Tuesday ’Tec! A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Love, cruelty, murder and revenge…


a study in scarlet 3


The first story Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published, A Study in Scarlet introduces us to his two most famous creations, Sherlock Holmes and Dr John H Watson. So it’s a must for this week’s…


Tuesday Tec


A Study in Scarlet

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Returning to London after being wounded in the war in Afghanistan, Watson soon finds that living in hotels is stretching his army pension to breaking point, so when he hears through a friend of a man who is looking for someone to share a set of rooms, he jumps at the chance. Holmes has some rather strange habits, like beating corpses with sticks to see if they bruise, for example, but otherwise he seems like a decent enough fellow. Watson notices that he has a steady stream of rather odd callers – everyone from police inspectors to pedlars. Out of politeness, Watson doesn’t ask what his new friend’s line of business is, though he wonders. One day, Watson reads an article that Holmes has marked in the newspaper – an article on the Science of Deduction and Analysis in which the writer claims that it is possible to tell a man’s profession from observation alone…

By a man’s finger nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boot, by his trouser knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt cuffs – by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent enquirer in any case is almost inconceivable.

Watson scoffs at the article, with one of those turns of phrase that delight all of us who love him – “What ineffable twaddle!” he cries, only to be stunned when Holmes reveals himself as the author. But he’s even more stunned when a few minutes later Holmes proves that he can indeed tell the occupation of a man who arrives to deliver a message, from Inspector Gregson of Scotland Yard. Now Watson learns that Holmes works as a “consulting detective” and Gregson wants his help with a strange and brutal case of murder. A man has been found dead in an empty house, in a blood-bespattered room, although there is no wound on his body. Holmes and Watson arrive at the scene, and Watson is shocked by what he sees…

On his rigid face there stood an expression of horror, and as it seemed to me, of hatred, such as I have never seen upon human features… I have seen death in many forms, but never has it appeared to me in a more fearsome aspect than in that dark, grimy apartment, which looked out upon one of the main arteries of suburban London.

a study in scarlet 5

And so, the game’s afoot…

* * * * * * *

Like all of the long stories other than The Hound of the Baskervilles, this one is divided into two parts – Holmes’ investigation of the crime narrated by Watson, and a section giving the background to the crime, told in this case in the third-person. The motive for this crime originated in the newly-founded Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City in the 1850s, and the Mormons are portrayed in a distinctly unattractive light, especially on the questions of polygamy and violent coercion of anyone who strayed from the rules of the religion; so over the years the book has apparently been considered offensive in some quarters. The history of the Mormons is a subject about which I know nothing, so can’t make any judgements on the accuracy or otherwise of Conan Doyle’s depiction of them (though wikipedia tells me Conan Doyle himself admitted to a degree of exaggeration). But I can make judgements on the book’s enjoyability as a rollicking good story, and it passes with flying colours! Love, cruelty, murder and revenge – perfect!

There’s something about Conan Doyle’s writing that makes it perfect for the adventure yarn and if I could describe it accurately then everyone would be able to do it (and there wouldn’t be so many bad Holmes’ pastiches in the world). His language isn’t particularly poetic, but there’s an elegance in it and a strength, a lovely use of vocabulary, and a naturalness – it gives a sense of someone telling a story aloud around a fire on a dark night, as of course his stories often would have been. He has the ability to bring any scene to vivid life, whether it’s a blood-soaked room of horror, or the arid desert landscape crossed by the Mormons on the way to their new home…

Looking down from the Sierra Blanco, one sees a pathway traced out across the desert, which winds away and is lost in the extreme distance. It is rutted with wheels and trodden down by the feet of many adventurers. Here and there are scattered white objects that glisten in the sun, and stand out against the dull deposit of alkali. Approach, and examine them! They are bones: some large and coarse, others smaller and more delicate. The former have belonged to oxen, and the latter to men.

The Mormon Trek to Utah
The Mormon Trek to Utah

In this first Holmes story Conan Doyle establishes his two characters, and it’s surprising how little they change really over time. Watson’s character as the loyal friend and brave lieutenant to his brilliant colleague is exactly as he remains throughout the series. There are some things that don’t quite gel with the later Holmes – the idea that he reads detective fiction, for example, and his own description of himself as lazy, with almost Mycroftian tendencies to let the investigation come to him. But these are minor, and the passage about detective fiction is there to allow Conan Doyle to tip his hat to Poe’s Dupin – though with his usual modesty Holmes doesn’t think much of his predecessor…

“Now, in my opinion, Dupin was 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.”

Ah, my dear Holmes! Those of us who have read all your adventures avidly again and again can’t help remembering that this is a trick you will play on poor Watson yourself in the future… but much more entertainingly than Dupin ever did!


