Montag, 4. Juni 2012

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

ArthurConanDoyle AStudyInScarlet annual
This book was, apart from a handful of short stories I read as a child, my first adventure into the world of Sherlock Holmes.It is more than that, though. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are household names even for people who have never read one of their stories nor seen a single movie adaptation. You just know them because they are legendary.
A Study in Scarlet is the beginning of their legend.

The novel is told largely from the reminiscences of a certain John Watson MD and tells the story of his meeting and purely coincidentially becoming roommates with a man called Sherlock Holmes who is introduced to us with the following, extraordinarily encouraging description.
"Holmes is a little too scientific for my tastes -- it approaches to cold-bloodedness. I could imagine his giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects. To do him justice, I think that he would take it himself with the same readiness. He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge."
I have made the experience that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who love Sherlock Holmes and those who hate him. I readily confess that I certainly belong to the former category.
It may be a little bit due to the (brilliant) BBC adaptation which portrays him as a passionate Byronic Hero, but I think I would have liked him anyway. Yes, he is more than a little socially retarded, but nonetheless brilliant. At the crime scene in A Study in Scarlet he made some deductions which seemed so incredible that I was very inclined to believe he had simply guessed, but I was delivered a plausible explanation for everyone of them. This explanation, however, did not happen until the conclusion during the last few pages, so I was on the edge of my seat the whole time and making my own (poor, you wouldn't want to know how poor!) deductions.
Something I like very much about Sherlock is that he is a believable character even though he is so brilliant. He has his very own logic, and his intellectual flaws make it even more authentic:
“His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing... My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System.” 

Sherlock Holmes is certainly one of the most fascinating characters in literature and while his arrogance and emotional distance can be annoying sometimes, his inhumanity is easily endurable because there is another man almost always by his side: John Watson, the very picture of kind-heartedness.
In a way I am even fonder of him than of Sherlock and I cannot help thinking that he may play a much more important role than only that of narrator and sidekick.

Curious as I am to see the famous friendship between these two develop (and heeding the advice of Sherlock creator Steven Moffat who wrote a lovely introduction for my edition) I decided not to read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes next, as originally planned, but instead The Sign of the Four. 
Mr Moffat claims that one notices the growing of their friendship much better if one reads the stories in the original order of publication. I don't know if that's true, but it cannot hurt to stick to the chronological order, right?


That being said, I was really surprised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's style of writing. It is so straightforward, so clean, so void of lengthy descriptions and so not Victorian. His writing sounds almost modern, which is not bad, but not what I expected at all. The story was absorbing yet not so very extraordinary, but since the focus of the novel is on the introduction of Sherlock Holmes as a character, it was secondary anyway.
When the narration suddenly jumped to the excessive background-story of the murderer halfway through the book I was a little irritated in the beginning, but it was interesting and I quickly began to care for these new characters too. I missed Sherlock and Watson, though. 


I know that many dislike A Study in Scarlet because of the portrayal of Mormons as polygamic, murderous savages, but since I was warned beforehand that Arthur Conan Doyle did not know anything about real Latter Day Saints, I simply regarded his creations as an exotic tribe sprung solely from his imagination.

I am really looking forward to reading more from the master detective. Somehow I'm sensing this wonderful feeling that I have found a new literary friend for life.

Kommentare:

  1. What a great cover your edition has!

    I am afraid I am in the not-liking Sherlock Holmes camp. I agree that the writing is good (I loved The Lost World by Conan Doyle) but I don't like Sherlock, how he doesn't give you enough clues to solve it and then at the end goes 'ha! I solved the mystery based on some obscure clue that I decided not to share with the reader.' Very frustrating!!

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    1. Unfortunately it is not mine, just a picture from Google I liked better than the real one.

      I agree, Sherlock is certainly a very frustrating character, but I love how Watson watches and analyses him. Through that he seems somewhat human (even if more than a little arrogant) and when nothing else helps I just recall to my mind that I know that the Earth rotates around the Sun ;)

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  2. "Yes, he is more than a little socially retarded, but nonetheless brilliant."

    Hahaha--a year or so ago I read a kids' book about the descendants of Holmes and Watson solving mysteries. To my mind, the real mystery was how Sherlock Holmes was supposed to have found a girl willing to marry him... ;)

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    1. That is definitely a mystery! Sherlock and marriage?! For me, this is a very daring theory :)

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  3. A Study in Scarlet is not one of my favorite Holmes stories because of all that back-story in Utah. It really drags! That said, I love the introduction to Holmes. I found the second story, The Sign of the Four much more fun as the pacing was better (although there's some racist elements, of the 'this is how they thought in the Victorian era' sort). I hope you enjoy the next one, too!

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    1. I did not mind the Utah part so much because I was completely confused and trying to figure out how it fit into the rest of the narrative. On the other hand, I have no other Holmes novel to compare with, so perhaps I'm easily impressed.
      The Sign of the Four has already been ordered :)

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  4. I'm in the former camp too! It's been years since I've read this one (listening to an audiobook counts, doesn't it?) so I'd really like to revisit it soon.

    I actually think Conan Doyle's depiction of Mormons is really interesting. Sensationalized accounts seem to pop up quite a bit at this time, and I find British Victorian perceptions very intriguing. They seem to take a kernel of truth (ie, polygamy, which the group embraced until the end of the century)which then snowballs into something very dramatic. I find it fascinating.

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    1. That totally counts. Sherlock Holmes forever!

      It's true, the exaggerated accounts are interesting from that point of view. The Victorians must have been utterly bored by their own society to succumb so totally to sensationalism!

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  5. I'm of the opposite opinion of Amanda, here. Part of why I loved this book so much was because of the back-story in Utah. I wasn't expecting it at all, and it added so much richness and depth to the story ... it made Sherlock Holmes much more than what I thought it would or could be (not quite accomplished in Sign of the Four, unfortunately).

    Count me in as a Holmes love-love-lover!

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    1. Welcome to Camp Sherlock!

      I actually enjoyed the Utah part too. In the beginning I was completely confused about what had happened and how all those events were connected to the case, but that is perhaps the very reason I found it so intriguing! Also, I'm a sucker for murderers with tragic background stories ;)

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  6. It's been quite a while since I read this one, but I remember absolutely adoring it. Holmes has the kind of personality that makes for a terrific character, but that would make you throw him out the window if he was a real person. He's fascinating, truly. The way his mind works is unbelievable.
    Enjoy The Sign of the Four!

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    1. Throwing him out of the window is nicely put... I would probably do all kinds of horrible things to him before I'd throw him out of the window if he were my roommate.
      But of course he would find out I planned to do that and in all probability throw me out of it instead...
      Thank God we have literature to admire him from a distance :)

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  7. I just read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and I wish I'd read this and Sign of the Four first, to read them in chronological order. Oh well!

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