A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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The fabulous thing about my shiny new Kindle is that books I’ve been meaning to read for years have suddenly become instantly available at just the moment I fancy reading them. I recently watched all of the back episodes of Sherlock (a fantastic series, if you haven’t seen it) and wanted to know how much correlation there was between the show and the stories. I wanted to start at the beginning and read A Study in Scarlet, and as soon as my new Kindle arrived, I hopped straight onto Amazon and downloaded the Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes for mere pennies. As soon as I clicked on the first page, I was hooked. The warmth and wit of Dr Watson’s narrative voice has that lovely gossipy, verbose quality that you only find in Victorian novels, but there is a freshness and an intimacy too that makes it feel surprisingly modern. I knew that I had found a new author to love.

When an American man is found dead in suspicious circumstances in an empty house, Inspector Gregson and Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard are stumped and come to Sherlock Holmes for help. The man has been identified as an Enoch Drebber, in London on business with his personal secretary Joseph Stangerson. There is no mark on his body, but there is blood on the floor, and the word ‘RACHE’ written on the wall. There seems to be very little to go on, but Sherlock, using his uncanny deduction skills, soon works out a profile of the murderer from his footprints, cigar ash and the height of the writing on the wall. Sherlock seems to be on the case, but then the Scotland Yard Inspectors announce they have arrested the criminal. However, within minutes of the arrest, Stangerson turns up dead too, and there is clearly no connection between the suspected criminal and this murder. As such, there is nothing left but for Holmes to work his magic, and the real criminal is quickly revealed in a dramatic turn of events.

The narrative then goes further back in time, to the pioneer days of mid 19th century America. We start with a dramatic scene of a lost man and a child waiting for death in a sunbaked valley of the Utah desert, supposedly on their way to a new life in the West. They are rescued from a certain demise by the arrival of a huge wagon train containing a certain Brigham Young and his disciples, who make them promise to join the Mormon church in exchange for shelter. These pioneers build Salt Lake City, and to all intents and purposes, their life appears to be prosperous and successful as their community develops over time. However, all is not harmonious. Those who dare to contradict the strict rules of the church fear for their lives. John Ferrier and his adopted daughter Lucy, the pair who were rescued from the desert, are two such unfortunates. Lucy’s desire to marry outside of the church will prove disastrous, and set up a feud that will be revenged twenty years later on the streets of London.

This is a fascinating story, that took me off in a direction I never expected. I had no idea half of Conan Doyle’s first Holmes novel was set in America, and I was also surprised that there was no facility provided for the reader to work out the murderer for themselves. Unlike modern day detective novels, there is no trail of clues left in the narrative. We cannot play armchair detective, but must wait for Holmes to reveal the story to us. In some ways, this can be frustrating, but it does also allow the reader to place themselves more accurately in the mind of Dr Watson, who is perpetually left in the dark thanks to Holmes’ eccentric and unfathomable methodologies. I was so intrigued and determined to find out the ending that I actually read the book in only two sittings, which is very rare for me. As one of (maybe the?) first examples of detective fiction, I think this is a must read for anyone interested in the development of the genre, and it has certainly given me a passion to read more. I am also now itching to revisit Agatha Christie, and I am wondering what other detective novelists from the 19th and early 20th century may have missed my attentions. I’m always spotting old green penguins in charity shops, but it’s hard to work out whether they’ll actually be any good, especially when many have such ridiculous titles (The Poisoned Chocolate Case, anyone?!). Does anyone have any recommendations?

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29 comments

  1. Though I subscribed to your blog over a year ago and have read every post, this is my first comment. I’ve read some of the (later) short stories recently, but I wish I had the time now to read the complete adventures of Sherlock Holmes (as I did 10 or so years back). I haven’t even read an Agatha Christie story in months.

    I have read all of Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey stories and other gems from the “Golden Age” of detective fiction. Some hard-to-find ones, I admit, I ordered through interlibrary loan from my uni library!
    From your interests in this post, I’d encourage you to seek out Ronald Knox’s detective stories (start with The Three Taps, to see if it’s your cup of tea), as well as his engagement with Conan Doyle’s work and his own “10 commandments for detective novelists.” I knew Knox’s other–greater–works, but his efforts in and on detective fiction were a delightful surprise. More info: http://www.ronaldknoxsociety.com/detective.html

    1. Hi Kate! Lovely to hear from you at last! Thank you for the recommendations – I’ve never heard of Ronald Knox and I am looking forward to finding out more. How exciting!

  2. Yes – Dorothy L Sayers! (The Nine Tailors is a classic.) Also recommending Patricia Highsmith. (PS – Am reading South Riding on your recommendation, and loving it. Picked up a lovely battered copy in an Oxfam bookshop in Wells, on my delightful recent trip through the South of England. Thank you Rachel.)

