So, understandably, to start my epic quest to read all of Conan Doyle’s original works, I had to start with the first story in the Holmes canon, “A Study In Scarlet”.
I had previously attempted to read this story roughly ten years ago and gave up before Watson had finished his first meeting with Holmes at Bart’s. Roll on to 2013 and having seen the “Sherlock” episode “A Study In Pink” and I can admit to reading it in a new light.
For those who are familiar with “Pink”, this story recounts Watson’s first encounter with Holmes. What follows is their first investigation into the inexplicable murder of a man in an empty house.
This story establishes what we know of the Holmes canon and may come as a shock to people whose knowledge is derived more from the Basil Rathbone films than the more modern Benedict Cumberbatch.
I’ll start with Watson as he is our way in to the stories as the narrator. The traditional image from the movies is that of an older, bumbling man who is trailing behind Holmes. The Watson from “Scarlet” is presented as a younger man affected by his war experiences, not only in body but in mind, as we see in Martin Freeman’s interpretation of the character. Watson is obviously a man of intelligence – after all, how could he be a medical doctor or write memoirs of his investigations alongside Holmes if he was a complete buffoon? What makes Holmes all the more remarkable is that although both men are intelligent, Watson is trapped in the realms of conventional thinking of the ways of the world, whilst Holmes strictly structures his knowledge and world view to the needs of his chosen profession.
The Holmes of “Scarlet” has recognisable traits that people may be familiar with. As I said above, Holmes is possessed of a fierce intellect which is structured to fit the needs of his profession as a consulting detective. Those who are familiar with “Sherlock” will note the inspiration for the TV Sherlock’s “Mind Palace” with Holmes describing the retention of knowledge as filling an attic.
Whereas Benedict Cumberbatch has the benefit of the Milk special effects house to display Sherlock’s thought processes on screen for the audience, Conan Doyle devotes a chapter to carefully explain Holmes’s methodology of investigation, ensuring that the chain of clues follow each other and ensuring that there are no logic holes in the investigation.
Whilst Holmes has a withering disregard to the conventional wisdom of the police’s methods of investigation, he is not as caustic on the written page as Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal on screen. That said, you can definitely see where the “Sherlock” portrayal stems from Conan Doyle’s pen and ink.
In addition to this, there is the allusion to Holmes’s nature as a man who on the one hand lives for the thrill of the hunt, whilst on the other hand revels on episodes of indolence.
The police force is represented by Inspectors Tobias Gregson and Lestrade (Gregson has surely got to be an influence on the “Sherlock” Lestrade’s forename of Greg). Both are represented as capable police officers within the narrow confines of their conventional thinking, but their willingness to jump to the apparently straightforward conclusion, rather than using Holmes’s analytical skills, show them up to be as far behind as Watson, whilst their competitive nature shows them to be publicity hungry.
“Scarlet” is split into two distinct acts. People whose only knowledge of this story is through “A Study In Pink”, as mine was, will be able to follow the first part of the story due to it’s resemblance to that story. The murderer’s M.O. is similar to that of the murderer in “Pink”. However, where the murderer’s motive in “Scarlet” is quite different to that in “Pink” and chimes more with Sherlock’s behaviours as an agent of justice, rather than of the Law, and is explained in the second half of the story.
If you haven’t read the story before, I would recommend possibly watching “A Study In Pink” first to help ease you into the story as despite the differences in time period and motive, it does help to ease a reader in who hasn’t previously read Conan Doyle, as in my case.
Given the time period that the book was written, some of the racial and religious terms, along with the trigger for the murderer’s actions, may come as a shock to the system with 21st century eyes. That said, it’s a well constructed story and a great start for my Sherlock reading challenge.