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ClassicsOnline Home » DOYLE, A.C.: Study in Scarlet (A) (Unabridged)
A Study in Scarlet was the very first Sherlock Holmes novel. Here, in the most remarkably precise manner, Doyle produced two of the most well-known characters in English fiction. Their individual traits and their relationships, their ambitions and foibles are introduced against the backdrop of an exciting story of revenge and persistance, which starts in Victorian England but moves to the American West, and the environment of the early Mormon communities. It is a full novel, and is here read, unabridged in richly characterised style by David Timson. This is the fifth Naxos AudioBooks recording of Sherlock Holmes.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
A Study in Scarlet
Dr. Stamford of
Barts Hospital is one of the unsung heroes of the 19th century. This is not for
any particular medical accomplishment, though, for all we know of him, he may
have become a celebrated surgeon; nor for any lasting service
to the British Empire in its heyday either. Furthermore, he
will not be found in ‘Who’s Who’ or ‘The Dictionary of National Biography’. His
achievement was in the world of literature and lovers of crime literature are
indebted to him the world over. For it was Dr. Stamford of Barts Hospital who,
some time in or around 1881, hit upon the bright idea of introducing his old
friend Dr. John Watson (then in search of lodgings) to Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who
was likewise situated.
"Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," said Stamford
"How are you?" he said cordially, gripping my hand
with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. "You have
been in Afghanistan I perceive…"
And thus, with this relatively insignificant act of
friendship, which probably he never thought of in future years, Stamford set in
motion a sequence of adventures in criminal detection the like of which has
never been equaled in world literature.
Of course ‘Stamford’ is fictitious, and it is to Sir Arthur
Conan Doyle we must give thanks. The writing of fiction proved to be more
satisfactory to Dr. Conan Doyle in Southsea in 1886, than the practice of
medicine. So he determined to put his considerable energies into the creation
of a full-length novel – his first in that genre. It began life as the
awkwardly titled ‘The Tangled Skein’, but during its gestation became ‘A Study
in Scarlet’ and introduced to the world the unforgettable characters of
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
It was no easy birth. Conan Doyle struggled to get the names
of his most famous characters right. Doyle’s notes show he experimented with
‘Sherrinford’ as Holmes’ Christian name. Watson’s first incarnation was as
‘Ormond Sacker’. Perhaps thinking this too eccentric a name for the
down-to-earth character that was developing, he chose plain John Watson
instead, maybe remembering a real doctor of that name with whom he was then
acquainted in Southsea.
The evolution of the name that is now famous the world over
is more complex. The origins of ‘Sherlock’ have been variously attributed to an
Irish name, a well-known cricketer, or even one of Doyle’s old school-friends
at Stonyhurst, a Peter Sherlock. What is more certain is that his surname,
‘Holmes’, was a conscious tribute to the American author Oliver Wendell Holmes
(1809-1894). Doyle never met him, but admired him as a ‘glorious fellow, so
tolerant, so witty, so worldly-wise’.
It is the merging of the unusual Christian name (Sherlock)
commonplace surname (Holmes) that gives us the first clues
about the detective’s personality. Methodical routine analysis on the one hand,
linked with a flash of deductive genius on the other.
Doyle had long enjoyed the Dupin stories of Edgar Alan Poe,
lesser-known detective stories of Gaborieau, but felt he
could improve on
the formula. While training to be a doctor at Edinburgh
University, he had come under the influence of a remarkable man, Dr. Joseph
Bell, a professor of medicine. His insistence that his students observe their
patients minutely before making a diagnosis had stayed in Doyle’s mind. Bell
had made the art of deduction into a science, and it was this scientific
approach to solving crime that Doyle so successfully grafted on to the
creations of Poe and Gaborieau to produce the world’s greatest detective – ‘a
scientific detective who solved cases on his own merits and not through the
folly of the criminal’. Familiar as we are today with fictional detectives
using such methods, this was entirely original in 1886, when the detective
story was in its infancy.
