Wednesday, November 14, 2012

There's No Cure For This Scarlet Fever: A Study in Scarlet Review


A Study in Scarlet is the very first Sherlock Holmes story, one that I encountered when I was in middle school.  With the revival of Sherlock Holmes (via bad Guy Ritchie movies and two television programs: the BBC's Sherlock and CBS' Elementary) and as primer to reviewing the Sherlock adaptation (A Study in Pink) I decided to revisit my favorite detective.  My love for the great detective does not waver, and A Study in Scarlet, while more a novella than a full-fledged novel, is a great introduction to characters that will become iconic.  However, it's clear that a reading of A Study in Scarlet also reveals that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is also writing in the traditional Victorian style, with all the melodrama and idealization of the Innocent Girl that comes with it.

The book is divided into two parts: Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D., Late of the Army Medical Department, and The Country of the Saints.

John Watson, M.D., late of the Afghan Campaign, has returned to London to recover from his war wounds.    An old friend guides him to Sherlock Holmes, a man of great intelligence but who also, to Watson's horror, was unaware that the Earth revolves around the Sun.  Holmes justifies this by saying that such information is useless to him and his work, so should he learn such things, he will quickly dismiss them if they serve no purpose.  Why clutter his attic with junk, he argues, and since he sees his mind as an attic, such things as the Earth's rotation is unimportant.

Holmes, Watson discovers, is what the former calls a 'consulting detective'.  People, including the police, come to him to help them out in solving mysteries, all the hush-hush, for which he is paid handsomely.  He does it more for the pleasure of the work than for the actual money.  Now, he gets a corker of a case: a murder.

His police contact Inspector Gregson has brought him to help solve this particular crime: the murder of Enoch Drebber, American.  There is no mark on the body, but the word "rache" in blood on the wall.  Holmes, with his magnifying glass, does his work, while Gregson and his colleague Inspector Lestrange sort out their theories, which we find are wrong. 

Now Holmes and Watson set a trap for the killer, but the killer tricks Holmes by doing a drag act.  Holmes, now infuriated by being fooled and determined to find him, continues on the case.  A few days later, Gregson arrests someone but that theory goes out when we find that Drebber's travelling companion, Joseph Stangerson, has been found murdered.  However, Holmes has already discovered the murderer's identity, and with the help of street urchins Holmes has dubbed "the Baker Street Irregulars", our murderer, Jefferson Hope, an American who works as a cabbie, is arrested.

It's here that we get Part II.  Out in the American West, Joseph Ferrier and a little girl named Lucy are the only survivors of a pioneer group.  They face certain death in the desert, until they are miraculously discovered by the Mormon pioneers.  Brought before Brigham Young himself, the Prophet agrees to bring them into their group on the condition that Joseph and Lucy adopt the Latter-Day Saints faith.  They readily agree, and in Utah the Ferriers (as Joseph had adopted Lucy) prosper. 

However, the pressure for Joseph to have plural marriages grows.  He resists, but he knows that his Lucy, that Flower of Deseret, runs the risk of being forced into this immoral union to a Mormon.  Complicating matters is that Lucy, that Flower of Deseret, has herself fallen in love...with Jefferson Hope, non-Mormon.  Brigham Young himself comes to inform Joseph that he must surrender Lucy, that Flower of Deseret, to one of two suitors: Joseph Stangerson or Enoch Drebber.  He has 30 days.  Each day Ferrier finds a written number somewhere, counting down the days.  Finally, close to the end date, Hope literally arrives.

They flee into the mountains, aiming for Nevada, but while Hope is away searching for food the others are overtaken.  Lucy, that Flower of Deseret, is forced to marry Drebber, while Stangerson we find had killed Joseph when they were captured.  Lucy, that Flower of Deseret, dies of a broken heart, and Hope swears revenge. 

Now we get back to the present, but while Hope is captured, his heart condition allows him to escape prison, even though he really had done the right thing in avenging Joseph Ferrier and Lucy, that Flower of Deseret.  Holmes finds that Gregson and Lestrange received credit for solving the crime, while Holmes gets barely a notice.  For his part, Holmes doesn't care, but Watson determines to credit his roommate for solving this most curious case.

It's curious that Conan Doyle, early in A Study in Scarlet, has Holmes show contempt for his contemporary 'fictional' detectives such as Poe's Dupin or Emile Gaboriau's Monsieur Ledoq.  I can't say that it reflects Doyle's own views on the detective mysteries that had come before, but it does add two things to our understanding of author and creation.  One, it shows that the character of Holmes takes his position very seriously, and two, it shows Conan Doyle was fully aware that he was drawing from a newly-discovered well.  It also is a mark of the giant shadow Sherlock Holmes casts in that with the exception of Poe almost all detective writers pre-Doyle are now largely forgotten.

