#1014: “I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.” – A Study in Scarlet (1887) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Having recently enshrined Hercule Poirot as the official World’s Favourite Golden Age Sleuth, let’s return to the probable holder of the title of World’s Favourite Detective and the very first case to feature Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

I regret now not reading the Holmes canon in order, because it’s interesting to see the various tropes and familiar aspects of the canon come together in a way that clearly wasn’t planned from the outset but have become ingrained on the public consciousness as if they’ve always been the case through sheer exposure and popularity. For example, it’s interesting to note that A Study in Scarlet (1887), the first time Dr. John Watson meets Mr. Sherlock Holmes ahead of the two of them taking up rooms at 221B Baker Street, makes no mention of their landlady Mrs. Hudson by name — there’s the fleeting mention of a landlady and a servant, but never is any appellation attached beyond that. Equally, as already mentioned when discussing The Sign of Four (1890), there’s no explicit mention of Holmes’ tendency to indulge in cocaine between cases, although you wonder how much retro-fitting Doyle did in that second novel having written the following herein:

[N]ow and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night. On these occasions I have noticed such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.

There is so much that we simply accept about Holmes that it’s interesting to reflect that at one time not even his creator knew these things about him, and this is why picking through the canon from first to last might well be such an interesting undertaking. But, well, I didn’t the first time I read them and I haven’t now, so all I can do is go forward chronologically from this point and see if there’s anything of merit to dig out from this most-discussed of fictional detectives and his endeavours.

“I’m gonna guess ‘No,’ Jim.”

As an introduction to Holmes’ form of analytical reasoning, the text more than holds up, and has some telling examples which heighten the impact of Holmes as a character because of how within reach so much of his analysis feels. Upon meeting Watson for the first time in years, old school acquaintance Stamford is able to observe that he is “as thin as a lath and as brown as a nut,” laying the groundwork for Holmes’ famous “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive” which simply takes the same observation and runs with it in a more thorough direction. When, in the matter of the murder of Enoch J. Drebber, Scotland Yard man Tobais Gregson dismisses “the candle, and the blood, and the writing on the wall, and the ring” which feature in the crime scene as “so many tricks to throw the police on to the wrong scent”, Holmes is quick to point out that such “strange details, far from making the case more difficult, have really had the effect of making it less so”.

“[T]hings which have perplexed you and made the case more obscure, have served to enlighten me and to strengthen my conclusions. It is a mistake to confound strangeness with mystery. The most commonplace crime is often the most mysterious because it presents no new or special features from which deductions may be drawn. This murder would have been infinitely more difficult to unravel had the body of the victim been simply found lying in the roadway without any of those outré and sensational accompaniments which have rendered it remarkable.”

That wonderful summary of the murderer after the investigation of the crime scene at the end of chapter 3 (“In all probability [he] had a florid face, and the finger-nails of his right hand were remarkably long…”) is completely magnificent still, even if Holmes must, of course, insist on its commonplace nature and own up to a certain showboating when acknowledging that “a conjuror gets no credit once he has explained his trick, and if I show you too much of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all”. When you realise the absolute simplicity of Holmes’ thesis that “[i]t is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence” lest it bias the judgement of the theoretician, his talk of cluttered attic spaces and stories of him thrashing corpses with a stick to observe the resulting bruises all coalesce in perfect harmony to limn the singularity of his intentions. If genius really is “an infinite capacity for taking pains”, including the effort involved in forgetting useless learned information such as the composition of the solar system, then the Sherlock Holmes we meet here certainly earns the label.

And, of course, as much as the world was to learn of Holmes’ profession through indicators like the blood test he is perfecting when we first meet him and the raft of odd characters that traipse into 221B (“There was one little sallow rat-faced, dark-eyed fellow who was introduced to me as Mr. Lestrade, and who came three or four times in a single week….a young girl called, fashionably dressed…a grey-headed, seedy visitor…closely followed by a slip-shod elderly woman…an old white-haired gentleman and…a railway porter in his velveteen uniform.”), Holmes — still a young man, don’t forget — is himself still learning his craft. Hence his being caught out by the ‘old woman’ who calls for the wedding ring which was discovered at the scene of Drebber’s murder and who — upon being followed to what is suspected to be both the ring’s true owner and the murderer Holmes, Gregson, and Lestrade are seeking — gives Holmes the slip and is revealed, or at least suspected, of being a far younger person in disguise. Had I read these books in order, I would no doubt remember if Holmes made any reference to this when his own penchant for disguise comes into effect in The Sign of Four, but given Doyle’s own weak grasp of continuity within the series I’m inclined to believe Holmes simply adds such a string to his bow without ever giving credit.

