Critical Evaluation

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

A Study in Scarlet was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first full-length detective novel. His short stories had already earned him some success and recognition, but with this effort he hoped to attract the attention of critics as well as the general reading public. Doyle longed to write serious historical fiction, in which he intended to chronicle the deeds of the men and women who made England great, but he believed that he must first establish himself as a respected and popular author. A Study in Scarlet met with several rejections from publishers, however, before Doyle finally managed to sell it in 1886 for the modest sum of twenty-five pounds. When the book appeared the following year as part of Beeton’s Christmas Annual, most of the London critics completely ignored it, but it soon became very popular in the United States. Encouraged by his American publisher to write another full-length Holmes adventure, Doyle revived his detective for The Sign of Four in 1890, which was a success on both sides of the Atlantic. The reception of this novel stimulated renewed interest in A Study in Scarlet, which thereupon appeared in several separate editions and assured the author’s fame and the immortality of the world’s first consulting detective. (Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887 has become one of the rarest and most collectible works of modern fiction.)

A Study in Scarlet provides the reader with a great deal of vital information about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, and while it lacks the polish and style of Doyle’s later detective novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902), it remains one of the most popular adventures in the canon. The greatest weakness of the novel lies in Doyle’s failure completely to integrate the tragic tale of Lucy Ferrier and Jefferson Hope into the narrative of the dual murder. In later stories, Doyle became a master of integrative devices, but in A Study in Scarlet the reader’s concentration is immediately diverted by two equally fascinating tales joined together by only the flimsiest of connections.

To students of detective fiction, A Study in Scarlet is valuable because it presents the details of the meeting of Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. In the opening pages of the novel, Doyle uses the occasion of a mutual acquaintance introducing them to each other to delineate the personalities of his two characters. Although he added a wealth of subtle details in later stories, Holmes and Watson remain fixed in readers’ minds from the moment they read of the world’s first consulting detective rushing up to the bemused physician with the prophetic cry “I’ve found it! I’ve found it!”

In A Study in Scarlet , Doyle demonstrated his ability to create a believable atmosphere through the subtle use of detail. From a careful reading of the adventures of Holmes and Watson, a serious student of Victorian culture is able to re-create the England of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Doyle’s portrait of London in all its varied aspects is particularly vivid. He did not try to create a fictional landscape or make merely random references to suggest a particular locale but incorporated his setting into each tale as an integral part of the story line—the setting itself becomes a character. Doyle is equally adept at using the events of everyday life to give his characters credibility and to create a degree of verisimilitude often missing in popular fiction. For Doyle’s contemporaries, Holmes and Watson soon ceased to be the creations of a skilled novelist and became instead living human beings. Their daily routine seemed so real,...

(This entire section contains 1056 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

their reactions to the world about them so natural, that they assumed an existence independent of their creator. In time, even Doyle became aware of this remarkable metamorphosis, though he did not always find it gratifying.

A Study in Scarlet is, above all else, an absorbing tale, particularly the portion that deals with solving the double murder. Doyle is a master of detective fiction without equal. He does not conceal information from his readers, and every clue is presented and examined in detail, yet the reader sleuth finds the solving of each crime as difficult as do the two professionals from Scotland Yard. Doyle’s final solutions seem so logical and reasonable that the reader experiences the conflicting emotions of relief and frustration, while at the same time longing for one more chance to best Mr. Sherlock Holmes at his own game.

That portion of A Study in Scarlet that deals with the early Mormon settlement in Utah is weaker because it is based more on myth and nescience than on fact and because Doyle brings into his narrative all the popular contemporary prejudices against the Latter-day Saints. However, he accords to Jefferson Hope an honor he reserved only for those among his characters who commit crimes for noble motives: His untimely death saves Hope from an earthly tribunal.

While Holmes, Watson, Gregson, and Lestrade, who begin their long evolution here, are already rounded, full-dimensional characters, the other figures in the tale—Drebber, Stangerson, Lucy, and John Ferrier—often appear one-dimensional, familiar players in the pulp fiction of the time. Only Hope reveals greater depth of personality, but his literary life is, of course, cut short by an aortic aneurism. In his later stories, Doyle would form even his minor characters with much greater and more subtle skill, another trait that sets his work apart from traditional detective fiction.

Through his master detective, Doyle portrays the understanding of the criminal mind as a matter of scientific principles that may easily be comprehended but not easily mastered. Although Holmes is an enigmatic figure, given to unorthodox and unaccountable behavior, he is at heart a rationalist and enamored, like any enlightened nineteenth century scientist, by the idea that there is no such thing as a mystery; there are only puzzles that anyone devoted to fact can solve. Hence, his famous exclamation: “It’s elementary, my dear Watson!” For Holmes, human evil and passion are not without reason and motive; they are, therefore, rational and deducible. The world is only mysterious and uncontrollable to those who will not see. Sherlock Holmes, offspring of nineteenth century enlightenment and the scientific revolution, is among the brightest—and perhaps the last—offspring of that age.