Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Study In Scarlet

Trying to read "A Study In Scarlet" cold, without any sort of preconceived notion of who Sherlock Holmes is and his place in literary history is difficult. He has impacted our popular subconscious, one of the most popular and enduring fictional characters of all time.

Yet, that is what I set out to do. I couldn't erase from my memory the accumulated baggage and legends, but I could try to see it with fresh eyes, to see what does show up and what does not. Plus, it has been years since I read the original tale, much of it long forgotten.

What might first strike an uninitiated reader is the relative youth of the characters. After all, almost all portrayals of Holmes and Watson have been by men in their middle ages, and in Watson's case, often quite a bit past it. However, this story is set around 1880-81 judging by some references and we have a specific year of 1878 as when Watson finished medical school and went to the battlefields of Afghanistan as a doctor. After he is invalidated out and is back in London, he is introduced to Holmes through Stamford, a man that served as an assistant or "dresser" back in his medical school days. Stamford is apparently still a student and Holmes is portrayed as being some kind of student, taking all manner of courses though for what trade is a mystery to all. Logically, this would place Watson as being a few years older than both Stamford and Holmes but all under thirty. After Holmes & Watson move into their digs at 221-B Baker Street there is no more mention of Holmes attending University or making use of their laboratories for his experiments.

In this early story, Watson is portrayed as being somewhat sickly, recovering from his experiences in Afghanistan and specifically, the bullet wound in his left shoulder.

Holmes is described as being hawk-nosed, tall and thin (making him seem even taller). His knowledge is both singular and widely encompassing as his studies are exclusive to his chosen profession. Holmes is a study in contradictions. While he knows a lot concerning poisons, history, anatomy, paper types, ashes, chemistry, etc, his knowledge of current literature, politics and astronomy are all but completely lacking as put forth in this first novel. He already shows his vanity and flair for theatrics while coolly dismissing the amazement of others at what is almost second nature to him in way of observations. He both desires recognition and acclaim for his prowess but does not personally want to call attention to himself. In this he is like all of us, desiring most of all that others will recognize the greatness in us on their own. One can practically see him growing frustrated daily by Watson's clumsy attempts at trying to figure him out until Holmes finally comes clean as to what his profession really is, what he's capable of.

It should also be noted that until this adventure, Holmes is more of an armchair detective. The cases come to him and he gives advice on their resolution. He's not really a private detective. He means what he says when he calls his profession is that of a "consulting detective". Also, present in this book but not often touched upon is Holmes uses precedence in solving crimes. He relies on his knowledge of past crimes in order to solve current ones, that almost anything a criminal thinks he has come up with, someone else has done it first. So clues to a current crime can be solved by looking at past ones. There is an irony in this that will be born out in the future, as most of his laments are how unimaginative criminals are, that there is nothing new under the sun. However, here he delights in how his knowledge of the past helps him in the present.

Other notable inclusions are
-the Baker Street Irregulars: though not called this by name in the first story, Holmes fondness and use of the street urchins figure heavily in the resolution of the story. After establishing that Holmes has a squad of them, Doyle has Holmes chastising them for showing up en masse and that from then on, to send only Wiggins up.
-Inspector Lestrade: Described as rat faced and beady eyed, the Inspector that is the most familiar to readers and fans of Holmes in other media is there from the start.
-Inspector Gregson: Tall and flaxen haired, Gregson will appear in several stories. He and Lestrade are described as being ambitious and bitter rivals and the best of the lot of the official police.
-The magnifying glass. One of the objects most identified with Holmes to the point of becoming an essential item of any parody of the character, Holmes does make use of it in this first story.
-The violin. Another object closely associated with Holmes. Holmes is portrayed as being able to play extremely well and able to play popular and classical pieces, though he often plays no notable tune as if he uses playing the violin for meditating and organizing his thoughts. Through the violin, Holmes shows a marked interest and appreciation for music, one of his few interests that otherwise have no bearing on his chosen profession.
-Here Holmes casually dismisses those that came before him, specifically Edgar Allen Poe's Dupin and Gaboriau's Lecoq.

Most notable missing references are:
-Mrs. Hudson: at least by name. There is mention of a landlady but she's not named. Likewise there's a mention of both "a servant" and "the maid" so there's at least two servants also in the house.
-drug use: this is interesting in that there are a couple of references to Holmes' moods and even Watson being at first concerned that drugs were involved but which he subsequently is able to rule out.

