“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”
Finally, a book! See? I told you I’d been reading!
This is one that’d I’d long wanted to share with Izzy. I believe that Sherlock Holmes is is absolutely essential reading. His likeness is so ubiquitous that he is quite often mistaken for a historical figure rather than the fictional character he is. Since the day his first adventure was published up to to the present day, the public has had a deep fascination with this remarkable character. There have been literally hundreds of adaptations and pastiches in film, television, and print. Currently the BBC is producing a highly regarded series. So, I say that if you want a thorough literary and cultural education, you must read some Holmes!
A Study in Scarlet isn’t the best Holmes story – it doesn’t even rank in most top ten lists – but it’s still the best place to start. Why? Well, this is where we meet Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick, Dr. Watson. In fact, it’s where they meet one another and move in together at 221B Baker Street. Not only does this first novel contain critical information and character building, but it sets the up the narrative format that most of the series will follow. Dr. Watson will be our guide into the miraculous mind of Sherlock Holmes and, thank goodness, because otherwise we wouldn’t know our arses from our elbows.
In this story, Dr. Watson has just returned from war in Afghanistan and is in need of affordable lodgings. A mutual friend introduces Watson to Holmes and thus one of the most famous duos in all of english literature is born. Although he’s been warned that his new roommate is rather eccentric, Watson finds himself intrigued rather than repulsed. Holmes possesses a vast amount of minute knowledge, but then doesn’t understand the very basics of the solar system. He keeps odd hours and has even odder visitors. He soon learns that Holmes is a brilliant ‘consulting detective’ – meaning that he aids Scotland Yard with their thorniest cases.
It doesn’t take long for Holmes to receive a new case – a man has been found dead in an empty apartment with no visible wounds to his body. The letters RACHE have been written in blood upon the wall. And this is where the fun begins! How did this man die? Who killed him? Who’s blood is upon the wall if not the victim’s? What does the writing mean?
As the hopeless Scotland Yard detectives look on, Sherlock informs everyone that the victim was killed by poison. Furthermore, his attacker was a six foot tall cigar smoker with a florid complexion and the word ‘rache’ means revenge in German. Of course, everyone is astounded at how he could deduce these details from this scene.
Now that they have some details to go on, Scotland Yard sets about trying to find the murderer. The competing detectives assigned to the case are pursuing separate theories and eventually come to Holmes for some guidance. Holmes listens to them both calmly, and then to everyone’s consternation begins packing a bag and calls for a cab. When the cabby arrives to help with the bags, Holmes slaps handcuffs on him and declares that this is in fact the murderer!
Everyone (including the reader) feels absolutely lost at this point. Normally, in short stories, this is point at which Holmes then goes on to reveal how he reached his conclusion. However, A Study in Scarlet is technically a novel and after this startling revelation, we are launched into an entirely new story with completely different characters in an entirely different locale. Although we aren’t as brilliant as Holmes, we quickly deduce that this is the background story of the victims and their murderer.
And that’s where I’ll leave off the plot description because it’s too much fun to spoil. I’m not going to lie, I am an absolute gushing fan-girl when it comes to Sherlock Holmes. I’ve read every single novel (4) and short story (56). I love watching film adaptations and, to a much lesser degree, I’ve enjoyed a handful of pastiches.* So, I was super excited to share this with Izzy. It was fun to read with her and she really responded to Holmes as a character and I think she’ll like some of the short stories even better.
*The truth is that I’m super picky about non-canon Holmes books. The only one that currently stands out as worthy to me is the Enola Holmes series by Nancy Stringer.
All that said, this novel isn’t without problems. First and foremost, readers absolutely have to be on board with the sensational style of writing that was popular during the Victorian era. I absolutely ADORE it, but it’s not for everyone. Second, and more seriously, this particular novel is often criticized for its treatment of Mormons. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I don’t really feel that just because a fictional villain belongs to a particular religion means that that entire group is being condemned. On the other hand, it does seem that Doyle had a particular bone to pick with the Mormons – particularly with regards to their practice of polygamy (which ended in 1890 – 3 years after publication). But then I’ll be honest, I have some issues with plural marriage – particularly the way in which some of the modern FLDS cults practice it (binding very young girls in marriage to much older men).
