A Study in Scarlet (by Arthur Conan Doyle)

I think I was about ten when I first came across Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective stories about Sherlock Holmes, set in the latter part of the 19th century. I appreciated their logic even at that age, but found some of them quite frightening. I mostly read the short stories, but, over the years, I read several of his novella length books too.

I downloaded some for my Kindle recently. Since they are long out of copyright, they are available free: sometimes from Amazon, but if not from Project Gutenberg. To make a change from my preferred genres, I decided, while travelling to read 'A Study in Scarlet'.

It quickly becomes apparent that this is the first of the books about the fictional detective and his friend, room-mate and scribe Dr Watson. The two had not even met at the start of this book. Watson recounts briefly his experiences as an army doctor, and his need to find inexpensive accommodation.

A mutual friend puts him in touch with Sherlock Holmes, and the two hit it off fairly well. Watson needs peace and quiet to recuperate, while Holmes needs a place for his clients who ask him to solve difficult problems and mysteries.

The mystery in this book involves an unpleasant crime, where the victim is found in an empty house. The police are baffled, but Holmes spots several important clues and starts his own investigations.

The first half of the book proceeds at quite a pace, as Watson follows his friend around, and listens to his reasoning. It's a good method of unravelling his thought processes. Holmes is a somewhat closed person, far removed from the more flamboyant and chatty detectives invented by Agatha Christie.

Sherlock Holmes draws his own conclusions, or suggests important links to follow, then lets Watson know how his analytic mind worked to travel in these logical directions. The first part of the book ends just after the perpetrator of two unpleasant crimes is revealed by Holmes and clapped into handcuffs.

The second part of the novel seems, at first glance, to be unconnected to the first. I was quite confused for a couple of pages. It introduces us to a man and a small girl who have been travelling through unfriendly, harsh territory in the United States many years before the earlier part of the story. All their travelling companions, including the girl's mother, have perished. Even these the two survivors are on the point of giving up after days without food or water. They decide to pray... then fall asleep. They are found by a large group travelling to Utah - Mormons who want to start their own cities, and practice their religion (including polygamy)....

There are some quite harsh indictments of Mormon practice, which may well be based on historical fact, but I'm not very familiar with Mormonism. In any case, it makes a good story, and provides extensive background to the motivation for the crimes committed years later, in the first part of the book. The author doesn't try to moralise; but cleverly makes the situation far less cut-and-dried.

The writing is good, without the kind of authorial asides that tend to infiltrate many books of this era. Perhaps the fact that it's mostly written in the first person by Watson enables commentary without it feeling intrusive, but it's mostly written as fact without too much opinion. More significantly, there is almost no discussion of the ethics or morals of the situation.

I don't recall ever having read this book before, though it’s possible that I did in my teens. Although crime fiction isn't my favourite genre, I thought this an excellent example and would recommend it highly.

Links given are to print versions of 'A Study in Scarlet', but many other inexpensive versions can be found, as well as the free editions at Project Gutenberg.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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