A Study in Scarlet

“There is a mystery about this which stimulates the imagination; where there is no imagination there is no horror.”

A Study in Scarlet was Arthur Conan Doyle’s first novel, written in 1887, and it introduced us all to the brilliant detective, Sherlock Holmes, and his new friend, Dr. Watson. I really enjoyed this book, and look forward to reading more of these fun mysteries, having already bought another volume of ACD’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

“There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”

In this first Holmes novel, the murders happen in the first part of the book, and a flashback explaining the background for those murders takes up the second half of the book. It was this flashback that caused a bit of controversy when the book was published. The two murders, committed as acts of revenge, involved Mormonism and polygamy, two hot topics of that time period. The fictional portrayal of these characters really bothered the Mormons, who felt that ACD was just another Mormon-hater. They never forgave him for it.

Even though I grew up in Salt Lake City, I didn’t have a problem with that part of the story because it all seemed very fictionalized and exaggerated to me. It was evident to me that ACD hadn’t done a lot of in-depth research for this book, but that wasn’t the point. The somewhat fantastical format of the novel was very much in vogue at that time, so I think ACD might have assumed that everyone would understand that it was just a story. The Mormons didn’t and were quite offended.

There’s a very interesting article about all of this, published in the Salt Lake Tribune in 1994, that tells about the reaction of the Mormons, and also tells about a visit Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife made to Utah many years after the book was published. His reception there was lukewarm.

As a Salt Lake City girl, there was one part of the story that did bother me. It was the geography of the tale. ACD definitely did not consult an atlas when he wrote it, so his landscapes were completely fictional, with the Rio Grande running near SLC and the Sierra Nevada Mountains right there on the edge of town. Not! This played havoc with my own inner landscapes of that area. But that, too, I felt was part of the sensational style of the early novels of this genre, and a product of the times.

I wasn’t expecting those (fun for me) historical experiences when I picked out this book to read for Carl’s R.I.P.II Challenge. I just wanted to read the book that introduced Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to the world. It was a very enjoyable read!

13 thoughts on “A Study in Scarlet

  1. Chris

    Cool…I really want to read this one. I’ve never really had much of an interest in Sherlock Holmes novels, but I’ve grown an interest in them more and more lately with all of these reviews. I think I’m putting this one on the list for next year!


  2. Nymeth

    I wasn’t bothered by that part of the story either, even though I understand someone who is a Mormon being upset. Like you said, it was all so exaggerated – he created this fictional group of people and called them Mormons, but they could have been called anything else.

    There is a short story by Neil Gaiman in “Fragile Things” that is a retelling of this novel, mixing it with the world of H. P. Lovecfrat’s tales. It’s called “A Study in Emerald” and I think it’s perfect reading during the RIP challenge!


  3. Robin

    Chris, it is a good one for next year’s challenge. I really liked his writing, and immediately loved Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. His stories could become very addictive.

    Nymeth, that’s exactly what he did–created a fictional group of people and a fictional location, but named them after a group that was in the news a lot for pretty sensational reasons. I’m sure he didn’t expect the reaction he got from that group.
    I’m going to be reading “Fragile Things” for this challenge, so I’ll be particularly interested in “A Study in Emerald.”


  4. Booklogged

    Robin, you have peaked my interest in reading this book. I have read a couple of ACD’s and enjoyed them. Being a Utah girl myself makes this book sound even more interesting. I appreciate the link you included. Don’t we all do that sometimes – say things without having enough information or having incorrect information. I’m glad Doyle was received well when he visited Utah (with a few exceptions.)

    Also, wanted to mention how envious I am that you are living in one of my favorite areas – the northwest. My husband and I have vacationed in the northwest 3 different summers. It’s always hard to come back to brown, dry Utah even though I love it here, too.


  5. Robin

    Booklogged, I do think you’d enjoy this book, especially because of the Utah connection. It was a lot of fun, and I loved the way he writes about Holmes and Watson.
    I’m pleased to find that you’re a Utah girl, too. We loved living in the desert, too, but needed more water and some evergreens. We’ve been in the northwest for 18 years now and love it, although the Seattle area is getting unbelievably crowded. But the climate is delightful (if you can stand the darkness of winter…the rain is okay, but some people can’t get used to the lack of light!), and it’s just a beautiful place.


  6. Bellezza

    I just read A Study in Scarlett to complete my Summer Mystery Challenge. I was amazed that it dealt with such a touchy subject: the Mormons. It’s interesting that we both read it within a few weeks of each other.


  7. Carl V.

    I was going to recommend Gaiman’s retelling “A Study in Emerald” but I see my colleagues have beaten me to it. If you like Holmes stories, I would also recommend reading the Irene Adler books by Carole Nelson Douglas. The first four are my favorite. They feature Holmes very prominently and are great books with really strong female protagonists.


  8. Robin

    Bellezza, I really enjoyed the book and being introduced to Sherlock Holmes and Watson. It was nice that he gave us more of their backgrounds (well, especially Dr. Watson’s background and how he ended up as such a close friend to Holmes). My feeling about his use of the Mormons was that he didn’t intend to offend…I agree with Nymeth that he just created his “bad guys” in the story and then called them that. They certainly were the most sensational group of that time.

    Carl, I’m tracking down Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald,” and know I’ll enjoy it. I haven’t read any Irene Adler, so I will add those to my TBR list, too. Thanks!


  9. Jill

    Study in Scarlet has always been one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories, but with a notion that it probably reflected certain prejudices of the period. The links you added were very useful. Thanks!



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