My Review and Notes

A Study in Scarlet is the first Sherlock Holmes mystery. It’s a great introduction, not only to Holmes, but to Watson, Lestrade and the setting in which the novels take place. It was first published in 1887 in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, and released as a separate book the following July (1888).

While the entire London aspect of the story is compulsively readable, Conan Doyle loses focus in the second part of the novel. In order to build a motive for the bizarre murder, the perspective and settings change about halfway through. That story in itself is interesting enough, but it’s such a different experience to the parts with Holmes and Watson, that it’s quite jarring. The second section also depicts Mormonism in a bizarre and insulting light.

The set up of Holmes and Watson’s relationship is a highlight of Study in Scarlet. Watson’s study of Holmes, and his subsequent attempt to grade his eccentric housemate is hilarious. The relationship also reads as realistic for the type of living arrangement Holmes and Watson have. They don’t become inseparable over the course of a day, but have a much more casual and independent acquaintance.

The plotline of Study in Scarlet is wonderful, even if it does lose focus for a time. Motivation, character and atmosphere combine to create a fascinating mystery. It’s a short, tautly paced read that manages to introduce this fascinating world and its characters without ever lagging.

Notes: The novel is divided into two segments of seven chapters each. In the original book Part I is unnamed, but claims to be reprinted from the “reminisces of John H Watson, M.D.” and is often referred to as such.

Watson narrates the first section of the novel, detailing his brief service in the second Afghan War, his injury and subsequent return to England. Having little to do with his time and few friends to spend it with, Watson soon falls into dire financial straits and decides he must either find cheaper accommodation or leave London entirely. An old acquaintance introduces Watson to Sherlock Holmes, who is also looking to divide the cost of a flat. Holmes suggests that it is best they know of each other’s faults before deciding to take up lodgings together; of himself, he says that he can be prone to fits of melancholy in which he may not move or speak for days at a time, will likely be conducting experiments and often plays the violin. Watson responds that he keeps irregular hours, objects to conflict due to his convalescence and is extremely lazy. The pair decides to take the pair of rooms Holmes has found at 221B Baker Street.

Watson begins to make a study of Holmes’ odd habits, his expertise in some areas (mainly chemistry, anatomy and practical geology) and his complete ignorance in others, in order to discern what Holmes does for a living. It isn’t until Watson reads and denounces an article about the “science of deduction” that Holmes reveals that he is not only the author of the article, but also of a new approach to detective work. Holmes proclaims that by paying attention to the minute and mundane details of a person, one can deduce at least their profession, and many other particulars about a person.

Holmes calls himself the world’s first consulting detective, and often receives calls from members of Scotland Yard to assist on cases that are beyond them. One such case becomes the focus of the rest of the novel. The body of Enoch Drebber is discovered in an abandoned house in Lauriston Gardens, bearing no wounds, showing no signs of an attempt at robbery, with the word “RACHE” (German for “revenge”) written in blood on the wall above it. Holmes, with Watson in tow, analyses the scene and makes many deductions, including the appearance of the murderer, that poison was administered to Drebber, and that a woman’s ring was accidentally left at the scene of the crime.

Holmes begins the investigation proper by visiting the patrolman (John Rance) who originally discovered the body. Rance reveals that a drunkard had staggered up to the scene while he was summoning help. Holmes concludes the drunk was actually the murderer himself, returned to the scene of the crime in order to collect the ring.

In his next attempt to apprehend the murderer, Holmes places an advertisement in the newspaper for a woman’s ring found in the Brixton Road. However, when someone shows up to collect the missing ring, it is a doddering old woman who claims the ring belongs to her daughter. Not to be deterred, Holmes follows the woman after she leaves and gets into a cab believing that she will eventually lead his to the suspect. However, when the cab finally stops and the driver opens the door, nobody is inside. Holmes laughs over his wild goose chase with Watson, but admits he will not tell the detectives of his mistake.

In the meanwhile, detectives Lestrade and Gregson both follow their own leads on the case. Gregson arrests the wrong man in his hunt, and Lestrade discovers another body. Joseph Stragerson, Drebber’s secretary was also murdered, stabbed through the heart. The Inspector also finds a strange pillbox left on the windowsill.

Holmes is convinced he has discovered the killer’s object and administers half of each pill to a sickly terrier to demonstrate. The terrier dies after the second pill and Holmes assures the detectives he knows who the murderer is and that he has a plan to apprehend him. Lestrade, Gregson and Watson are baffled, when a cabby suddenly arrives at the door and Holmes behaves as it he is leaving suddenly. The cabby enters to help him move his luggage and Sherlock claps a pair of handcuffs on the man and after a struggle declares him Jefferson Hope, the murderer they had been searching for.

The second half of the novel is called “The Country of the Saints” and explains the backstory and motive for the murders. This section begins thirty years before the plot somewhere in the North American desert where a man named John Ferrier and a little girl called Lucy are the last living of a group of pioneers. They are discovered by a group of Mormons, who agree to take them in so long as Ferrier agrees that he will convert to Mormonism. As Lucy grows she becomes engaged to a man, Jefferson Hope, who is not a Mormon. The church Elder (Brigham Young) disapproves of the match and insists that Lucy has one month to choose a Mormon husband or suffer the consequences meted out by the Council of Four. He suggests both Drebber and Strangerson as potential husbands, of whom Ferrier heartily disapproves because of their polygamist beliefs. Ferrier sends for Hope to help them escape. They flee the night before their month is up, but Lucy is recaptured and Ferrier is killed in a struggle. Back in Salt Lake City Lucy is forced to marry Drebber. Though Hope tracks them, he does not arrive before the wedding takes place and Lucy subsequently dies of a broken heart. Hope swears revenge on both Drebber and Strangerson for their roles in the affair and follows them both to Europe where he takes a job as a cabby. He seizes his chance when Drebber is out alone one night, and escorts him into the abandoned house. Hope does not have the conscience to kill either man in cold blood, and instead comes up with a plan in which each man has the same opportunity to live or die. He makes up the pillboxes, each with one poisonous tablet and one placebo and offers the choice to Drebber. Strangerson attacked Hope when he attempted to administer the same test, and Hope was forced to stab the man in self-defence.

Hope explains his reasoning and his methods to the group and admits that he has an aortic aneurysm that will likely kill him soon, Watson confirms this. After his death, newspapers report vague details of the case and give all the credit for the apprehension of the suspect to the inspectors of Scotland Yard. Watson declares that he has journaled all the facts of the case and declares he will make the real events known, but until then Holmes must content himself with knowing that he was right all along.

In these two chapters the relationship between the two halves of the novel becomes apparent. The motive for the crime is essentially one of lost love and revenge.

100 books to read in a lifetime