It begins as part of the memoirs of Dr Watson, told as if it was real. Throughout the story, for all we know it is a true recounting of something that really happened.
Watson is back from the wars and looking for somewhere to live and takes a flat with Holmes, after being impressed by their first meeting in which Holmes deduces Watson’s military experiences from the tiniest of clues. Holmes continually amazes Watson with his deductions and scientific knowledge, as well as his ignorance about culture.
Barely having had time to get acquainted with one another, Holmes is called to the scene of the murder by Inspector Lestrade, and Watson accompanies him. Holmes investigates the murder scene, formulates some theories which he keeps to himself, interviews some witnesses, and set a clever trap for the murderer. Employing the assistance of the Baker Street Irregulars, a group of homeless children Holmes often employs to help him, he catches the murderer. The killer then insists on telling his story, giving his reasons for murdering. This account actually takes up the bulk of the book.
In Utah, USA, where the murderer, Jefferson Hope, had lived as a settler for some time, he had fallen in love with a girl who was part of a Mormon colony. As a result of his efforts to relocate the girl and her father so that he could marry her, they are followed by Mormon avengers. They kidnap the girl and kill her father. Hope finds the girl, but complications have arisen and she dies. In his quest for revenge he pursues those responsible for their deaths. They flee to London, where he catches up with them and kills them, putting him on the wrong side of Sherlock Holmes and a murder charge.
As the debut story of Sherlock Holmes this story introduces us to all the familiar elements: his partnership with Dr Watson, Mrs Hudson the housekeeper, his amazing detection and deduction skills, and the murders which are his bread-and-butter.
Such is the skill of Conan Doyle as a writer that it never feels like he’s finding his feet. The story is mature and fleshed out, Holmes and Watson seeming to be real people with real history rather than characters created to tell a story.
The story deals in what must have seemed a very unkind way with this fringe religious sect, The Latter-Day Saints. Conan Doyle paints them as people so fiercely protective of their religion and ways that they will resort to kidnap and murder. There are stories of Mormon death squads in the 19th century pursuing those who would depart from the faith, dealing out frontier justice. Conan Doyle must have been familiar with these stories. The Mormon Church, of course, denies them. It was a bold criticism of the then small religion, but in Conan Doyle’s day I suppose the Mormons were far away and seemed unlikely to even know about his story, let alone object to it. Nevertheless, for those interested in LDS lore, this book is a fascinating addition to the discussion.
A Study in Scarlet made very little impact at the time of its publication. It took Sherlock Holmes a few outings to gain a readership.
I enjoyed A Study in Scarlet immensely. It’s full of fascinating deduction, surprises and twists, and a privileged look inside the secret operations of a mysterious cult. It has a lot to recommend it, and if not for this book the world might not have a Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson.