Analysis of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet

A detective fiction novella first published by Arthur Conan Doyle in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, and published subsequently as a separate edition by Ward, Lock and Company in 1888, A Study in Scarlet marks the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes.

A Study in Scarlet

The story begins with the narration of Dr. John Watson, an army doctor who, following the battle of Maiwand, has chosen to settle in London. He is introduced to Sherlock Holmes, a man of unusual habits. It becomes clear that Holmes is a consulting detective when he is called upon by the police to investigate the murder of Enoch Drebber in an empty house near Brixton. The police misread the word “Rache” written in blood at the crime scene as “Rachel”; Holmes reads the clue correctly as German for “revenge.” Drebber’s secretary, Joseph Stangerson, is accused of the murder but is later found murdered. Through the reading of fine details and other investigations, Holmes concludes that the killer is a cab driver, Jefferson Hope. Hope’s arrest leads to the second half of the novella, a third-person narrative concerning the foundation of the Mormon community in Utah. Because the father of Hope’s fiancée has broken with Mormon tradition, they have murdered him and kidnapped Hope’s fiancée. Hope swears revenge against the two prominent conspirators, Drebber and Stangerson, and follows them from America to London. He poisons Drebber, leaving his message written in blood from a nosebleed caused by an aneurism. Hope finds Stangerson and stabs the secretary in selfdefence when Stangerson attacks him. The final chapters, again narrated by Watson, describe Holmes’s deductions in solving the mystery and relate how Hope dies before facing trial.

Although marking the first appearance of what was to become one of English literature’s most famous characters, A Study in Scarlet was relatively unsuccessful on first appearance; the popularity usually associated with Holmes did not arise until the Strand Magazine’s publication of the first series of short stories in 1891 as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle had completed the novella in 1886 and had been rejected by three publishers (including the Cornhill Magazine) before being accepted by the London firm Ward, Lock and Company, which paid £25 for the copyright on condition that its publication wait until 1887, as (in their words) “the market is flooded at present with cheap fiction.”

The story contains many of the elements that would become a feature of the Holmes stories: Holmes’s deductive (or more accurately, abductive) method that draws inferences from tiny clues, Watson’s narration, and the incompetence of the police, among others. Doyle would use these in his second Holmes novella, The Sign of Four (1890), a text with a similar narrative structure to that of A Study in Scarlet, in which Watson’s narration describing the investigation contains another narrative that describes the actions of the criminal. These narrations correspond to the formalist categories of szujet and fabula, respectively, as outlined by Tzvetan Todorov in his influential discussion of detective fiction. Significantly for a genre concerned with policing social and national boundaries, the embedded narrations of both stories describe how criminality in London originates from overseas (in The Sign of Four, a murderous conspiracy begins in colonial India, in a plot that bears comparison with Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone [1868]), and the threat of the criminal foreigner is reiterated throughout the Holmes stories, as it is through much late-Victorian detective fiction. In A Study in Scarlet, the idea finds expression through Watson’s description of London as “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.” The novella thus suggests a link between criminality and empire, which would be explored in Doyle’s subsequent stories.

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Doyle, Arthur Conan. A Study in Scarlet. London: Ward Lock, 1887.
Eco, Umberto, and Thomas A. Sebeok, eds. The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.
Stashower, Daniel. Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle. London: Allen Lane, 2000.
Thompson, Jon. Fiction, Crime and Empire: Clues to Modernism and Postmodernism. Urbana: Illinois University Press, 1993.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Poetics of Prose. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Categories: British Literature, Detective Novels, Literature, Short Story

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