A Study in Scarlet

February 21, 2014

My comfort reading continues with a re-read of the very first Sherlock Holmes story, one of the four long ones.

It needed to be a long story to introduce Holmes and Watson to each other and to their readers, and to begin to shape their relationship, which was to last (fictionally) for three decades. It has been observed that the story is flawed as a detective story in that there is no way that the reader can solve the mystery as s/he reads, since the killer is only introduced and named as Holmes reveals everything at the end. Is it possible that Conan Doyle was, even as he nursed and developed this relatively new genre,  already looking beyond the mere confines of detection and mystery-solving? Certainly the plot could have been developed and resolved in far fewer pages…

Holmes and Watson are introduced to each other, take up lodgings together in Baker Street, and their relationship begins to develop as Watson is drawn into the first of the crimes he is to chronicle. It’s a mere outline of characters, although the quirkiness of Holmes is already there, the violin, the moodiness, the suspicions of narcotic use. What Conan Doyle has to do first, and he does it admirably if you focus clearly, is to convince the reader of Holmes’ detective and deductive skills, and the soundness of his methods; these are contrasted with the clumsiness and ineptitude of the regular police force, which becomes a regular trope in the canon. Neither character is subtly drawn at this stage; Holmes is young and full of himself, and Watson lacks the gravitas and the compassion Conan Doyle gradually allows him to develop as time passes.

Already we are shown that justice is not a simple business, and that the due process of law is capable of being flawed as the murderer escapes the courts, but is submitted to a higher (God’s) judgement, a careful appeal to Victorian morality, which also allows a sense of fair play, and a concept which was to be used several times in the stories.

Structurally it’s odd, sharing with The Valley of Fear a lengthy excursion into the lawless areas of the Wild West of the United States, which no doubt brought a certain frisson to the bourgeois Victorian magazine reader. The long digression into the early history of the Mormons and their trek to Utah has been judged controversial, but surely pandered to Victorian moral strictures, with the accent on polygamy as well as violence.

It’s a good beginning to the stories; it leaves  readers intrigued and hoping for more, and they were not to be disappointed.

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