Books, How's This Book?, Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four (How’s This Book?)

Sherlock Holmes. The king of the mystery genre. His stories have thrilled audiences for well over a hundred years now. He has starred in dozens of literary stories, movies, TV shows, and even his fair share of video games. Few characters have stood the test of time quite like the unstoppable detective and his companion, Dr. John Watson. These two characters have lasted and will continue to last for ages.

I adore Sherlock Holmes. He’s one of my favorite fictional characters! No other character that I can think of is as well developed and human as he is. He feels so real in fact that it feels wrong to say that he isn’t! His personality, as well as his numerous adventures, are so captivating that it feels like a lie to call them mere fiction.

But I must confess: I have never read any of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. Growing up, I was introduced to the legendary detective through films, TV, and modern stories written by modern authors. Never once have I read the very first Sherlock Holmes stories, written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Until today.

Today, I’m going to review the first two Sherlock Holmes stories. I am doing two because each one is very short, though the story is so densely packed and well-written that they’re as satisfying as a novel of double their length. Plus, it gives me an excuse to talk more about Sherlock Holmes than I’d be able to with just one.

The game is on! Let’s begin!

Plot: There Be a Murder on Our Hands!

If you expected anything else from a Sherlock Holmes story then I don’t know what to tell you.

‘A Study in Scarlet’, the first Sherlock Holmes story, begins with the first meeting of Dr. Watson and the titular detective. After becoming flatmates, Watson discovers Sherlock’s work as a, quote, ‘Consulting Detective’, the first and only of its kind. When Sherlock is brought in to investigate a strange murder, Watson accompanies him to observe his supposed skills in action. On the scene, they find a dead body with no clear injuries and the word ‘Rache’ written in blood on the wall. After some investigation, Sherlock finds and arrests the culprit.

In ‘The Sign of Four’, Sherlock and John are approached by Mary, a gorgeous young woman whom John immediately falls in love with. She has been summoned by a stranger to collect a treasure that she is apparently owed, and she wants Sherlock and John to accompany her. When they head to the manor to collect their supposed prize, however, they discover that a man has been murdered and the jewels have been stolen. Sherlock and Watson leap into action, launching a chase that lasts multiple days. Eventually, Sherlock leads the police to the culprits and stop them, though the jewels are lost forever. John and Mary get together and the story ends with a nice little bow on top.

Narratively speaking, both of these stories are solid. The pacing is absolutely perfect, with each event flowing into the next beautifully. Every detail is captivating, as it makes you the reader wonder if that is the one detail that will solve the whole puzzle. The characters are all likable and interesting, especially the amazing Sherlock Holmes and the lovable John Watson.

Now, I do have a pretty major issue with ‘A Study in Scarlet’. See, with that one, the story just kind of… ends. Like, Sherlock brings in the culprit, cuffs him, he and John, along with two detectives, struggle to take him down, and then it just stops. No falling action, no ‘how did he do it’, hell, we don’t even know who he is, aside from his name! They capture him, then the story just stops! Sure, if you really think about all the details it starts to make sense. But it gives the plot an unsatisfactory ending.

Luckily, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle seemed to learn from that, because there is no such issue in ‘The Sign of Four’. But it’s a damn shame, because ‘A Study in Scarlet’ was so incredibly interesting and engaging right until the end! If it didn’t fall flat on its face, it may very well be my favorite Sherlock Holmes story!

Oh well. I guess ‘The Sign of Four’ will take the position instead.

Voice: Beauty Behind the Curve

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has a beautiful creative voice. He has a knack for putting in a ton of detail, any number of which could be crucial to solving the mystery. His dialogue, even at its wordiest, is all a joy to listen to, perfectly capturing that character’s personality while still being interesting and important to the case at hand. Putting Watson as the narrator was a stroke of genius, as we see Sherlock Holmes through the lens of an awe-struck admirer, which makes it easier to become one ourselves.

Unfortunately, Doyle was a man of the 19th century. And as such, his ideals and moral beliefs are a bit… old fashioned. This wouldn’t be a problem, had they not bled into his work. But they did. And here we are.

Across both ‘A Study in Scarlet’ and ‘The Sign of Four’, there is quite a bit of casual racism and sexism. One of the villains in ‘The Sign of Four’, a black man from a less well-off country, is literally described as a monstrous demon in his appearance, with his skin color very often coming into play. All of the street children are described as Arabs or some other ethnic race, and the only person who seems not to be disgusted by their presence is Sherlock, who uses them to assist in his cases. Mary has no organic reason for falling in love with Watson and simply does so because ‘That’s what women do, right? They fall head over heels for a strong and kind man because he is strong and kind, even if they’ve only known him a day and know little about him!’ Other women in the story are treated about the same way, being regulated to roles as simple maids or servants.

Thankfully, Sir Conan Doyle would partially redeem his more sexist choices in words with a later Sherlock Holmes story. Specifically with the character of Ms. Irene Adler. But I’m not talking about that story today.

Still, racist and sexist or not, Sir Conan Doyle knew how to spin an excellent tale! Sure, he wouldn’t have been invited to Michelle Obama’s birthday party. But his creative voice makes Sherlock Holmes an absolute delight to listen to.

Conclusion

While I do have my narrative problems with ‘A Study in Scarlet’ and my issues with Sir Conan Doyle’s old-fashioned way of thinking, I cannot deny the delight I took in reading these stories! I was completely gripped from beginning to end, eagerly wondering what would happen next, who the culprit was, and most importantly: how was Sherlock Holmes going to solve it? I honestly had a hard time being critical because I was so engaged!

If it’s hard to do my job, that means the media is doing a really good job. Or a really bad job.

I’d highly recommend reading these two Sherlock Holmes stories. They’re both an important part of classic literature, as they are the starting point to the most iconic character in the mystery genre. I absolutely adored them from beginning to end, and they’ve sent me on a spiraling plummet through the rabbit hole that is Sherlock Holmes.

Dig me out after I’ve read ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’.

10 thoughts on “Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four (How’s This Book?)”

  1. I agree with you criticism of A Study in Scarlet’s abrupt ending. I also feel like the sequence where the culprit explained his motivations was overly long.

    The Hound of the Baskervilles is my favourite Holmes novel! I’m excited to hear what you think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That one was a lot of fun. Even among the huge catalog of Sherlock Holmes stories, the League of Red-Headed Gentlemen is especially unique and interesting. I might get around to reviewing that one some time soon…

      Liked by 1 person

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