Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“A Scandal in Bohemia” was Doyle’s first attempt at a new literary form: a self-contained short story with a continuing character at the center of it. Although Holmes appeared twice before, it was in novels. The usefulness of a familiar character in a series of short stories is immediately obvious, once one considers it: In a short story, an author must either give a very sketchy portrait of the main characters or violate the dictum of Edgar Allan Poe that a short story must aim at producing a single effect without one wasted word. If the character is already known to the public from earlier stories, however, the author can begin with the plot at once. So effective was this technique, especially for the detective story, that many later authors followed the same practice, writing a series of stories about a detective—Nero Wolfe or Ellery Queen, for example.
The character of the detective was built up throughout the series, producing a much more lifelike character than would have been possible in a single story. “A Scandal in Bohemia” also introduced the structural pattern that Doyle was to use again and again in the Holmes stories. The mystery is first revealed at Holmes’s apartment at Baker Street with the arrival of the client. Holmes demonstrates his powers, to the amazement of the client, by revealing something about the client that he has not yet been told. By this means, Holmes also gains the confidence and respect of his employer. Next, both Holmes and Watson journey at least once to another location; there Holmes acts mysteriously, but this time he does not explain. Finally, Holmes, Watson, and the other principals gather for a “revelation scene,” in which both the mystery and Holmes’s method are explained.
Doyle used all these elements over and over again, keeping the stories fresh by inserting new mysteries into this setting or by occasionally adding some detail about the character of Holmes or Watson. The technique was to make Doyle one of the most popular writers of his time on both sides of the Atlantic, and it was a technique first employed in “A Scandal in Bohemia.”