‘No man lives or has ever lived who has brought the same amount of study and of natural talent to the detection of crime which I have done.’
When you think of great detectives, Sherlock Holmes is always one of the first names to come to you. Even those who have never read one of the Sherlock Holmes novels, who have never seen a television or film adaptation, would know the name of the renowned detective with his magnifying glass, deerstalker hat and trusted partner, Dr John Watson. Holmes was the first scientific detective to be created, and brought his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, great fame. Yet Doyle began his career as a doctor and ophthalmologist, and went on to write historical works and political pamphlets. He was also a parliamentary candidate twice and vocally opposed miscarriages of justice. History was clearly a passion of Doyle’s as he decided to kill off his beloved character in order to focus on writing more historical works, but there was such an outcry for Holmes that Doyle had to bring him back to life.
Previous to reading this novel, I had never read any novels that feature the character of Sherlock Holmes. However, I have watched a few episodes of the hit television series ‘Sherlock’, which features Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in a modern adaptation of Doyle’s works. Having watched their take on A Study in Scarlet, I thought I knew what to expect, but there were large differences in the plot, mainly due to the television series being set in the modern day. The main reason that I read the original story was because as a keen literature student, I decided to spend money from my 18th birthday on some classic novels from the Penguin English Library collection. As many of the Sherlock Holmes novels are in this collection I decided to try one of them and naturally chose the first in the series. The novels in the Penguin English Library are all well designed and come at a reasonable price. I am very glad that I chose to buy my books from this collection as they all go together nicely as a set and are truly aesthetically pleasing for a book lover, like myself. The title A Study in Scarlet, like the title of any good crime novel, clearly acknowledges that this is a crime novel, but offers more questions than it answers: what has the colour scarlet got to do with the murder? What is there to study? Who is killed? Where? Why? By whom?
Almost from the very beginning of this novel, I admired Doyle’s choice of narrator. He chooses to narrate the main parts of the story from the perspective of Dr Watson. This means that the reader only knows as much as Watson does which massively intensifies the mystery and intrigue. It is often clear that Holmes knows a lot more about the case than he lets on, so if Doyle had written from Holmes’s perspective, the reader would have had access to far too much information. Again, had he chosen a 3rd person narration, the reader could have easily been given access to Holmes’s thoughts. Only knowing as much as Watson keeps the mystery alive for much longer, until Doyle is ready to have Holmes fill us in.
The first part and final two chapters of the novel are set in London in the late 19th/ early 20th century. 221B Baker Street in London is infamous for being the home of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, so as expected this location features heavily in the novel. However, during the second part of the book, we are taken to America to travel with the early Mormons and their leader Brigham Young. On reaching the second part of the novel, it became clear to me why modern adaptations are so different to the original novel; they physically cannot incorporate Mormons into the story in the same way.
With regards to the plot of the book, there is, of course, a murder, and Sherlock Holmes is brought in by the police to help solve the mystery. By trade, Holmes is a consulting detective, which basically means that he lends a hand when the police or detectives are stuck with their case. Dr Watson becomes involved mostly by living with Holmes and the fact that he is able to offer a medical opinion. In this particular case, the body of a man is found in an abandoned house and the only immediate clue is the word ‘RACHE’ written on the wall in blood. The first part of the novel follows Holmes and Watson as they piece together clues to find the murderer. However, I was slightly confused when I reached the end of the first part. I will not spoil the book by saying why, but suddenly being transported to America for part two confused me to begin with. However, I very quickly became wrapped up in the story of the Mormons and found the whole thing exciting, gripping and very interesting (I studied the Mormons as part of my GCSE history). Yet I felt that the second part of the novel felt less like a Sherlock Holmes story, being as he was not in the Mormon part. So despite how gripped I was, I was not expecting to find a story about Mormon’s in this particular novel. By the end, when the two stories came together, I realised that it was actually very clever and that the story in America gave so much background to the case that I ended up viewing the whole murder entirely differently (which sounds odd, but I cannot explain without spoiling the story).
‘I had already observed that he was as sensitive to flattery on the score of his art as any girl could be of her beauty.’
We first meet Holmes when Watson is introduced to him by a friend and instantly we want to know more about this complex character. He is infamous for solving cases, and I cannot deny that he is brilliantly clever. However, there is something peculiar about him, and at times he can come across a little arrogant. I found the way in which Benedict Cumberbatch portrays Holmes to be very good in comparison with the original novel. His intelligence is astonishing, yet he does not seem to understand that the rest of us are not as clever as he is and cannot put the clues together in the same way. He is certainly interesting and I would like to read more of the novels just to know more about him.
Watson is another fascinating character. The first couple of pages are almost like a biography of his life, but once he meets Holmes, the novel becomes focused on the murder and we learn less about Watson as a person. However, he is clearly just as interested by Holmes as the reader and perhaps that is why he sticks with him. Watson also gets caught up by the mystery surrounding the murder and gets sucked in because he wants to see it resolved. I feel that even though Watson is the narrator, the novel is still more about Holmes as Watson’s interest means that Holmes is where the focus lies.
The end of the novel tied everything together nicely, as expected from a crime novel. I was left feeling satisfied that the right thing had happened, and although the novel works as a stand-alone, I felt that I want to know more about what the future brings Holmes and Watson.
I can safely say that I would recommend this book…because I already have. I would recommend it to anyone of around age 15 and over (so young adult and up) as it may appeal to a wide audience. Of course, it helps to have an interest in crime novels and murder mysteries, but Sherlock Holmes is such a famous character that your interest does not need to be excessive to enjoy this novel. I would also say that as this book has been around a while, some of the language can be difficult if you are not used to reading older books. There are also a few words of other languages, for example French, which are not translated for you, but this does not hinder the story at all. Overall the plot is very clever and Doyle’s ability to build suspense and intrigue was excellent. In my opinion, Sherlock Holmes is a classic detective for a reason.
A Study in Scarlet – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, published by the Penguin Group, first published by Ward Lock in 1887, this edition first published in the Penguin English Library in 2014, 004, RRP £5.99, ISBN 978-0-141-39552-4
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