    1. Dorothy is proving very popular! Patricia Highsmith is marvellous and I need to read more of her. Thank you for reminding me! Oh, I’m so glad to hear that! Isn’t it the most wonderful book? Perhaps time for a reread!

  3. You might try Margery Allingham if you don’t mind paying fancy prices for the e-books. She’s not quite cold enough in her grave for Kindle freebies yet.

  4. But would it seem as ridiculous if it is was The Case of the Poisoned Chocolates? I think there were a few real-life murders cases, or at least attempts, from that era which did involve arsenic hidden in chocolate, and there was another green Penguin by Cyril Hare (Tragedy at Law) where the murder involved poisoned chocolate.

    The Poisoned Chocolates Case is actually a really interesting crime novel with an unusual structure and it is well worth reading; I think all of Anthony Berkeley’s books are. Ellery Queen is great if you like crime novels which are carefully plotted and provide a series of clues which admit of a single solution; Michael Innes is the complete opposite – donnish and whimsical, and full of references to poetry and fiction. Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop is just ludicrous, but it is also one of the most entertaining crime novels I have ever read.

    1. Oh really!? Thank you for enlightening me! Thanks so much for these wonderful recommendations – I hope I will find some of these green penguins next time I am in a book shop. They sound brilliant!

  5. I absolutely LOVE the Holmes stories, I’ve read them all and recently got them on Audible too. They are all brilliant, I definitely recommend the short stories, my faves are The Speckled Band and The Red-Headed League.
    I think Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue is meant to feature the first fictional detective, I keep meaning to read it.

  6. Love Holmes, started reading these stories when I was twelve. I own two sets of all SH plus have them on my Kindle. I agree, Dorothy Sayers is great. I also like Wilke Collins.

  7. All those mentioned above are great (I just finished reading Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles, who is another name for Anthony Berkeley Cox). Michael Innes is terrific. Ngaio Marsh. But the greatest of them all is Dorothy Sayers.

  8. Crime fiction is not a genre I know much about, so I wouldn’t presume to give advice though I agree with people who say how wonderful Dorothy L Sayers is – but I have enjoyed reading the comments (as well as your post!), and may chase up some of the recommendations!

  9. I would also recommend Margery Allingham who was a younger contemporary of Christie and Sayers. I have even recently reread some of her books, and enjoyed them as much as when I first read them even though I knew who did it in each case. “Tiger in the Smoke” is regarded by most as her best.

  10. How funny, here we have an example of what is good about TV; hopefully this has opened the door to a new literary genre for you?

    Conan Doyle is an excellent start, and of all the authors mentioned in the comments, if you plan to stick to early or pre 20C writing, then I too would recommend dipping into some Agatha Christie’s, followed by Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh. All truly Golden Age writers. And did you know A.A. Milne wrote one detective novel, published in 1922? It’s called The Red House Mystery.

    I can just see all those lovely battered green Penguins all lined up!

  11. Hi Rachel, Arthur Conan Doyle is one of my favorites too. Don’t overlook his non-Sherlock works. He wrote several books in other genres. Some that I have enjoyed are “Tales for a Winter’s Night”, “The White Company” and “Sir Nigel”.
    And, as cheesey as they sound, I can recommend Gyles Brandreth’s “Oscar Wilde and the ….” series. In the books Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle are friends, just as they were in real life. In these entertaining books Wilde is imagined as a super sleuth, finding himself having to help solve a Victorian murder often with the help of his acquaintance Conan Doyle. The books bring in an array of characters and issues from the time period. They are quite fun when you want an escape. Brandreth is a noted Wilde historian so the combination of period details, mix of fact and fiction, and interesting murders are mesmerizing. I think you might find them quite “a hoot” (as we say here in the US). Cheers.

  12. Hi Rachel,
    Please do read Dorothy L. Sayers – she’s just wonderful. I highly recommend “Murder Must Advertise”.
    There is also Josephine Tey, “Brat Farrar” is quite interesting.
    And Crispin’s “The Moving Toyshop” is really a treat.

  13. I love Conan Doyle & most of the authors mentioned above. DLS is one of my favourites & I’d recommend you start with Strong Poison (the first of the novels with Harriet Vane) or Nine Tailors. Josephine Tey is another favourite – The Singing Sands or Miss Pym Disposes are very good. I read all Edmund Crispin’s novels one summer years ago & I agree that Moving Toyshop is mad but wonderful. Francis Iles wrote two great novels where you know the outcome on the first page but it doesn’t matter. Suspicion (made into a movie with Cary Grant & Joan Fontaine) & Malice Aforethought. Also recommend Margery Allingham & Christianna Brand (Green for Danger, set in a hospital during WWII is her best). Have fun, the possibilities are endless!

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