like this novel, too, and I recommend it for those who want a solid introduction to the Holmes character. And thanks for sharing the story of your experience with your English class. So often we’re affected, aren’t we, by the teachers and classes that we have. They colour our attitudes, so I’m not surprised that you took a while to try Conan Doyle’s work again. I’m glad you don’t regret doing so.

  6. Jane: Arthur Conan Doyle remains the one writer from that era that I consistently enjoy reading. Somehow he created a timeless character and prose. More recently I have enjoyed many of those authors who have continued the Holmes sagas such as Laurie R. King and Donald Thomas. As well I enjoyed reading about Conan Doyle’s real life efforts to help those he felt unjustly charged. Most recently I found remarkable Graham Moore’s book where the hero is a Sherlockian and there is a second story featuring Conan Doyle.

  7. Ah, I can’t believe I have never read any Holmes! And you make it sound so appealing. My son was reading some short stories(inspired by the recent BBC adaptation), and was thoroughly enoying them until he had tost for revision, so aybe I’ll read them once he’s finished.

  8. I was put off Sherlock Holmes at school, I remember being really annoyed by the character. I read Conan Doyle’s Uncle Bernac (historical fiction) fairly recently and was surprised that I enjoyed it. I’ve also being listening to his letters on the radio and I think he comes over as being a really warm personality.

  9. I love Conan Doyle & Holmes & have read the stories many times. I enjoy the short stories more than the novels with the exception of the Hound. I don’t think the flashbacks in the novels work very well. Even the Hound is Holmes-less for much of the middle bit but the atmmosphere of Dartmoor is so beautifully evoked that I forgive C-D for the loss of Holmes there! I also loved the recent modern adaptataion & the Jeremy Brett series was excellent so I hope you explore more Holmes now that you’ve discovered him.

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