Saturday, 3 August 2019

#CBR11 Book 59: "A Study in Scarlet" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Page count: 124 pages
Rating: 3.5 stars

#CBR11 Book Club: Classics

Spoiler Warning! There WILL be mild spoilers for the plot of this story (which is from 1887, so you know, if you wanted to know the details, you've had enough time to look them up or just read the damn story). This is also the Cannonball Book Club selection for August, so I'm going to assume that most people who are interested in participating will read the book before then. If, however, you have NOT read the book yet, maybe skip this review until you have done the required reading. Proceed at your own risk.

So, for those, who like me, have never actually read A Study in Scarlet (I know I'm not the only one), a brief summary of the plot: Doctor John Watson is injured on service in Afghanistan and honourably discharged with a pension. Because he doesn't have a ton of money to live on, he requires someone to share a lodging with. A friend introduces him to the rather peculiar Sherlock Holmes, who for all his strange interests seems to be a perfectly fine living companion.

It turns out that Mr Holmes is a consulting detective, and will solve cases for people using the method of deduction. He usually only needs to hear the particulars of a case from the people who come to see him to solve their little problems, and this is how he supports himself. He is very proud of his intellect and proves to Watson that his methods are sound. Watson accompanies Holmes when he is approached by the police in a strange murder case.

A man has been found in an abandoned building. There is blood on the floor, but none of it is from the victim. The victim has not been robbed, he has all his money and valuables and there is even a woman's wedding band by the corpse. There are no signs of a struggle, but in a different room of the house from where the corpse was found, someone has scrawled "Rache" on the wall in blood. The two detectives on the case each have different theories. Holmes is smugly certain that he will solve the mystery easily for them, yet the two policemen will get all the credit from the authorities and public.

Within three days of first visiting the scene of the crime, Holmes has proven to Watson that his methods work brilliantly, and the murderer is in police custody (after having been lured to Watson and Holmes' lodgings). Watson, furious that his friend will not get proper credit, decides to write down and publish their adventure.

When we voted for book club this time, I voted for Jane Eyre. It came second, and this won out instead. I have never actually read any of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, and I don't even entirely know why. I love Victorian-set novels featuring lady sleuths, I tend to very much enjoy the modern TV and movie adaptations about one of the most famous literary detectives of all time, and I have even read a number of modern YA retellings. Yet, I seem to have convinced myself that the original source material would be dull and probably rather objectionable, owing to the sexism, racism, the belief in the superiority of the British Empire and so forth.

As it turns out, I was both correct and incorrect in my assumptions. For much of this story, I was a lot more entertained than I was expecting to be. While I have not seen the first episode of the BBC Sherlock series, A Study in Pink, for many years (the one starring Cumberbatch and Freeman), I have seen it enough times that I remembered the major plot beats. It was fun to see what the modern adaptation had chosen to keep from the source material, and which things were entirely different.

I will say that I actually thought the motive of the murderer was WAY better in A Study in Scarlet than in Moffatt's modernised TV adaptation. Can't really say that I was super happy about the fridging of a young lady (I am never going to be), but you have to respect the drive, tenacity and determination of a guy who is so sworn to vengeance and retribution that he spends the next twenty years of his life, and chases the guilty over quite a lot of two continents, refusing to give up, even when his own health is at risk. The method and elaborate staging of the crime scene, especially of the first murder, is also very well done.

What I didn't like so much was the incredibly clunky change of pace in the second half of the novel, when our intrepid investigators have in fact caught their man, and the novel decides to take the reader on an extended, slow and not all that interesting flash back to America, containing a rather ludicrous and false portrayal of Mormonism. It seems that Conan Doyle later in life admitted that he had been misled about the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, and he may also have issued an apology, but to a modern reader, it still smacks of poor research and unfortunate sensationalism (which is exactly the sort of thing I was worried about when reading something written by a man in the late 19th Century - their views were certainly not progressive or open-minded).

I don't think the structure of the book benefits from having an extended and drawn-out flashback for five out of the book's fourteen chapters, just as the story is getting really exciting. Especially when so much of what is relayed in those chapter is just patently false misinformation about a religious faith not that many of the readers in the United Kingdom necessarily knew all that much about at the time of the book's publication. Having a bit of the murderer's back story explored helps to understand his motive, but we didn't need a full third of the book devoted to this, one chapter would have been more than enough.

In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by this reading experience. It also doesn't hurt that the winning book for book club ended up being about a quarter of the length of the book I voted for. While it would have been nice to have an excuse to re-read Jane Eyre again, I'm not at all sorry I was finally pushed out of my comfort zone to read this - and I may in fact seek out some of the shorter (and hopefully slightly better structured Sherlock Holmes stories) in the future.

After reading this, it's was also amusing to discover that while neither of the Guy Ritchie movies (with Robert Downey Jr as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson) are based directly on the Conan Doyle stories, Downey Jr's portrayal of the detective may be the closest to what Holmes is like in the source material. Both he and Cumberbatch's characters spend a fair amount of time deducing, something Johnny Lee Miller's Holmes from what the husband and I have dubbed The Adventures of Mr. Elementary and Joan (because it really is more of a mystery of the week procedural with private detectives rather than a plausible adaptation of Sherlock Holmes - no one spends any time deducing, and they just do a lot of actual investigating). Reading this did make me want to catch up on the recent seasons that we're behind on, which isn't a bad thing, in itself.

Judging a book by its cover: Since it was originally published in the late 19th Century, this book has had a wide variety of covers over the years. This is from one of the Penguin editions, and features magnifying glasses and measuring tapes, both of which Sherlock Holmes frequently employs during his thorough searches of crime scenes.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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