“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” – Sherlock Holmes
I’ve read a few Sherlock Holmes stories in the past, including some earlier this year, and of course I’ve seen some of the television adaptations (who hasn’t?). I really wanted to see how it all started however, and having recently purchased The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes, I decide to turn to the first page and read A Study in Scarlet. Most of the Sherlock Holmes cases are short stories, but Conan Doyle wrote four Holmes novels as well, and that’s how he introduces his famous detective – though at only around 100 pages, this would be definitely in the novella category if written today.
Conan Doyle wrote A Study in Scarlet in just 3 weeks, and after many rejections it was published in Beeton’s Christmas Album for 1887. The author was paid £25 for full rights to the story, after they wouldn’t give him royalties. It didn’t attract much reader interest at the time, and now the annual is very rare and collectible, with only 11 copies surviving.
While today Sherlock Holmes is one of the most well known fictional characters, when A Study in Scarlet was first published, no one had heard of him or his detecting prowess. Who better therefore to introduce him to the world than his soon to be sidekick and companion, Dr Watson? Part 1 of the book is headed up ‘Being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H Watson, M.D., late of the army medical department’. Watson begins the story on campaign in India, before becoming injured and quickly returning to the UK. In search of somewhere cheap to live, following an introduction from a mutual acquaintance, he ends up sharing an apartment with Holmes, and quickly becomes curious about this rather interesting fellow. Soon, he accompanies Holmes on his first case, a mysterious dead body in an abandoned house.
After relating their first meeting, the case proceeds in a similar fashion throughout the rest of Part One, with Holmes coming up with various clever deductions and convinced he knows what’s happened. Then ends part one, and in the second part the reader is thrust half a world away to the Great Plains of America, and a man on his daughter on the verge of death from hunger, thirst and exposure. You know this links with the rest of the story, but for a quite a while you have no idea how, and it is a good story in its own right. Then finally, we end up back in London for Holmes to solve the case.
It was great to see the beginning of the Sherlock Holmes series, and I found myself enjoying this story a lot. For me, a lot of what makes crime fiction great is the characters, and although the Sherlock Holmes stories aren’t known for in depth characterisation, I do like the interplay between Holmes and Watson, so I did like seeing this in its infancy. I always see short stories as a tasty snack, in between longer reads, but this story provided more of a substantial literary meal, more meat on the bones that a normal Sherlock Holmes short story. I enjoyed the more fleshed out backstory to the crime which the longer format allowed. I also found the quality of the writing excellent, particularly contrasting it with one or two more modern crime stories I’ve read recently where the plot was good, but the writing just okay. This book highlighted, in case I didn’t know already, that Conan Doyle isn’t just good at coming up with ingeniously clever cases, he really can write too.
All in all, this was a great short detective novel, and a fitting start to one of the greatest series in detective fiction. After this, I’ll definitely be reading more Sherlock Holmes, and intend to work my way through the complete collection.
A Study in Scarlet in Film & TV
When I really like a story, I like to see if there’s a television or film adaptation I can watch. If it is a famous story, then there usually is, and I thought there must be several in a case such as this. Surprisingly though, that is not the case. It was originally filmed during the author’s lifetime, as a silent movie in 1914. Sherlock Holmes was played by James Bragington, an accountant who worked as an actor part time. He was picked because he looked very similar to illustrations of Holmes sketches published with the stories. Strangely, a short film was made in America around the same time and released the following day, starring Francis Ford (the older brother of famous American film director John Ford). Both of these films are now lost films, as no recordings survive. There was also a 1933 film starring Reginald Owen as Sherlock Holmes, but the plot of the film bears no relation to the novel.
So that’s it for films, what about TV? The most famous of Sherlock Holmes TV adaptations is the 1980s British TV series starring Jeremy Brett. However A Study in Scarlet is one of the stories not adapted for TV in this series. For a TV series we have to go back to the 1960s, when it was included as one of the stories in the TV adaptation starring Peter Cushing. So I may just have to check this out.
I am at first disappointed that there isn’t much in the way of TV or film adaptations of this story, given its importance, but on second thoughts I think it is rather a good thing. Many people will know Sherlock Holmes from the more recent TV series, from which this story is missing. I can therefore heartily recommend this as a story they probably haven’t come across if they’ve not already read the book.