Sunday, January 22, 2012

Book Review: A Study in Scarlet, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Title:  A Study in Scarlet
Author:  Arthur Conan Doyle
Genre:  Mystery
Rating:  4 out of 5 magnifying glasses

A Study in Scarlet is the first Sherlock Holmes story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I recently acquired the collected Sherlock Holmes stories, and I figured I should start at the beginning.  This is not only my first Holmes story - A Study in Scarlet was the first pure mystery novel I have read.  I always hesitate in reviewing classics such as this, but I plan on reading more of Doyle's work in the future, and documenting how I felt about his first novel seems like it would be helpful.

A Study in Scarlet is written as a first hand account of one Doctor John Watson, a former military man who fought in Afghanistan during the war.  Upon returning to London, he quickly finds he is without a roof over his head!  He discovers that a strange fellow by the name of Holmes is looking for a roomate, and they quickly strike up a partnership.

Soon after Watson discovers that Holmes works as a consulting detective, they are employed in a very sticky case involving a dead man found in a room that is splattered with another man's blood.  One of the only clues: the German word for "Revenge" scrawled on the wall in scarlet blood.

The character of Sherlock Holmes is nothing short of amazing.  He is at once timid and outgoing.  He is a genius when it goes to clues and the violin and completely ignorant of other things - such as the fact that the Earth revolves around the sun.  Holmes is truly eccentric and I love him all the more for his short-comings in all areas other than his profession.  Watson, on the other hand, is a little less vivid.  We get a bit of back story on him at the beginning of the story, but he is often relegated as the "straight man" as played against Holmes' genius.  His most common lines seem to be on the theme of either "But wait, I don't understand your logic" or "Truly you are brilliant Holmes!".  I kept yearning for more of a relationship to form between the characters, but it never quite got there.  Of course, this is only the first in a series of many stories, so I'm sure there is still ample opportunity for Watson to emerge from his sidekick cocoon and grow into a deeper character.

The mystery itself (don't worry, no spoilers here) was well done.  Clues were presented at a regular pace, and you just knew that Holmes was piecing them together even before you realized their importance.  There were multiple suspects and you definitely won't see the end come until Holmes has the perpetrator in shackles.

There was one thing that took away from the quality of the story.  About half way through, after Holmes apprehends the murderer, the entire narrative completely changes.  Instead of first person from the point of view of Dr. Watson, the narrative turns into third person omniscient.  This is done to detail the history of the murderer, his motives, etc, but the transition is so jarring that it almost made me want to stop reading.  The witty observations of Watson were gone, and in their place, col, impersonal descriptions of a completely different country in a completely different time.  Luckily, I was able to get through this and Watson's account quickly resumed.

A Study in Scarlet was a fun little story to read.  Its genius comes from the fact that it is so succinct and compact, while still managing to illustrate a convincing protagonist and compelling plot.  If you have any interest in starting to read about Holmes, you should start here and enjoy, as I did!

4 out of 5 magnifying glasses!

1 comment:

  1. I am fascinated on how Sherlock knew the height of the killer by examining the writings in the wall. It's one of the classic literature i'm not going to be bored reading.