Reviewing mysteries is tough. One has to be careful not to spoil the story for others, and yet often the very issue I would want to address in my review is directly related to the big reveal in the story. I will do my best not to spoil A Study in Scarlet for others while trying to convey my concerns with it.
A Study in Scarlet, published in 1887, is the first Sherlock Holmes mystery. The reader sees Holmes through the eyes of Dr. John H. Watson, a medical doctor who was injured in military service and finds himself alone in London trying to get back on his feet. A chance meeting with an old schoolmate leads to Watson’s introduction to Holmes. Both men are looking for affordable housing and might be able to share accommodations. Watson’s friend, before taking him to meet Holmes, warns him that Holmes is brilliant but rather eccentric. No one seems to know what the object of Holmes’ course of study is. He seems ignorant of and uninterested in things like philosophy, literature and politics, but he is a brilliant chemist and quite good at anatomy.
His studies are very desultory and eccentric, but he has amassed a lot of out-of-the-way knowledge which would astonish his professors.
The beginnings of a beautiful relationship occur when Watson and Holmes agree to move in together at 221B Baker Street. Watson is both fascinated by and skeptical of Holmes, at least initially. He sees that Holmes has a wide and diverse circle of acquaintance and eventually learns that Holmes is a consulting detective. He uses his formidable powers of observation and analysis to help other detectives and private investigators solve their cases. He gets paid for his services but does not publicly receive recognition for his work, a matter of some annoyance to Holmes.
Among those who turn to Holmes for assistance with their work are two Scotland Yard detectives, Lestrade and Gregson. When Holmes receives an urgent communication from Gregson regarding a murder, Holmes and Watson report to the scene of the crime. Watson observes Holmes as he carefully analyzes the grounds outside the house where the murder occurred, then every inch of the room in which Enoch J. Drebber died, then the body itself. While there is blood in the room, there is no physical harm to the body. A woman’s wedding ring is found and a book with the name Stangerson in it. Gregson and Lestrade are amazed and perhaps skeptical when Holmes is able to make a series of deductions immediately about the murderer. As they pursue their own investigations, Holmes will use urchins who live on the streets, known as “street Arabs,” to help him track down his man. It’s not long before Holmes has found the perpetrator, but Watson and the reader still don’t know the reason for Enoch J. Drebber’s death.
Part 2 of A Study in Scarlet is the backstory on the murderer, an account of how his motives developed. The story is quite detailed and involves multiple characters. This is also the part of the novel that I find problematic. While the logic of it holds together, and it is a thrilling story, I believe it is also based on popular misconceptions of a group of people whom I won’t name. As I read this part of the novel, I wondered how historically accurate it was. After searching about for a bit, I discovered that I am not the only one with this question, and that Doyle presented a widely accepted, sensational and inaccurate picture of this particular community of people. Oddly enough, this same group of people were featured briefly in the last book I reviewed, again in a less than flattering light.
Overall, A Study in Scarlet is an entertaining read. It moves along at a brisk pace, and our main characters Holmes and Watson are intelligent and provocative. Their relationship and its development is every bit as interesting as the mystery they unravel. I can understand why they have enjoyed such devoted readership for well over 100 years.