Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Book Review: “A Study in Scarlet” (Doyle, 1887)

“There are no crimes and no criminals in these days,” he said, querulously. “What is the use of having brains in our profession? I know well that I have it in me to make my name famous. No man lives or has ever lived who has brought the same amount of study and of natural talent to the detection of crime which I have done. And what is the result?”
--Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

Leigh: I am currently trying to figure out how to start this whole shebang off. Please forgive me if nothing sounds coherent and everything is just a bunch of rambling words strung together, I'm currently dealing with the allergies that come with the changing seasons and the decongestants that follow that. I haven't started the cold meds yet so time hasn't lost meaning and my hands don't have vapor trails. Yet.
When I first read A Study in Scarlet, it was only a couple of summers ago. And when I mean "read," I mean listen to on audiobook while I cleaned toilets. I worked at a movie theater on the cleaning staff. This was one of the best jobs I've had even though at times it was, literally, crappy.
Before I started listening to Study in Scarlet, I had very little experience with anything dealing with Sherlock Holmes. Sure I had seen The Great Mouse Detective, but the last time I watched that I was probably under 10 years old and my memory of it is very limited. I know there's a rat that they sing a song about and there's a little girl mouse and that's the end of my memory of The Great Mouse Detective. I had seen the Robert Downey, Jr movie and really liked it. I liked how Holmes was portrayed as a definitely non-traditional Victorian. This is the extent of my experience with Sherlock Holmes before I had read any of the stories. I had decided on the Sherlock Holmes stories because I wanted to become more educated about the popular figures in English pop culture because I am a self-professed Anglophile. Sure, I had heard of Holmes and yeah, I had seen parodies of him but I wanted to know the truth and read/listen to them for my self. It might seem pompous, but I wanted to appear more educated to others when I told them that I was reading the Holmes stories. I didn't know how much he would take over my life, that bastard.
The first time I read, and by read I mean listened, to Study in Scarlet, I only actually listened to half of it because I fell asleep during the second half so in all actuality, I only read half the book. I had listened to the first half of the book at work then came home and tried to listen to the second half but because of my incredibly interesting sleep schedule (read: messed up), I fell asleep. I remember waking up halfway through the second half and hearing about Utah and being really confused, but not so confused to wake up and start over, just confused enough to take note then fall back asleep. The next day at work, I tried again and finally understood what all that Utah talk was about.
This story started my love affair with the 120+ year old man. I could talk for hours about how wonderful and creative these stories are, but we're trying to focus on one. Here I go.
As I previously stated, I really had no expectations of what to expect when I started reading this book. The only other things I had read from about that time period were Pride and Prejudice, which took me three times to finish, and Great Expectations which I always joked in high school that the best expectation of the book was it ending. I know, I'm hilarious. I was expecting more stuffy language and hard to understand sentences full of archaic vocabulary but I found that this wasn't true at all. Yeah, some words are used differently like "ejaculate," (teeheehee) but for the most part, Study in Scarlet and the others are written to be understood by all sorts of people, not just those who are well educated and speak with a posh accent.
I will admit, I was just as enamored with Holmes as Watson was when they first met. I didn't think him impossible, I didn't think him arrogant or vain, I thought he was a truly interesting character who just got to the point and knew what he wanted. I can definitely admire that in a character. When the crime is announced and Holmes and Watson travel across town to an abandoned house, I was expecting to know what the twist was and figure out the whole story once the evidence was presented to me. I do have a bachelor's in TV Crime from Television Tech University, you know. I was so delighted that I couldn't figure out what the twist was. I was willing to forgive a predictable plot twist because of the ever-interesting Holmes but because of the handful of seemingly random clues, RACHE, the blood, the wedding band, I was officially hooked.
There were two things I found interesting about this book when I finally listened to it all. 1, there were two definite halves, almost like two separate books and 2, Either Arthur Conan Doyle really didn't like Mormons or the general mindset at the time was against Mormons. With my impending cold/sinus infection, I am in no shape to talk about religion. Even if I were healthy and not bogged down in a never-ending stream of snot, I don't think I would be in a shape to talk about religion.
What I am willing to talk about though is how this book is in two distinct halves. As the first book in the canon of Sherlock Holmes, I expected more stories to be like this. Boy was I wrong. The only other story that sorta has two halves is Sign of Four. It also shares the device of someone besides Holmes or Watson telling the story and instead it is a different character.
What were your expectations for Holmes before you cracked open any of the stories? As a mystery person, how does Holmes stand up to other classic mystery characters? Do those work? They do? Good.