When was the last time Monsieur Ledoq appeared on the screen?  Gaboriau and Ledoq are all but forgotten today, while Doyle and Holmes are now seen as the standard to which all detectives post-Study in Scarlet are measured.  Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, Ellery Queen, right down to The Mentalist's Patrick Jane and even Encyclopedia Brown all are descendants of Sherlock Holmes (in regards to Wolfe, perhaps more direct than perhaps we imagine).

A Study in Scarlet has all those twists and turns a good detective story has: the surprise of finding an old woman rather than a youngish man coming to collect the ring, the strange clue of 'rache' in blood written upon the wall.  More than that, though, A Study in Scarlet set up the importance of science and analytical thought to solving a case.

Dr. Doyle would have some background in this.  All doctors have to play detective to a point.  You have to analyze the symptoms in order to come up with a diagnosis.  Doyle was perhaps the first detective writer to understand that one can't just guess or have a clue or witness just miraculously pop up to discover the criminal.  Instead, he (or she) has to observe everything to find whodunit.

Look at when Holmes goes to the crime scene.  Watson is amazed that Holmes doesn't charge into the room where the body is; instead, he looks outside, studying the wheel marks and footprints left in the mud.  Holmes does what other detectives did not: he looked, he studies, he observed.  From that, he drew conclusions which invariably proved right.  "It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence," Holmes tells the good Doctor.

Sadly, today that bit of streets-smart is all but forgotten.  In particular the press is quick to find motives and criminals without all the evidence.  Instead, we start speculating to where we make the facts fit the theories rather than the theories fit the facts.  Doyle understood that we need to look at what is presented before us before we can say for certain what the truth is.

Sadly, what he didn't understand was Mormonism.  I'm not a Mormon, but the portrayal of the Latter-Day Saints as this group of virtually sex-crazed murderers both dates and stains A Study in Scarlet.  It's a curious thing that if Conan Doyle had made the religious group that threatens this innocent pair with forced marriages wild-eyed pursuits Muslims, it's pretty easy to imagine that A Study in Scarlet would probably be banned and/or go out of print.  Because the group he portrays so badly is the Mormons, Doyle could get away with it and we don't think too much on that, given that the popular concept of Mormons now is that of non-threatening young men and women coming to our door with ties or skirts.  I imagine Doyle would be surprised to see that these neo-savages he had written are now seen as some of the most docile members of society. 

The negative images of Mormons is a mark against A Study in Scarlet, but what really shows when the book was written is in the character of Lucy.  While rereading A Study in Scarlet, I couldn't help think on what Oscar Wilde said about a character from The Old Curiosity Shop: "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing".  Dickens' novel was published a good forty-seven years prior, but Lucy Ferrier might as well have been named Little Nell.  Both girls are portrayed as sweet darlings, angels of purity really, who suffer greatly and die tragically.

This is I imagine part of what makes Victorian writing a bit overwrought: the creation of female characters as delicate flowers who wilt away at the cruelties of life.  I kept referring to Lucy as That Flower of Deseret because she was so delicate, so sweet, so pure, that at times she was not real.  Instead, she was just an idealization of innocent young womanhood, smeared by the evil Mormons.

In this this, I won't fault Doyle too much.  He was writing as a Victorian author, and as such was versed in the style of the times.  He wasn't going for some epoch-changing work of literature, he was going for a good detective story that would earn him some money while contributing what I imagine he thought was superior work in the growing detective genre.  A Study in Scarlet did do that, and it introduced the now-iconic magnifying glass and the scientific method of investigation to the genre. 

All detectives following Sherlock Holmes owe their existence to the resident of 221 B Baker Street (which I have visited and spent many a happy hour at).  It suffers today from two flaws: a negative portrayal of a religious group that in others would be condemned as bigotry and a rather cliched Victorian female character (Lucy is no Irene Adler, that's for sure).  Minus those bits, A Study in Scarlet is a good introduction to those not familiar with the Sherlock Holmes mythos, a strong mystery with a logical conclusion.  It is a Victorian work, but it is one that has stood the test of time.

The pleasure one gets from A Study in Scarlet is more than elementary.           

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


1 comment:

  1. Always a pleasure to meet a fan of Sherlock Holmes!

    Have you read 'A Valley of Fear' and 'Silver Blaze'. These are my favorites.