A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

Jan 30, 2014

When I mentioned last year that as part of my reading goals, I planned to read my first-ever Sherlock Holmes mystery, I received several suggestions to not begin with A Study in Scarlet.

Um, you can see how well I followed that good advice . . .

The story begins with Dr. John H. Watson, who recently returned to London after being injured in Afghanistan. He is looking for a place to live--somewhere quiet where he can rest and fully recover. Upon hearing this, his friend suggests he look up Sherlock Holmes, a friend of his who is looking for someone to share his flat with.

Watson and Holmes make an agreeable pair, but Watson is overcome with curiosity about Holmes' unusual daily occupations. Eventually, Holmes divulges that he is a detective and not long after that, he receives a request for his services in the death of a man who was apparently poisoned in an old manor.

The Scotland Yard authorities and Holmes use completely different methods of investigation and deduction. Holmes' attention to and interpretation of detail are truly remarkable, and long before the officials, Holmes has the mystery neatly wrapped up and solved.

Now that I've read A Study in Scarlet and have some perspective, I think I can see why some friends recommended reading one of his other mysteries first (even though, as yet, I can't compare this one with any of the others).

I don't think this recommendation had anything to do with the structure of the mystery itself. It's plotted out nicely, and Holmes is an intriguing character from the very beginning. Personally, I was captivated by the little minute details that made a big impact in the end. In order for someone to write about such small occurrences and observations, even when he's making them all up himself, it means his attention to tiny details in his own life must be astounding.

So no, I don't think people tried to postpone my reading of this book because the mystery wasn't well-executed. My guess is that the strange section about the Mormons in the middle of the book is not an accurate reflection of Conan Doyle's later mysteries, and so they thought it might be better to begin with something that demonstrated his true style.

And if that's the case, then I would have to agree with those well-meaning friends. The middle section is so strange. Even if I wasn't Mormon and couldn't identify all the inaccuracies, I would still think it was strange. For one thing, the story suddenly transports itself to the middle of nowhere (i.e., Utah, that place I call home) and introduces a host of new characters who belong to a disturbing cult (not Mormonism). Even though it revealed the entire story (and motive) behind the murder, it was still jolting. It felt like I wasn't even reading the same book. I had to go back and listen to parts of it again because I was so disoriented.

I was not at all offended by Conan Doyle's depiction of Mormons. At the time he wrote this book, there probably was not a lot of information about such a small religion, especially in England. I don't know who or what his source of information was, but I'm know there were a lot of misconceptions about the religion, even in the U.S. What little he knew probably intrigued him and sounded like the perfect setup for his mystery. While I hope others do not base their opinions of Mormons solely on this book, for the most part I just found it rather amusing.

All that being said, I don't regret beginning with this book. I have no doubt I will like other Sherlock Holmes mysteries better, but I thought being introduced to Watson and Holmes and seeing them meet each other for the first time was indispensable. Those initial introductions were probably my favorite parts of the book, and I'm so glad I will have that background information as I read some of the other mysteries that follow.

But now I'm curious: if you've read several Sherlock Holmes mysteries, did you begin with this one? Which mystery do you like best? Do you prefer Conan Doyle's short stories or his novellas?


  1. I had the same problem when I read it, there's a post somewhere on the blog about it, maybe a month ago.

    But, yes! The whole section in the middle about the Mormons was just odd.

    I tried to start with 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' (#3), but I just couldn't do it. I have a compulsion to start at the beginning.

  2. http://thesteadfastreader.blogspot.com/2013/12/sherlock-sunday-study-in-scarletpink.html

    Here it is, in case you want to compare notes. :D I've read the second book as well,"The Sign of the Four", I'm not sure that it's representative either as it does the same thing, it's a little better executed by actually providing a transition for the reader when telling the backstory of the mystery, but it still has the same basic format of 'Need help with mystery, solve it, tell back story, tell how Sherlock solved the mystery'.

    1. Thanks for posting the link to your review. I haven't watched Sherlock (yet), but I have only heard amazing things about it. I loved reading your comparison of the two.

      To be honest, one of the main reasons I read A Study in Scarlet first was for the same reason you did: I can't stand beginning something out of order!

  3. I have read/listened to a ton of these mysteries. It is so amazing to me that for all the time I have read them, I just barely read "A Study in Scarlet" I too was so confused. I wondered if the book at been uploaded correctly when it went off in the odd direction. I think that is the only one so far that I have not enjoyed.

  4. I think I was one of your few friends who bucked the trend and told you that you SHOULD start with this. Despite the very odd middle section I think it's important to read these in order... of course, I read them in order so maybe that's why I feel that way. Honestly, I enjoyed the shorter stories but I think it was good to start with the beginning four that are longer. I have the complete mysteries in 2 volumes which is probably why I read them in order in the first place.

    FYI- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited Utah later in his career and apologized to the "Mormons" for all of the inaccuracies.


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