Also, of minor interest is Holmes making reference to the old "heads I win, tails you lose" game. A phrase that apparently goes further back than I would have thought and imparting a bit of humor into the story.

Modern sensibilities also stand a good chance at being offended when in order to prove a pill is poison, Holmes and Watson try it out on an old and ailing dog that just happens to be hanging around the flat. I'm not sure which is more shocking, that Watson hadn't come up with a kind way to put the dog out of its misery earlier or the rather casual off-hand acceptance of using it as an experiment to prove a lethal and potentially very painful poison. Dramatic, yes. But, surely there were better ways to get a chemical analysis.

Doyle has a lot of ground to cover in this story. He has to introduce his narrator, have him meet the hero, set up the hero's abilities and reason for getting involved in the plot and then tell the story. A Study in Scarlet is not really much of a mystery as it is a crime story to showcase Holmes' particular talents and peculiarities. The mystery is pretty much given away that right before Holmes reveals the who and why behind the murders and the how of his solving the case that the story stops for an extensive flashback.

This comes quite a bit out of left field, especially for those not well versed in such story stylings. Nowadays, it would be nigh a high crime to start a story with a first person narrator, to hold it through almost the whole story only to have a large section, almost as large as the rest of the story be a third person narrative flashback. Doyle (and most mystery writers) make extensive use of flashbacks as the detective or villain narrates the story behind the crime to the readers. However, there is no pretense at that here. It is of an omniscient third person telling until the end of the chapter. At the end of this chapter, the last sentence has Doyle himself interjecting into the narrative with "As to what occurred there, we cannot do better than quote the old hunter's own account, as duly recorded in Dr. Watson's Journal, to which we are already under such obligations." With which, the story transitions back to Watson's 1st person account.

However, reading older fiction, especially of this era and earlier, such transitions are not unusual. Moby Dick for example has several different narrative styles, including something more akin to a play than a novel. The gothic horror novel The Monk has a longish section in the middle as a previously minor character tells a complex and involved story of the "Bleeding Nun" and involving the Wandering Jew.

This section also serves as an odd turn in that until then, the mystery is rather prosaic and routine other than involving murder. The scene shifts from the streets of London to several decades earlier in the desert of America and involving the Mormons relocating to Utah and the very historical and real figure of Brigham Young! What started as an ordinary story has become something with more complex and exotic underpinnings. It is not hard to imagine that this fanciful and more lurid turn may have factored into why Doyle having trouble finding a publisher for the story at the time. There is something almost cheap and "penny dreadful" with this section, the Mormons starting off seemingly benign but becoming more and more sinister as it progresses, with their own secret police (compared to the Inquisition among others) that root out troublemakers and those that don't follow their practices, especially of polygamy.

Again, this is not really out of place concerning the time. In addition to The Monk, there was a subset of fantastical gothic stories concerning Catholicism and the un-natural aspects of the lifestyle of monasteries, monks and nuns, imparting all sorts of hidden rituals, deviances, and secret societies. So, it should come as no surprise that an English protestant might take the same point of view of the Mormons and their polygamy, especially based on published writings at that time even from one of Brigham Young's many wives decrying the practice.

What really leaves a bad taste in the mouth is the double standard and holier than thou attitude of the Victorian outlook towards women that this implies contained in the very same novel. Much of this section deals with a girl named Lucy. Originally, she and her adoptive father are rescued from certain death in the desert by the Mormons as long as they adopt their beliefs. Years later when it's time for her to marry a Mormon, to become one of their members' harems, she and her father flee, helped by an outsider she has fallen in love with. The preordained end has her taken back to the settlement and her boyfriend who has risked all to try to kidnap her when she was single (and presumably virginal), risks more in heading back only to give the whole thing up when he finds she has already been married off just the previous day. Instead of trying to rescue her again from a loveless marriage, he just goes to the mountains to live while swearing eventual revenge. No rationale is given for this. He does not act until after Lucy dies just a month later, having lost the will to live in this godless arrangement. So much is built around how capable and unswervingly single-minded the guy is, that to modern sensibilities it is shocking just how quickly he gives up on Lucy. The fact is that in this time period, she'd be a marked and fallen woman, no longer a virgin, she is immediately lost to him. Yet, he is willing to spend decades, wreck his health and cross the ocean to kill those who stole her from him. It's no longer really about her but what they did to him.

On the whole, an interesting read. A lot of the elements associated with Holmes are present in this first story. However, it's also quite a bit different from what one would expect as a standard Holmes mystery and is very much a story of its time.

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