A great story from a master storyteller, with added interest in seeing how the Holmes phenomenon began. One to read again and again and…


* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Book 15
Book 15

52 thoughts on “Tuesday ’Tec! A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

  1. I’ve always particularly liked this story, FictionFan. As you say, the writing style is uniquely Doyle, no question about it. And it does draw the reader in. I also like the backstory we get on how Holmes and Watson met. As to the deduction/investigation part, I like the way Doyle took what could have been an outlandish pair of murders and made them credible. That takes a deft hand.

    • I had never really thought of it as being his first published story before, but it’s amazingly accomplished and his style is already fully formed. I love with the long stories that you get both an investigation and an adventure story – and this is such a great crime, so imaginative. And already shows that sense of justice that makes the stories so enjoyable…

  2. So, out of curiosity, how many times have you read this? Oh, and I do love that font. You almost make me want to read it. But the ‘love’ part is frightening.

    Now, that mustache is something, you must admit. I wonder how Brock Lesnar would look without one. Or Jason Statham. I might glue one on, I”m thinking.

    • Hmm… probably ten at least, maybe more! *imagines the Professor fainting* Thank you! *smiles* The love part is only small – it’s mostly about revenge! I don’t understand why you don’t like ACD – he seems the most Professorial writer in the world to me. I’m befuddled…

      *laughs* I might even let you have a moustache like that – it’s a real work of art! But think how long you’d have to spend each morning training it into shape…

      • Ten times! No, but I am impressed. Doesn’t it get boring? He seems professorish… Let me see, what did I read from him. Oh yes! White Company! That’d be enough to kill anyone, except if you’re from the 40’s. Bad first impression, see.

        Nah, I bet he just gets up and it looks like that. After all, if you have to work for that, it’s not worth it much.

  3. I loved reading A Study in Scarlet as it was a great introduction to Holmes and Watson but also a good detective story. The Sign of Four is my favourite Sherlock Holmes book. 🙂

    • It’s incredibly good for a first story – introductions to characters usually slow them down, but he manages to let us get to know Holmes and Watson and tell a cracking good tale at the same time. The Hound of the Baskervilles will always be my favourite though…

    • Haha! Glad to hear it’s not just mine then! 😉 I love the Holmes stories as you can probably tell! They’re great for when you just want to relax into an exciting story – he’s such a natural storyteller. If you do get around to this one, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it…

  4. Very gratifying to see this graceful and sincere review of this story, and of Holmes and his literary creator. It is almost a lost art, this style of reviewing, and so I am glad that you practice it.

    I well remember reading this story. My parents had first bought for me “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” which contained that set of shorter stories. And then they got me “The Complete Sherlock Holmes,” which I still have. And this was the first story in the book. I had not read anything quite like this, with that unexpected interlude/prologue, taking us from London to Salt Lake City. I did not quite know what to make of it. I thought that maybe this was another story altogether, until, near the end of that interlude, I grasped it, in a kind of young boy’s literary epiphany. Doyle is so masterful a storyteller, that the interlude is actually as interesting as the framing story with Holmes. He was able to do that again in “The Valley of Fear,” telling us about the Molly Maguires, although from what I later realized was a British Tory viewpoint. And of course again in “The Sign of Four,” thought that was a narrative being told to Holmes by a main character. The ability to imagine and recreate a completely different world from that in which the story is set, is quite remarkable, and it is done in almost poetic fashion, as you say.

    I have never forgotten “A Study in Scarlet,” as amid the detection, there is an anguish here which is palpable. The fact that I, having read it perhaps twice, as a boy, can remember much of it so well, is a testament to Doyle’s imaginative skills, and of course the power of Holmes as an iconic fictional character who became about as real as any fictional character ever has been.

    I must also add my distinctly personal opinion that virtually every single one of the modern Holmes “pastiches” as you call them; copies, bootstrapping, self-indulgent or greedy attempts to capitalize on someone else’s creation, as I call them, is junk. Create your own characters, Mr. Moffat, and everyone else who has indulged in this, rather than lark about turning Holmes and Watson into something which Doyle never made them. Someone told me in disagreement that a character must evolve along with the times so as to not become stale. To which I say, “Ineffable twaddle!.” Holmes is Holmes; the stories are set in one of the most atmospheric periods in history; Holmes and Watson have a charming gallantry in regard to trying to help those whom circumstances have put in some kind of mysterious distress. They are not idealized characters, but they are characters whom one always roots for, even as one eagerly follows the clues and the chase. Anyone who belittles or even mocks this, by making Holmes something he never was, is simply attempting to lessen the power of the character and his setting, by infecting them with the maladies of the modern age. There is a place for that, of course, but not by trying to cut towering imaginative creations down to size, because you think it will sell like all the other self-mocking, snarky, and jokey fictional nonsense we are subjected to.

