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A Study in Scarlet

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


A Study in Scarlet is a detective mystery story written by Arthur Conan Doyle and published in 1887. It is significant as the first story to feature the character of Sherlock Holmes, who would later go on to become one of the most famous and iconic literary detective characters, with long-lasting interest and appeal.

Conan Doyle wrote the novel at the age of 27. A general practice doctor in Southsea, England, he had already published short stories in several magazines of the day, such as the periodical London Society. The story was originally titled A Tangled Skein, and was eventually published by Ward, Lock & Co. in Beeton's Christmas Annual 1887, after many rejections. The author received £25 in return for the full rights (although Conan Doyle had pressed for a royalty instead). The novel was produced in book form in July 1888, published by Ward, Lock & Co. This book was illustrated by Arthur Conan Doyle's father, Charles Doyle. A second edition appeared the following year and contained illustrations by George Hutchinson, and J. B. Lippincott Co. published the first American edition in 1890. Numerous further editions, translations and dramatisations have appeared since.

The story, and its main character, attracted little public interest when it first appeared. Only ten copies of Beeton's Christmas Annual 1887 are known to exist now and they have considerable value. Although Doyle wrote fifty-six short stories featuring Holmes, A Study in Scarlet is one of only four full-length novels in the original canon.

The novel was followed by The Sign of Four, published in 1890.

Plot summary


The novel is split into two quite separate halves. The first is titled Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John Watson, M.D., Late of the Army Medical Department. This part is told in first person by Holmes' friend Doctor John H. Watson and describes his introduction in 1881 to Sherlock Holmes through a mutual friend and the first mystery in which he followed Holmes' investigations. The mystery revolves around a corpse found at a derelict house in Brixton, England with the word "RACHE" scrawled in blood on the wall beside the body. Before Holmes can figure out who is the responsible for that crime, another man is killed, presumably by the same person.

Holmes firmly resolves to solve the case despite the fact that he won't be given any credit of it. For this purpose, he makes up a plan using a wedding ring he grabbed at the crime scene. After placing and ad in the newspaper, asking for the ring owner, Holmes is visited by a fellow disguised as an old woman. Carefully, Dr. Watson and Holmes ask this old lady about the ring owner and how this article could have reached such a strange place. Minutes later, Holmes talks to some street kids and also asks them to do him a favor. Holmes is confused because of the wedding ring and its owner, and after giving some thought to it, he is visited for one the detectives that run the case. He affirms that the the case is solved and the murderer is now jailed. Holmes can't stand the surprise and tells him to explain how he solved the case. Holmes hears the story and realizes who the real murderer is. Holmes feels so certain of his result as to give the detective and Dr. Watson a ride around the city. When they're on the street, a couple of kids show Holmes a cab, its driver Jefferson Hope. Holmes takes out his handcuffs and catches Hope's wrist. Proudly he says, "Gentlemen, this is the man we've been looking for".

The Mormon Nauvoo Legion, considerably overlapping with the Danites.
The Mormon Nauvoo Legion, considerably overlapping with the Danites.

The second half of the story is called The Country of the Saints and jumps to the United States of America and the Mormon community, and incorporating a highly-fictionalized depiction of the Danites, including an appearance by Brigham Young in a somewhat villainous context. It is told in a third person narrative style, with an omniscient narrator, before returning in the last chapter to Watson's account of Holmes' investigation and his solution of the crime. In this chapter the relationship between the two halves of the novel becomes apparent. The motive for the crime is essentially one of lost love and revenge.