“Typical.”

Of course, the book focuses on more than just Holmes, and on first reading it some 20 years ago I was taken aback by the sudden shift in setting of the second part when we encounter John Ferrier dying in the vastness of an American desert while carrying a young child upon his back. At first I wondered if in meeting this “lean and haggard” man whose “hand which grasped his rifle was hardly more fleshy than that of a skeleton” we were being treated a backstory for Holmes himself, or perhaps a flash-forward of what the man was to become in later life, but I had reckoned without the genre-straddling of later Victorian literature and before long settled down in somewhat bemused fashion to see where this diversion was taking us. Ferrier and the child are saved by the Mormons who then go on to establish Salt Lake City and, as Ferrier’s wealth and standing in the community grows, so too does Doyle’s apparent disdain for the Church of Latter Day Saints.

It’s good to have a memorable bad guy, and the most memorable tend to be the most hissable — hence why Professor James Moriarty is so discussed despite his brief appearance in the canon — but, yeesh, it feels a little like Doyle had some issue with Mormonism. From highlighting Herber C. Kemball referring to his hundred (!) wives by the “endearing epithet” of “heifers” to rumours of squads of assassins removing anyone who dared raise questions about or opposition to the church’s teachings, Doyle is quick to get the boot in. I enjoyed the psychology of the “victims of persecution…turned persecutors on their own account”, and one could doubtless name many large, secretive organisations that have come to public awareness in the 140 years since this was written, but at times it feels like Doyle’s leaning a bit hard into a personal vendetta where any fictional or analogous organisation could have easily been substituted if he just wanted someone for our heroes to kick against:

Its invisibility, and the mystery which was attached to it, made this organization doubly terrible. It appeared to be omniscient and omnipotent, and yet was neither seen nor heard. The man who held out against the Church vanished away, and none knew whither he had gone or what had befallen him. His wife and his children awaited him at home, but no father ever returned to tell them how he had fared at the hands of his secret judges. A rash word or a hasty act was followed by annihilation, and yet none knew what the nature might be of this terrible power which was suspended over them. No wonder that men went about in fear and trembling, and that even in the heart of the wilderness they dared not whisper the doubts which oppressed them.

Thankfully, Doyle’s tight, muscular prose remains very readable despite coming from atop a hobby-horse, and the story of John Ferrier, his adopted daughter Lucy, and her Gentile betrothed Jefferson Hope is stacked in such a way that you can’t help but feel for their situation and wish for their success. And, even at this apparent remove from the criminous plot, elements of mystery still peek through: when Ferrier is given an ultimatum of Lucy choosing between two members of the Church as a husband, there’s an undeclared and unsolved locked room mystery herein with him waking one morning to find a note reminding him that twenty-nine days remain pinned to his bedclothes…

How this warning came into his room puzzled John Ferrier sorely, for his servants slept in an outhouse, and the doors and windows had all been secured.

“Could’ve been ghosts.”

Interesting to reflect here that, in keeping with a fixation of the Golden Age of detective fiction which Doyle unwittingly birthed some 30 years hence, it is not enough that a murderer be identified and caught, but instead he is humanised and identified with. I don’t think a single soul within the narrative or reading it is sorry when “a higher judge [takes] the matter in hand” and deals with Hope before the court is able to, and that’s a credit to how effectively Doyle tells his story and thus sets him on the path with opened this adventure. I found it amusing, too, how much fun Doyle pokes at the sensational press of the day, with the Echo hoping that the solving of this sensational case “will serve as a lesson to all foreigners that they will do wisely to settle their feuds at home, and not to carry them on to British soil”. Added to the comments form the various newspaper at the start of chapter 6, it seem clear the direction that Doyle’s disdain lie and provides some solace to those who lament so much of the vituperative rhetoric that seems so commonplace in today’s coverage of events.

