I have just finished reading ‘A Study In Scarlet’ by Arthur Conan Doyle, my very first Sherlock Holmes novel.
And, though, it has not converted me into a die hard fan of Arthur C. Doyle overnight, but, did manage to impress me with the writer’s ingenuity in creating two fantastic characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. One is stylish and genial, and the other is eccentric and yet appealing. In short, perfect foils for each other.
Before I delve any further into what I liked or not, let me tell you a little about the story.
A Study in Scarlet revolves around the Lauriston Garden Mystery. Apparently, a man is found dead in a vacant apartment amidst pool of blood and yet no injury mark is visible on victim’s body. The Scotland Yard Cop Gregson is unable to comprehend the motive behind the ghastly murder, and calls upon Sherlock Holmes to investigate.
To further complicate the matter, the murderer has left a very obvious clue. He has written the word “Rache” on the wall with blood. Usual theories that the murder is somehow related to a woman named Rachel, either she is the murderer, or a possible cause for it, are expounded by the Policemen. But, Holmes explains that Rache in German literally means revenge. And, now it is felt that it may be a political conspiracy or a desperate attempt by a sensationalist.
As Gregson and Lestrade try to solve the case in their usual Policemen style, Sherlock Holmes digs deeper and forms his own line of action. The story went through many ebbs and flows, and accordingly, my admiration for Arthur also traversed many peaks and valleys.
This is the very first time that I have begun reading the works of a particular author systematically. Be it Chitra, Paulo or Manju Kapur, I often end up reading their first and most popular works at the very last.
However, this time, I have rightly begun with the very first novel ACD ever wrote to success. And, of course, reading it chronologically has its advantage. For starters, A Study in Scarlet for the first time introduced Dr. Watson, Sherlock Holmes, Gregson and Lestrade. It is kind of a dress rehearsal for them as well as the readers, who would get used to see them in almost every story by Arthur.
I don’t know why but I was expecting a man with an overcoat, magnifying glass and an over sized cap hovering around the crime scene at the very beginning of the story. But, the beginning surprised me, as there was no trace of Holmes, but a journalistic entry by Dr. Watson, a retired Army Doctor, who is writing a memoir about his long standing acquaintance Sherlock Holmes.
Here, Dr. Watson begins from the very beginning. He has just returned from Afghanistan, is injured and is on paid leave with little money. He is on the lookout for a lodging partner. And, it is this humble quest that brings him in contact with Sherlock Holmes, an eccentric man, who is yelling ecstatically at discovering a Hemoglobin Test in the chemistry lab and in his excitement, ends up drawing his own blood to test it!
Though, Holmes did not enter the way, I anticipated but, his entry was impressive nonetheless, quite in element with his crazy outlook towards crime and poison. He makes some interesting observations, straightaway guessing that Watson is coming from Afghanistan and also rattles off a number of crimes, where his newly discovered Blood Stain test would have been decisive. At this moment, I looked back at the title and thought that may be this test would solve the case of the present novel.
But, little did I know, that it was just another tactic by Doyle to put readers like me off the scent. Actually, the story has not yet shifted to the real case. It was just an introduction chapter between Holmes and his buddy Watson. I loved the way they sized up each other in a frank conversation, before settling down as House partners at the famous 221 B Baker Street. And, it was only in the third chapter that Holmes actually proceeded to the crime scene at the Lauriston Garden.
The novel is different from any hard core crime fiction, I have read till now. It concentrates more on character building than introducing twists in an ingenuous plot.
I did not find the storyline too intriguing, at times even lame as the absence of blood on a victim’s body can of course point to poisoning, an inference that Holmes alone is able to arrive at, taking all others by surprise. And, frankly the story seemed to be running in a very linear manner and I began to wonder why is ACD so famous despite writing an average detective story!
However, as I begun reading the second part, I was surprised by the sudden change in setting and story. I was literally transported from the crowded streets of London to an arid, desolate desert in North America, where a man is struggling to save the life of a small girl. From here onwards, the story ran at a fast pace, tracking the strange customs of a little known clan, who are fanatic about their rituals and religion and are ready to slaughter anyone for a digression from the accepted route.
Though, I could sense a relation between the main story and this sub plot, as soon as the names of main characters were revealed, but it was a pleasure to read Doyle’s circumvent ways of writing the story. The narrative was gripping and I desperately waited for the climax to confirm my suspicions.
As I said earlier, I was mesmerized and bored by Doyle’s narrative in turn. I loved the introduction part, the astute observations by Holmes, the silent study of Watson and his genuine curiosity to know his partner better and of course the exotic setting of Salt Lake City Utah.
But, I did find that Doyle delays the obvious too much, a little twist takes so much time to develop that it often loses the surprise element. I also felt the climax was a bit too melodramatic, overemphasizing the murderer’s innocence and love angle. However, despite all these shortcomings, I loved reading the novel.
Earlier in the story, I scoffed at Holmes’ continuous derision of other detectives. Be it Gregson and Lestrade or even the literary ones like Edgar Alan Poe’s Dupin and Gabriou’s Lecoq, Holmes never missed a chance to take a potshot. I thought him very snobbish in putting down every other sleuth in preference to his own intelligence.
But, as I finished the novel, I was indeed impressed with his Science of Deduction and Logic, and could sympathize with him wholeheartedly when the newspapers lavishly praised the Police and Private Detective, conveniently forgetting the consulting genius, Sherlock Holmes.
In short, A Study In Scarlet is good in parts, particularly as a curtain raiser and is excellent as far as character building and style is concerned.
Sherlock Holmes is created more as a persona than a simple protagonist and has the potential to appear in any number of stories, with staid Dr. Watson supporting him in a non imposing role. With Four novels and 56 short stories, no wonder, Sherlock Holmes is one of the most popular literary character till date.
Perhaps, Arthur Conan Doyle has deliberately tried to subjugate the story in preference to principal characters. Hopefully, the other works would impress me more.