Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Arthur Conan Doyle - A Study in Scarlet

“Get your hat,” [Holmes] said.

“You wish me to come?”

“Yes, if you have nothing better to do.” (p. 166)

A Study in Scarlet is where two of literature’s most iconic characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, first meet and where those characters were first introduced to the reading public. Today, of course, there’s no pressing need to experience Holmes first through here, as all the stories are published – and, besides, it’s damn unlikely that anyone today could not have at least a passable familiarity with the name of Holmes, if not the stories themselves – but it’s still a logical point to jump into the mythos for newcomers, of which I am most certainly one. So, does A Study in Scarlet do justice to the legend that it was the beginning of? Despite a few flaws, it does.

I’ve heard several times that the Sherlock Holmes stories are told through the point of view of Watson, rather than Holmes, in order to distance us from Holmes’s intellect and to preserve the tension, and I don’t think that’s by any means untrue, but Holmes isn’t the all powerful superman that you might think. Though undoubtedly a genius when it comes to affairs deductive, Holmes doesn’t quite have the same skills in the social arena. He comes off as cocksure and boastful, something not mollified by Watson’s fawning. Of course, the man’s arrogance is intentional on Doyle’s part, and the text is far stronger for avoiding such an obvious white knight pitfall.

A Study in Scarlet is a mystery story through and through, and the prose reflects that. Doyle’s writing is precise and packed with detail. Holmes’s outlook is a purely rational one, but Watson too is a logical creature. When first confronted by Holmes, he tries to solve the mystery of his companion by organizing a list of his traits:

Sherlock Holmes – his limits

  1. Knowledge of Literature. – Nil
  2. Philosophy. – Nil
  3. Politics. – Feeble
  4. Botany. – Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
  5. Geology. – Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After he walks has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.
[And so forth] (p. 156)

But the true marvel is that Doyle’s prose, though meticulous, is not dry. A Study in Scarlet comes alive on the page, turning a genre that all too often falls into an interesting but uninvolving logic puzzle into a page turner, albeit one more reminiscent of a jigsaw puzzle than a car chase.

Holmes has an annoying, though in character, habit of revealing nothing of what he’s thinking until it’s wholly formalized, but, when combining that with Doyle’s formidable skills at pacing, the tension is built up to vast levels as all other theories fall apart and events leap into motion, the reader still clueless but convinced that there is, somewhere, a coherent explanation to be found.

Unfortunately, Doyle’s greatest skill is in the viewpoint of Watson and observing the character of Holmes. When, after the halfway mark, Doyle switches to a third person flashback to reveal the backgrounds of other characters, we find ourselves leaving everything previously established long behind. A compellingly evoked London is left behind for a shoddily and inaccurately rendered Mormon exodus, and, though the story does eventually build up some power of its own, nothing in this strand is a tenth as memorable or gripping as a twitch of Holmes’s pinky.

Is it possible for the reader to piece together the clues themselves? Not a chance in hell. I suppose that it’s a measure of Holmes’s intellect that he can take such minute clues and build such a complete picture of them, and, as we’re inhabiting Watson’s and not Holmes’s head, I suppose that’s fair game. What’s more irksome are the clues that are in no way supplied, such as Holmes’s correspondence, in which a huge part of the puzzle can be found. Still, it’s not a deal breaker, and the immense, yet rational, logical leaps that Holmes undertakes make it feel silly to say that I would’ve had even the slightest chance of keeping up with him anyway.

Of course, there is the spare piece of the puzzle that doesn’t quite add up. For instance, we’re shown time and time again that Holmes can read a life story from the grit under one’s fingernails – so how is he fooled by a young man dressing up as an old woman and enfeebling his voice? Seriously? I’m sorry, but I’m just having trouble believing that a man that can read profession from footsteps could be stumped by a white wig.

A Study in Scarlet isn’t a perfect beginning, but it is an intriguing one, and I’m looking forward to reading more Holmes stories. Though I’m not well read enough in the detective’s mythos to truly say whether this is the best starting point or not, it’s most certainly a compelling story with no background knowledge required. If you’ve got any interest in the mystery genre, this is required reading.

[Note: All page numbers came from The Annotated Sherlock Holmes]

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