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 … ?