Plot holes

  • It is strange that the police apparently never questioned the owner of the Brixton house, where the first murder happened. The door was intact, so whoever murdered Drebber had to have a key, for which the owner would have been the obvious candidate. This would have led the police (or Holmes, who chose to ignore the clue as well) quickly on to the right track.
  • It also does not follow that Jefferson Hope shows no suspicion upon having his cab summoned to 221B Baker Street, after his earlier ploy of having sent a friend disguised as an old woman to the same address. It seems unlikely that he would have forgotten the address so quickly after having seen the advertisement about the gold ring in the paper on the previous day.
  • The book violates what would later become one of the cardinal rules of detective fiction and which provides much of the fun of reading such books - namely, that the author must provide enough prior clues to let an intelligent and perceptive reader solve the mystery for him/herself. There is no way whatsoever for a reader to do that here. The very first time that the reader hears the name "Jefferson Hope" is when Holmes produces him as the murderer. (The most the reader could know before is that somebody with the initials J.H. is somehow involved). Nor is there in the smallest prior hint that Mormons are in any way involved. Certainly, nothing found in possession of the two murdered men gives any hint of their Mormon background - in fact, Doyle positively misleads the reader, since "Decameron" is anything but recommended reading material for Latter Day Saints. In extenuation, it should be noted that these rules of the detective genre did not yet exist, and Doyle's book was among the pioneering works laying the very foundations of that genre.
  • The Avenging Angels who terrorize the Ferriers do indeed seem to have divine powers. At least they manage to deliver their daily warnings in a way that borders on the supernatural. Once they manage to place it in John's bedroom after he locks all the doors and windows, and another time he waits up outside his house all night for them, sees and hears nothing, and yet finds the warning painted on his front door. How the Angels manage to accomplish these and other feats is the greatest mystery of A Study in Scarlet, one which goes unsolved.


First book edition cover 1888
First book edition cover 1888

There are several minor inconsistencies in the story which are incompatible with later Sherlock Holmes stories. Dr Watson provides a short autobiography of himself at the start. In this he is invalided out of the army after being wounded in the shoulder in the Second Afghan War at the Battle of Maiwand. In later stories, his wound has moved to his leg.

In this book, Holmes is presented as a single-minded person who has no interests whatsoever except for what directly serves his work as a detective, and who indeed actively tries to forget any irrelevant piece of knowledge which came inadvertently to his attention. While this works in the first book, it would have made Holmes an unutterably boring character had Doyle persisted in it for the rest of the series (which would than hardly have had the same amount of popularity).

In later books and stories Holmes is depicted, to the complete contrary, as a multifaceted intellectual with an intensive interest in and deep knowledge of numerous subjects having nothing to do with his detective work, such as music, philosophy and bee-keeping, and he keeps writing articles and monographs in numerous fields.

Allusions/references from other works

Doyle paid ambiguous tribute to the influence of Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin and Émile Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq by having Holmes denounce them as "a very inferior fellow" and "a miserable bungler", respectively.

In his Naked is the Best Disguise, Samuel Rosenberg notes the similarity between Jefferson Hope's tracking of Enoch Drebber and a sequence in James Joyce's novel Ulysses. Several other associations between Doyle and Joyce are also listed in Rosenberg's book.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

As the first Sherlock Holmes story published, it was fittingly the first one to be adapted to the screen. In 1914 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle authorized a silent film be produced by G. B. Samuelson. Holmes was played by James Bragington, an accountant who had never before (and evidently never after) worked as an actor. He was hired for his reseblance to Holmes as presented in the sketches originally published with the story. [1] Unfortunately, as early silent films were made with film were made with poor materials and film archiving was rare, this is now a lost film. The success of this film allowed for a second version to be produced that same year by Francis Ford, which has also been lost.

It has been adapted many times, although frequently only the portions of the first section of the book in which Holmes and Watson's relationship is established are used. The Ronald Howard/H. Marion Crawford television series used that section of the book as the basis for the episode "The Case of the Cunningham Inheritance". The John Gielgud/Ralph Richardson radio series combined it with details from "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton" to create its "origin story". The book has rarely been adapted in full, notable instances being in the Peter Cushing/Nigel Stock television series, as an episode of CBS Radio Mystery Theater and by Bert Coules for the first project starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson.

See also

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