    • Aw, thank you, William! 🙂

      I can’t quite remember what age I was – nine or ten, I think – when I got a copy of the complete Holmes, also from my parents, and I still have it too – battered and shabby, but still loved! When I was a kid I enjoyed the short stories more but my appreciation for the long ones has grown steadily over the years and I think I now prefer them. I just find it amazing that this was his first published story – many authors write all their lives without achieving something so mature. Yes, his stories are always emotional, but never in that mawkish way. His heroes are strong men driven by passion, usually passion for justice – hmm, you can see that I think the murderer in this one is actually a hero!

      I can cope with some of the pastiches – I think Anthony Horowitz has come close to getting the Watsonian style – but a lot of them are just dire, trying to cash in on a successful ‘franchise’. And as for the modernisations… why? I feel if I was ‘creative’ I’d want to create my own original characters that people might still want to read about in a hundred years, rather than just using someone else’s. But we’re clearly in the minority – films and TV versions have been hugely successful, and so have some of the books. Oh well – at least I don’t have to watch/read them!

  5. For a moment I thought Sir Arthur Conan Doyle worked at Starbucks. Is this the man responsible for bringing that mustache back? How much twist-time do you think was involved in his morning routine?

    • Haha! He could have that as a fallback career if his writing doesn’t take off! It’s a classic, isn’t it? Hercule Poirot must have been sooo jealous! Yes, it’s funny how the Punchy Family seem to be drawn to the moustache – I’m sure that must say something… about something… 😉

  6. I’ve got this one on my TBR to help meet my 2015 Reading Challenge. I really love Sherlock Holmes, but I’ve actually only read The Hound of the Baskervilles and two short stories.

    • You’re lucky, ‘cos that means you’ve got all the rest still to read for the first time! I’m jealous! If you loved The Hound I think you’ll love this one too – he’s such a great storyteller – enjoy! 🙂

    • They really stand up so well to re-reading – I loved it all over again, as you could tell! Hope you enjoy The Valley just as much – it’s a while since I read it, must try to fit it in soon… 🙂

    • It’s a great one, especially considering it was his first. I read and re-read the Holmes stories all through my teens, and still dip in and out of them regularly. What a writer! 🙂

    • I always love re-reading the Holmes stories – it’s like putting on a pair of comfy slippers! But I’m still stunned by how amazingly good it is for a first outing – I’d never have guessed he’d had nothing published before.

    • Yes, both ACD and Dickens have that real read-aloud quality to them – I sometimes wonder if they read them aloud to themselves as they went along. I love when they use those phrases like “Approach, and examine them!” – it makes you feel as if you’re there. Don’t know if a writer could get away with it now…

  7. Great review. As you know, I know these stories almost off by heart, and can quote great chunks of them, so the idea that someone could be reading them for the first time is an almost surreal one to me. If I had to pick a favourite “long” it would be The Valley of Fear, and of the “shorts” The Man With the Twisted Lip – the first one I ever read: I think I was about 8.

    • Thank you! I know – but wouldn’t it be great to be able to read them again for the first time? Though I like the comfiness of knowing them so well too. It’s still The Hound for me, though I enjoyed this a lot, and for shorts – so many, but The Dancing Men still wins for the fun of trying to solve the code – that’s one I would like to remember less well…

  8. I can’t think of many modern writers whose stories would stand up to being read aloud or ‘told by firelight,’ except for some children’s books. I can’t go past The Hound of the Baskervilles though, the nightmares I had after reading that as a child!

    • I know – that real storytelling tradition seems to have died, except maybe for a few fantasy writers, like Gaiman or maybe Aimee Bender. Ha! Yes – that hound is responsible for a lot of sleepless nights, I think… 🙂

    • Indeed! Winter nights by the fire and candle-light (and a reading lamp for those of us whose eyes would need so many candles it would risk a second Great Fire of London…)

      • Ah, but with the Kindle Voyage you CAN just have that single candle and the Voyage will provide the rest of the light and leave the Fire Brigade peacefully snoozing and not summoned to an emergency reader callout

        • True! But don’t you feel that reading aloud by the fire requires a large hardback version complete with illustrations – so that the reader can show them round… Hmm… I may start up a Reading by the Fireside Club – wanna join?

          • I should LOVE to. I assume there will be chocolate, there will be toasted crumpets with savoury relish and cheese, toasted teacakes with jam, whisky and red wine, deep chairs and sofas with an excellent supply of cushions, blankets for those in the baronial hall who make not get QUITE close enough to the fire for toastiness, and a cat for every lap.

            (I don’t require much, do I) I’ve booked my ticket North. Snow, hail and thunder, outside, a scudding moon, a sky full of stars are required, and London just doesn’t have the darkness anymore. Anyway, I only have central heating and no fireplaces. I will happily go out and gather kindling if you provide all the rest

            • Mmm… I’m liking this idea more and more! We must make sure we retain control of the reading list – copious Dickens, of course, the darker Holmes stories, Dark Matter… and we’ll throw in a bit of Wilkie Collins just for you! And we’ll invite Derek Jacobi along to do the reading…

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