I read this for the first time a few years back*, in between books of “The Men who Hate Women”. Also, oddly enough, I finished it while we were on our way to This is the Place. (Please don’t ask me to explain This is the Place. You either know or you don’t: suffice to say that there is a tie-in to A Study in Scarlet, however loose).
This is the OG meeting of Holmes and Watson, as told by John Watson, former medic of the Royal Army in Afghanistan. At first, Watson actually has nothing at all to do with Holmes’ cases, instead staying out of the way while he meets with clients, at least two of whom are described in questionable if not outright racist manners, but eventually, as one will, he gets curious about Holmes’ work. They are roommates before that, and nothing more (or less), though Watson does catalog those things Holmes is good at and those where his knowledge is absent or lacking fairly early on (including, yes, “it does not matter if the earth turns round the sun or vice-versa”).
“But Sistercoyote,” I hear you asking, “We know the basics of the plot. What do you mean, whiplash?”
The change in the story between Parts I and II is so dramatic that I went out on the internet to make sure I hadn’t gotten a mixed-up .mobi file, that’s what I mean. Doyle takes us in essentially one breath from London and the voice of Dr Watson to the middle of Utah. Yes. Utah. Because (spoilers) that is where the titular victim in scarlet, her killer and the other persons involved in or around the crime came from. And yes, they are all described as LDS/Mormon. Which is why This is the Place has a tighter than I implied relationship with A Study in Scarlet.
Holmes is a complicated character, and Watson is probably not the most reliable narrator, but it was interesting to me that the only people Holmes is described as truly abusing are the police. He’s polite, otherwise, or at least Watson describes him so even if Stamford finds him a bit cold. I’ve often wondered, though, in all the various iterations of Holmes if half the reason that Watson gets on with Holmes so well is that Watson himself is a scientist: the list of things Sherlock knows vs. doesn’t know, for example, has always almost felt like an anthropologist writing down his observations of a subject to me, anyway.
I also question how ‘eccentric’ Holmes actually is; are we meant to understand Stamford as reliable, or are we meant to understand his description of Holmes as an ‘inferior’ man describing his ‘superior’? We know (from later texts, I don’t recall it showing up here) that Holmes takes both cocaine and heroin; is he bipolar, or are his manic highs and his deep lows the expression of his drug use? Watson is clearly more impressed by Holmes than Holmes claims to be by himself (although he promptly goes on to denigrate Poe and other mystery writers’ heroes as incompetents). The details of the murder, whiplash included, matter less than Holmes’ interpretation of events, the story he deduces from the evidence and that the murderer is only too happy to confirm.
“What you do in this world is a matter of no consequence,” [Holmes said], bitterly. “The question is, what can you make people believe you have done.” (Page 76)
I was amused to discover that the original Holmes was bitter about Lestrade and Gregson taking all the credit for his detective work, which emotion led Watson to offer to publish his journals so others would know that truth. Many modern interpretations seem to think he’s happy to be left in the shadows and let others take the credit.