Doyle also anticipates the Golden Age, and sows perhaps the first seeds in the famous references to cases Holmes and Watson saw through but Watson never put on paper, with appeal to the wider world by mentioning the “cases of Dolsky in Odessa, and of Leturier in Montpellier,” which “will occur at once to any toxicologist” when Hope’s forcible administration of poison to his victims is discusses, as well as various references at the start of the book when that blood test is successfully conceived:

“There was the case of Von Bischoff at Frankfort last year. He would certainly have been hung had this test been in existence. Then there was Mason of Bradford, and the notorious Muller, and Lefevre of Montpellier, and Samson of New Orleans. I could name a score of cases in which it would have been decisive.”

A quick online search for any of these cases finds only reference to this novel, implying that these are fictional, but then I suppose the libel laws of the the later nineteenth century might not have so lax as for someone suspected of murder to be openly called guilty in a sensation novel. The Victoraian hunger for details of sensational crime is well-documented, and the Golden Age would refine this in using proven cases of guilt both as examples to inform the fictional murders they detailed and as inspiration for many of the plots which came teeming out of that wonderful era of criminous productivity. To see this fixation with the darker side of life treated so salaciously is quite pleasing, especially as there’s something almost innocent in the glee that is taken in the frankly monstrous acts man commited against his fellow man in those days. To expand up from this to those hinted-at cases which have been expanded upon in unofficial continuation works by countless authors — The Giant Rat of Sumatra, the vanishing of Mr. James Philimore, etc., etc. — isn’t that great a leap, and it’s very interesting to see its potential roots herein.

“You should dye them, then.”

My concern with Holmes is always that the impression his name leaves upon detective fiction comes more from those expanded, unofficial cases rather than the actual canon by the character’s creator which is so insanely dwarfed by the sheer quantity of material that has been produced in the decades that the detective has spent in the public domain. Rereading this original appearance has, however, reassured me just as The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) reassured me about the excellent groundwork Doyle laid for his most enduring creation. The innovations of Holmes — his methods, his quirks and realisation, the apparent first use in fiction of a magnifying glass at a crime scene — unquestionably belong to Doyle, and seeing the clarity of his vision from all these years later is a fabulously bracing and heartening experience. Undoubtedly, the lines that define the most famous of detectives are in place; the coming years will shade them in most admirably.

9 thoughts on “#1014: “I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.” – A Study in Scarlet (1887) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. I suspect (but lack the scholarship to prove it) that his use of the Mormons rather than some fictitious group was ACD’s first attempt at a (partially) historical novel. He wrote many of these later.

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  2. I am probably in the minority on this one but I am not a big fan of the Holmes novels (as opposed to the short stories). I find the extensive use of flashbacks in A Study of Scarlet and The Valley of Fear to significantly detract from the detective fiction plots and they also reduce Holmes’ page time. Controversially, I only read The Hound of the Baskervilles for the first time a few years ago but sadly found it wanting. It has been dramatically adapted but on the page the dramatic moments were quite under whelming. I would need to re-read it to be sure but I think The Sign of Four might be best of the Holmes original novels.

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    • Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever read the second half of The Valley of Fear — and, if I have, I remember nothing about it. Shall get to it eventually, would be weird to reread everything and miss that one out.

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  3. Didn’t Holmes use cocaine, not opium?
    It’s worth remembering that both drugs were completely legal in England before WWI. You could walk into a pharmacy and buy them over the counter.
    In the late nineteenth century Mormons provided villains for a great many crime and adventure novels, in the USA, Britain and Europe. Whether the authors knew anything more about them than polygamy and their violent encounters with others is doubtful.

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  4. Really enjoyed this look at Holmes’ beginnings Jim, thanks, especially as I just re-watched “A Study in Pink” from the SHERLOCK TV show with my nieces and had a great time all over again.

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  5. Don’t know that Doyle had any personal relations with Mormonism, their polygamy and their theocracy was a massive scandal at the time. And they were sending missionaries to the UK, so it would have been something discussed. Apparently there was a large number of anti-Mormon novels at the time, of which A Study in Scarlet is one of the few to be still read.

    I think the short stories are where Holmes is best, but I recall liking this one a lot.

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    • I’m planning on rereading the stories in due course, as it’s been 20+ years since I last encountered most of them. My memories are astonishingly hazy given how famous some of them are!

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