Austin: I'm trying to think where I first saw Sherlock Holmes and I believe my answer is also animal related. That's right. Wishbone. The awesome PBS show that adapted classic novels but recast the lead as a basket hound. From there I adored The Great Mouse Detective and went on to read some of the short stories.

I had thought I had read A Study in Scarlet but within a few chapters, I realized I must have missed this one. This was even more realized when the story gets absolutely nuts but let's hold off on that. For this story does start off brilliantly. Essentially Watson is just telling us his CV but even that is done so well because we see a purer Watson than what is often portrayed in the media, the goof. Their introduction is very fun because Sherlock is able to deduce that Watson was recently in Afghanistan; I was all ready for the rambling explanation but they don't do it. They move in together and it's Watson's curiosity about Sherlock's guests that eventually lets him learn how brilliant the detective is.

The character of Sherlock Holmes really does remain the staple of the entire genre. He represents what we want most from a mystery: a puzzle able to be solved, intelligence overcoming adversity, a wondrous force of good. Especially now in the genre, detectives are realistic like Harry Bosch. Bosch is a very smart cop, but Sherlock is a superhero who was bit on the brain by a radioactive bookworm. It's impossible to have a super smart detective without playing ode to Sherlock. He is the ultimate prototype. And he knows it! Sherlock/Doyle insults Émile Gaborau for his amateur detective Monsieur Lecoq and Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Deupin for their shotty methods.

In this story it's so obvious why. He has swallowed an encyclopedia and can recount facts and deductions in the blink of an eye. (Excluding the solar system, of course.) I shall admit, I found some of his deductions in this story a little suspect. (MYSTERY PUN!). Twice he used the "air" of someone to determine their professions, which seems not very Spock. Everything else was so much fun though. He knows it's all about theatrics. He compares himself to an entertainer as he holds back information he knows to be facts so he can give the big reveal. We can't complain because that reveal was awesome!

This is the story that everyone remembers. Sherlock and Watson meeting each other, a twisty fun mystery and plenty of small nuggets that we love now like the Baker Street Irregulars. What people don't remember are the batshit crazy parts of this story. Leigh, what the hell was happening in 60 page tangent about malicious Mormons? Did Sherlock Holmes straight up murder a dog? What is happening here?

Leigh: First, Wishbone was a Jack Russel Terrier. Second, basket hounds aren't a breed.

Wishbone, the Jack Russel Terrier

A basset hound, which is what I'm assuming you spelled wrong

And this is what showed up when I searched for "basket" hound

And here's a picture of a dog with a mustache and monocle 

Now that we have the correct terminology out of the way, I feel we can proceed with this email.

The introduction we get of Watson is one of the best character introductions ever. He tells about himself but not to a point where the audience gets bored. We don't care what school play he was in while he was in grade school. We get the important parts like that he served in the Afghan war and he was injured and he's a doctor. Anything we don't know that might become important later is told when it becomes important. And when Watson does his own observation of Holmes, the audience is shown again that he's a smart cookie, not a jam loving dweeb. (http://harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=210)

I find it interesting that you brought up Poe's C. Auguste Deupin! In my research, I've found a couple of times that Conan Doyle actually really liked Poe's character and Deupin is one of the inspirations of Holmes. Holmes himself doesn't like him because he gets some of the methodology wrong or what ever it is that Holmes doesn't like, but I've found that Conan Doyle didn't have Holmes be a direct copy of all of his thoughts and opinions about things. One that we will probably discuss more in detail later is Holmes' view on women versus Conan Doyle's view on women. We can save this for later though.

