Review: A Study in Scarlet

A Study in Scarlet
A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Along with Captain Kirk and the Doctor, my fandom of Sherlock Holmes began in my middle school years. I was aware of the immortal detective but had never really read any of the original source material featuring Holmes until one day in reading lab, I picked up a newly arrived copy of “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” I consumed the book in a couple of days and was soon ready to move on to more.

My parents indulged my new interest in Holmes, purchasing a paperback copy of “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes”, a hard cover book with reprints of the original Strand editions of the short stories and “Hound” and even buying me a role-playing game called “221 B Baker Street” to try out. (I don’t recall playing it much because the game was a time consuming one and required more patience to learn to play than my friends were willing to invest).

It was a good time to be a Holmes novice. The Jeremy Brett Holmes adaptations were hitting my local PBS station. At the time I didn’t understand or appreciate their faithfulness to the original material and how refreshing that as compared to other portrayals of the great detective in other mediums.

In my original reading of Holmes, I jumped around a bit. It wasn’t until late in my original journey through the Holmes canon that I acquired a copy of “A Study in Scarlet” and “Sign of the Four” in paperback and read them.

Every once in a while, I get a hankering to re-visit the Holmes canon. This time around, the desire came from the debut of the second season of “Sherlock” on the BBC and discovering a series of audio adaptations of the Holmes canon ready by Derek Jacoby. I’d meant to start off where I started all those years before with “Hound” but due to a user error in loading the audio book to my .mp3 player, I found myself starting over where it all began with “A Study in Scarlet.”

As a Holmes fan, I have to admit that the novel length Holmes adventures aren’t the strongest things in the canon. Conan Doyle seems a bit more comfortable working in the short story format and the early Holmes short stories are among the more memorable and exciting in the canon. But when it comes to “Scarlet” I must admit I find myself enjoying it more for the introduction to Holmes and his methods than the actual mystery itself.

Seeing the first meeting of Holmes and Watson is among the the highlights of the book as is their growing friendship. Seeing Holmes initially keep Watson at arm’s length is intriguing. It’s also interesting to see how Watson is portrayed here–he’s not the bumbler that we Nigel Bruce made him out to be in the later Basil Rathbone films. At several points in the course of the narrative, Watson comments on his general sense of laziness and a lack of motivation.

The characters of Holmes and Watson are interesting enough to more than make up for the novel’s lack of compelling mystery. The story speeds along for the first half, but hits a huge speed bump when Conan Doyle shifts the focus to America and his reflections of Mormonism. (Let’s just say he doesn’t appear to be a fan). The third or so of the story that gives us the details as to why the crime occurred aren’t nearly as much fun or page turning as what came before and it’s only once Watson takes the narrative back over that things really get rolling again.

All that said, I can still see why Holmes created such an impression and a stir in his debut. He’s not entirely likeable, but he’s still a compelling and fascinating character.

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