Originality, however, often takes time to be recognized.
Doyle sent his manuscript off to the ‘Cornhill Magazine’ and was met with
rejection. Two other publishers followed suit. A fourth publisher, Ward, Lock
& Co., showed a whiff of interest but declared that ‘cheap fiction’ was
flooding the market just then, and all they were prepared to offer was £25 for
the copyright. It was a blow to the confidence of a developing young writer who
wavered, and considered putting the manuscript back in a drawer, and
concentrating a little more on his medical practice.
With great reluctance Doyle accepted the offer and, as he
said cynically in his autobiography, "I never at any time received another
penny for it".
The novel scarcely caused a ripple when it did eventually
appear. Perhaps this was because it was sandwiched between short stories,
seasonal articles and advertisements in ‘Beeton’s Christmas Annual’ of 1887.
However, it was thought promising enough to be published separately a year
It is a curious novel, as the central character, Holmes,
disappears for a third of the book, when Doyle in a flashback sequence explains
the crime’s origins in America. In this section Doyle adopts the ‘Western’
style of the American writer Bret Harte (1836-1902), but tension and excitement
replace historical and geographical accuracy.
‘Sierra Blanca’ (or Blanco in ‘Study’), for instance, does
exist but is in New Mexico, several hundred miles south of the Mormon territories.
Likewise Doyle’s epic description of the Mormons’ arrival at Salt Lake Valley:
"nigh upon ten thousand", belies the truth of the event.
The first settlement in 1847 was a mere 148 Mormons, though
thousands followed in the months after. Perhaps Conan Doyle would say as he
once said of other discrepancies in his stories: "These little things
It is intriguing to ponder on why Conan Doyle chose to
include a lengthy section illustrating the foundation and habits of the Mormon
state of Utah. The Mormons, properly known as the Latter-Day Saints, had had a
troubled existence since their founder Joseph Smith had received a vision of
the Book of Mormon in New York in 1830. It records the relations of the early
inhabitants of America with God. The Mormon religion rejects the harshness of
Calvinism for a more optimistic creed of free-will and effort for man’s
salvation. Such free-thinking, which included a belief in polygamy, made the
sect unpopular with ordinary Americans, mistrust and violence led them on a
number of occasions to move on and seek a ‘holy land’ for themselves. It was
Brigham Young (1801-1877) who succeeded Joseph Smith as leader, who entered the
valley of Salt Lake with 148 followers, declaring ‘This is the right place’.
Doyle, with an eye for topicality in his stories, reflects
the strong feelings of opposition to the Mormons in America in the late 1880s.
The issue of polygamy had come to a head, and by 1887 (the publication year of A
Study in Scarlet), the U.S. Government succeeded in making the Mormons submit
to the law that made polygamy a crime. Conan Doyle was looking for an American
audience when he wrote this novel and he found one. Sales of the novel in
America when it first appeared were healthier than in Britain.
But Doyle may have had other motives for attacking the
Mormons so viciously in this tale. Since the early 1880s, he had begun to lose
his faith in Roman Catholicism, and was becoming an agnostic. He naturally felt
an aversion therefore to confident religious cults like the Mormons who
retained many traditional Christian values. "The evils of religion",
he said, "have all come from accepting things which cannot be
proved". By 1889, he had ‘laid aside the old charts as useless and had
quite despaired of ever finding a new one which would enable me to steer an
intelligible course.’ This search for faith would encourage him to adopt some
very strange ‘causes’ (including many lost ones), and to settle on the
controversial faith of spiritualism.
Yet perhaps the most remarkable feature of A Study in
Scarlet is that here, in the very first Sherlock Holmes novel, Doyle succeeded
in creating not only a unique and vivid character in the detective himself, but
also the key relationship with Dr. Watson that proved very much a part of the
success of the many subsequent stories.
Notes by David Timson
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DOYLE, A.C.: Study in Scarlet (A) (Unabridged)