I was debating on discussing Mormons but I think at this point we can look at it from a historical aspect and hopefully not be nice-d to death by modern Mormons. We're not talking about Scientologists so we should be okay. My theory is that Conan Doyle was using some real life events to help the story stay in reality. While he might not be using complete facts, it does look as though he got some inspiration from the stories of Mormons in the American West who weren't too kind to the people trying to make it big in Hollywood, I mean strike gold in California. There is a very famous example, and by famous I mean I stumbled across the Wikipedia article about it earlier this summer and read it, where Mormons attacked a wagon train of settlers from Arkansas. The Mountain Meadows Massacre left over 100 people dead, including children. The attack was done by a Nauvoo Legion who were a militia group to protect settlements in the West and they share a lot of similarities with the Mormons in A Study in Scarlet. I believe that Conan Doyle was just using reports of the brutality of the Mormons to help tell his story. While I haven't read anything specific on A Study in Scarlet, the Wikipedia page has quotes from Conan Doyle saying that he was using history as a basis of his story. There also aren't any direct sources quoted so this might be something I have to look up later and report back. 

And to bring this email full circle: NO! Of course he didn't kill the dog! He just *almost* killed the dog. I think this is one of the funnier parts of the book because Watson is so upset about this dog being sick and looking like it was getting ready to shuffle off it's mortal coil but then Holmes is Holmes and makes him all better. I think the Guy Ritchie/RDJ Sherlock Holmes did a great job of using part of an actual Holmes story to explain their version of the Holmes character. They didn't do it a lot, but this was a funny, easy way to do that. I think this is another great way to have the audience see that Holmes really does know what he's talking about and he's not just a shyster or a conman but an actual detective/scientist/superhero. 

Austin: I'm editing this sucker. It would be so easy to go back and make my canine correction, but those pictures are so awesome I'm leaving them in.

Now my problem with the second half isn't exactly the treatment of Mormons. That can be seen as just this group of people are hostile and whatnot even though every Mormon I've met has been nothing but the nicest imaginable. My problem is that structurally this is just insane. For a really great 60 pages (We're all just going by my paperback for page count, right? Don't need to clarify which edition, right?) you have a first person perspective from Dr. Watson of what happened. Then there is this giant section of backstory set in third person in a different continent about a character that Sherlock literally just said he will answer all of your questions about. It ended up being a fine story but since it's right in the middle of this amazing story all I was thinking was when we would get back to Sherlock and Watson. And even if we'd get back because it honestly would be really entertaining if the detective just named the murderer, provided no evidence and the story ended.

The story brought more of a dimension to the murderer, but Doyle could have also....not done that. It's just that I adore everything else about "A Study in Scarlet" except for 40% of it. It's an incredible start to this series and it's obvious how this became such an instant hit.

Obviously I'm sure we will see the same sort of merging of brilliance in Thursday's pilot of "Elementary"! Join us next Tuesday as we read Arthur Conan Doyle's second novella, "The Sign of Four."

And here is Leigh Montano with the last word.

 Leigh: Potato!

1 comment:

  1. For the first Holmes story, I have to agree that A Study in Scarlet gave a definite overall picture as to the character of Holmes himself. If I remember the story correctly, it did seem a bit awkward compared to other things that I had read; however, as one of the first detectives ever written in contemporary literature, Doyle handled the genre very well.

    I may have to go back and do a re-read, it's been a while since my mystery literature class in University, but I do recall that every other detective we read after that, including those of the immoral Ms. Christie, did have base elements that hearkened back to Holmes and Doyle. Even something written recently, like one of the Batman graphic novels (I believe it was something like "Long Dark Halloween" or something), has elements that point back to Doyle's formulas.

    Part of my illness-addled brain wonders if Doyle/Holmes was one of the precursors of the modern investigative process. Dear Criminologists: sing out here, at any point, please and thanks.