However, I feel that this is all moot. There is no getting around the fact that books from the past often present problematic ideologies about race, gender, religion, etc. Rather than avoid them completely, I say we should dive into them all the more deeply and discuss them with vigor. I know religious and non-religious people of all stripes – kind, thoughtful and intelligent people along with ignorant and selfish people. I don’t believe the group one belong to defines them. And this is what I teach Izzy – to take people as they come, let their actions tell you who they really are.
Enough of that, let’s move on to a more fun topic – illustrations! One of the things I love about Victorian literature is that it was often published in popular magazines and accompanied by illustrations. In doing research for this post, I learned that Doyle’s father actually did the illustrations for the first book version published in 1888. Although I find it very charming for a father to illustrate his son’s work, I must admit, I’m not super impressed with his work…
However, when this story first appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, it was accompanied by illustrations by D.H. Friston. Better, but still that’s not really Holmes in my mind.
A second version was illustrated by George Hutchinson. Not too bad, but still not great.
The illustrator most associated with Holmes was Sidney Paget. He got the commission after A Study in Scarlet became popular and, as far as I can tell, he never illustrated that particular story. Rather, he got the commission (by accident! It’s a funny story, look it up!) for the first of 12 short stories featuring the fictional detective and then went on to illustrate future stories and novels. His drawings of the great Holmes definitively shaped the image that most of us have in our minds today.
And now, bear with me while I use the illustration above to discuss a few of my biggest annoyances.
First, please note that Holmes is wearing neither a cape nor a deer stalker cap. To go about every day in such a costume (which was considered strictly outdoor/sportswear) would have been ridiculous. A scrupulous detective like Holmes would not have drawn attention to himself in such a way. Holmes’s standard city attire was that of any Victorian gentleman. The only time he *might* have donned the other costume would have been on a case set in the country – The Hound of the Baskervilles, etc.
Second, Watson was not a corpulent, bumbling fool. When he and Holmes first meet, he is quite trim and tan – having just returned from war in Afghanistan. He is described in later stories described as being strong and athletically built. Only in His Last Bow (published in 1917) is Watson described as being elderly and rather portly. Neither is he dull-witted. Rather, he is an extremely accomplished doctor. It’s true that often his practical intelligence is often no match for the brilliant Holmes. But then remember, Holmes also doesn’t know or care that the earth revolves around the sun!
Okay, now that I’ve got that out of the way, we can move on to more illustrations. As this isn’t one of the most popular stories, I didn’t believe I’d be able to find a current illustrated edition. I did a half-hearted search and was thrilled to discover that Gris Grimly, one of my very favorite modern illustrators, had recently illustrated this story. Izzy loves Grimly too so I thought there could be no more perfect introduction to Holmes for her.
Well, truth be told, I have mixed feelings about these illustrations. There is no doubt that they are beautifully done and Grimly definitely put his unique stamp upon them. For example, in one of the first chapter illustrations there is a dirigible casually floating over the London skyline. London is portrayed as the gritty den of vice and decay I think it probably was back then. I like the way he portrayed Holmes – tall and angular with a bit of distracted shabbiness about him. However, Dr. Watson is cartoonishly short and fat (his feet don’t even reach the ground when he sits) and that just bugs me. I did enjoy the illustrations in the second part of the novel which features the murderer’s backstory. All in all, it’s a nicely and lavishly illustrated edition (countless pen and ink illustrations and 10 color plates) and I’m glad to own it. However, I think I’ve found that I prefer my Holmes with more traditional illustrations.
Title: A Study in Scarlet (1887)
Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with illustrations by Gris Grimly
Genre: mystery, detective, crime, classic literature, victorian literature
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars