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Friday, May 22, 2009

Sherlock Holmes Reading Challenge - A Study in Scarlet

A Study in Scarlett was published in 1887 and marks the first appearance of Holmes and Watson. Two short stories precede it if we look at the Holmes stories chronologically. These are: The Gloria Scott (Holmes' first case) and The Musgrave Ritual.

This post is much longer that I'd like but it is our introduction to Holmes, his character and his methods and his friendship with Watson. This was of more interest to me on my first reading after several decades.

Three things struck me upon reading this story after many years. First, the British are still in Afghanistan. Watson, as you remember, has returned from the Second Afghanistan war where he has been invalided out of the Army due to injury and illness.

Secondly, I completely misremembered the scene where Holmes and Watson first met. My memory was that Watson came upon Holmes beating a cadaver to test bruising after death. It was actually a fellow named Stamford who related that story to Watson to illustrate the kind of man who might become his flatmate. When Watson met Holmes he had just discovered a means of testing for the presence of blood and he enthusiastically describes how it will keep the guilty from escaping justice.

Thirdly, Holmes is younger than I imagined. Using the chronology in Klinger's New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, in 1881 Holmes is 27 years old.

The first two chapters show Holmes and Watson settling in at 221B Baker Street surely one of the most famous addresses in fiction. Watson is very curious about Holmes who in turn is reticent to say anything about himself. Watson observes that he shifts between torpidity and highly energetic, capable of playing the violin with great skill or sawing away at the strings.

Here too, we get our introduction to Holmes' methods. Holmes has an amazing depth of knowledge in selected area but appears ignorant in what one would assume to be common knowledge. For example, Watson describes the Copernican Theory and the composition of the solar system. To this Holmes says "Now that I know it I shall do my best to forget it." He goes on to describe how the brain is like an attic and should only be stocked with what is needed. " say we go round the sun. If we went around the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work." Watson later draws up a chart trying to describe the limits of the limits of Holmes' knowledge.

I read a comment on some forum that later stories show that Holmes has a greater general knowledge than Watson grants him. This is something to keep in mind as I continue to read the canon.

There is a slightly awkward moment when Watson picks up a magazine Holmes had been reading and reads an article with the title "The Book of Life." It is an article that describes the Science of Deduction and Analysis and includes this passage:
From a drop of water, said the writer, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which in known whenever we are shown a single link of it.

"Ineffable twaddle" cries Watson. "As for the article, I wrote it myself" replies Holmes. In the ensuing discussion Watson finally learns that Holmes is a consulting detective, a detective other detectives come to when stumped.

Holmes' response when Watson compares him to Edgar Allan Poe's Auguste Dupin is amusing.
No doubt you think that you are complementing me in comparing me to Dupin, he observed. Now in my opinion, Dupin is a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends' thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour's silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.

Holmes is thereafter drawn into "The Lauriston Garden Mystery" after being approached by Gregson, one of the smartest of the Scotland Yarders. Holmes doesn't think the Scotland Yarders are very smart at all. At one point he suggests that attending the crime scene would good for a laugh, if nothing else.

If you haven't read A Study in Scarlett in a while, you can dash over to Project Gutenberg and catch up now.

Why is it called A Study in Scarlet? Watson encourages Holmes to look into the mystery and later Holmes says to Watson
I might not have gone but for you and so have missed the finest study I ever came across: a study in scarlet, eh? Why shouldn't we use a little art jargon. There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.

This is an excellent mystery upon which to showcase Holmes' talents. the body of a man (Enoch Drebber) has been found in an abandoned house with no sign of injury despite the amount of blood on the floor and the word RACHE (German for revenge) written on the wall in blood. Arriving at the scene, Holmes first appears to wander aimlessly around the exterior looking at nothing in particular. Around the body, however, Holmes makes a minute examination of the corpse and room, takes incomprehensible measurements, examines everything with his magnifying lens, and scoops ash into an envelope. Holmes comes away from the scene of the murder certain how the crime was committed and the appearance of the murderer. Holmes sends a telegram to the U.S. asking the question that Scotland Yard should have asked which nearly completes his investigation. After a second murder takes place - this one of Joseph Stangerson, suspected in the first murder - Holmes has all the information he needs and the murderer is lured to 221B Baker Street and arrested.

The story now makes an abrupt shift in Part II, The Country of the Saints. This is a third person narrative set in Utah in the U.S. Who is telling this story? Jefferson Hope? This gives us the back story and the motivation of the murderer. A man and his adopted daughter (John Lucy Frerrier) are found lost in the desert by a wagon train of Mormons who tell them the only they they will be rescued is if they become Mormons. He agrees and prospers in the new settlement. The daughter falls in love with a non-Morman, Jefferson Hope and they try to flee. Hope becomes separated from the father and daughter who are captured, the father killed,and the daughter forced into marriage. She soon wastes away and dies. Hope vows revenge and follows Drebber and Stangerson after they leave the Mormon community. Hope held Drebber and Stangerson responsible for Lucy's death. Drebber married her and Stangerson killed her father. Doyle reportedly apologized later for the anti-Mormon sentiment of this part of the story.

The story then returns to Watson's narration and Holmes completes the explanation of his deductions.

What are we to conclude about Holmes - brilliant but vain, arrogant in his air of superiority, petty in his scorn for the detectives of Scotland Yard.

Since Holmes has a new and willing audience, the reader is treated to Holmes explaining his methods to an appreciative audience. We see that Holmes is not immune to flattery "My companion flushed up with pleasure at my words and the earnest way in which I uttered them." At the same time Holmes can be a bit peevish . Early in the book he complains that there are no crimes worthy of his brain. Other times he complains that his contribution won't be recognized and that Scotland Yard is going to get the credit.

In chapter VII, The Conclusion, Holmes gives a description of what he means by analytical reasoning
Most people, if you describe a train of events to them, will tell you what the result would be...There are a few people, however, who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were that let up to that result. This power is what I mean when I talk of reasoning backward, or analytically.

Holmes also gives a detailed description of the steps to his reasoning. It is a good chapter to read and is available here through Project Gutenberg.

At the end, Watson tells Holmes that he has the details in his journal assuring him that the public will know who is responsible for solving the crimes. He concludes with this Latin quote

Populus me sibilat, at mihi plaudo Ipse domi simul ac nummos contemplar in arca which means The people hiss at me, but I applaud myself at home, when I contemplate the coins in my strong-box.

Up Next - The Sign of the Four.

Things I want to keep in mind as I read:

  • Does Holmes display a greater general knowledge than Watson credits him with?

  • Does Holmes continue to exhibit his arrogance and disparage the efforts of Scotland Yard?

  • Does Watson continue to be astounded at Holmes' brilliance or is he able to apply Holmes' methods himself?

  • What kind of friendship develops between Holmes and Watson?

  • Is Watson a reliable narrator?

Are there other questions you can suggest?