If you have been following this blog for any substantial amount of time, you may know by now that I have a great respect for audiobooks. Although I love reading physical books, we do not always have time to sit down and read, which is where audiobooks come in. I have recently been listening to Stephen Fry’s rendition of A Study in Scarlett, which is a part of Audible’s definitive collection. I have thus been educated in Arthur Conan Doyle’s infamous detective whilst walking around town and commuting to university.
A Bit of Context
Title: A Study in Scarlet.
Author: Arthur Conan Doyle.
Publication: 1887, Ward Lock & Co.
My Edition: 2017, Audible Studios.
Length: 5 hours.
Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a total of fifty-six short stories about the adventures of the famous Sherlock Holmes, as well as four full-length novels. A Study in Scarlet, which depicts John Watson’s first adventure with the detective, is the first of these novels.
The most remarkable thing about these stories has to be how innovative they were. Although the beginnings of detective fiction can be traced back to the Old Testament, it only emerged as an official genre in 1841 with Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Then, in 1853, Charles Dickens wrote Bleak House, which featured Inspector Bucket, a detective who was charged with determining the events that preceded the brutal murder of Tulkinghorn. So, although the genre had been established earlier in the Victorian period, Conan Doyle nevertheless made it his own by the huge amount of focus he placed on Holmes and his admirable powers of deduction.
I don’t want to give too much away here as, after all, one of the main attractions of a detective novel is its mystery. Nevertheless, I want to give you a brief overview of the book’s main action, focussing on its beginning, so as not to ruin the ending!
The story is told from the perspective of Doctor John Watson, who records the narrative’s main events in his diary. Having moved to London after sustaining a military injury, he finds a roommate in a mysterious detective by the name of Sherlock Holmes. He is then invited to accompany Holmes on a particularly intriguing case.
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 – Arthur Conan Doyle.
A man, having sustained no bodily injuries, is lying spread out across the floor, clearly dead, and the police force are unable to determine how he got there. For the famous Sherlock Holmes, however, the answer is simple. He begins to unravel the mystery as the novel goes on, determining the murderer’s height by the length of his stride and his motive by a woman’s wedding ring that lies hidden underneath the corpse.
Just as Holmes is about to solve the mystery, however, Conan Doyle ends the first part of this book. We are left with a scene of immense tension as he proceeds with part two. At the start of this part, however, we are in Northern America, learning of two stranded travellers, John and Lucy Ferrier, who are slowly starving to death on the open plains. We are then told a tragic story of love, defiance and persecution, all centred around these new characters.
It is only towards the end of this second part that we learn the importance of this episode, and of how it relates to the murder investigation that Holmes has apparently solved. Then, after Conan Doyle has dragged out the drama for as long as he can, we finally learn both the reason for the murder, and how it was done. All I can say is that the revelation is satisfying, deeply shocking, and magnificently crafted.
Going Deeper into the Novel…
This is a book filled with questions, and although most of them may surround the murder investigation itself, there are some background themes that I want to focus on, these being industrialisation and religion.
The Victorian Period was a time fraught with change. English society was still reeling from the American and French revolutions when they were met with one of their own: the Industrial Revolution. During this time, more than half of rural populations migrated to the city, where they hoped to find work. The city thus became more popular and, as a result, is considered far more frequently in literature.
I naturally gravitated to London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained – Arthur Conan Doyle.
Initially, Conan Doyle presents the city as something distinctly negative. It is a “cesspool”, which perhaps relates to how crowded it has become. This idea is then reiterated as Watson has to search for his lodgings, suggesting that they are not only difficult to come across in the busy streets of London, but also that they are expensive, as he simultaneously searches for a roommate.
Yet, later on in the novel, the natural world (the only alternative to the city) is also presented as negative as John and Lucy Ferrier realise that an absence of life also means that there is an absence of sustenance. Nature is presented as merciless, vulture-like birds circling above the duo as they reflect on their difficult journey.
In the central portion of the great North American Continent there lies an arid and repulsive desert, which for many a long year serveed as a barrier against the advance of civilisation – Arthur Conan Doyle.
Whilst this negativity may be aimed more at America than the natural world as a whole, it reflects a societal mood; when people first began to move to the cities, they may have compared them to a “cesspool” because they were crowded and unfamiliar, but, once they became dependent on urban materialities, the countryside would have begun to seem rather isolated and barren. Changing presentations of the urban and rural spheres in the novel thus reflect changing views in contemporary England.
There’s a lot to be said about religion in this book. Yet this is particularly true during part two, when we are introduced to Mormonism. This is a branch of Christianity that developed in the 1830s after it was ‘restored’ by Joseph Smith. Smith is mentioned in A Study in Scarlet, whilst Brigham Young, the movement’s second president, is actually featured in the novel. The Mormons are, at first, presented as accommodating, helping John and Lucy Ferrier by providing them with shelter and riches.
The Mormon church, however, diverges from core Christian principles on quite a few accounts, and Victorian England was a Christian country. Mormonism is thus demonised through this book as Conan Doyle favours traditional religious values. This is particularly prevalent through John Ferrier’s refusal to share in the Mormon principle of polygamy (the idea that a man can have as many wives as he wishes). It is clear through the eventual outcome of the main narrative; the Mormons are, to both John Ferrier and Conan Doyle, of a false faith and, because of this, they must be killed.
After all that I have heard and seen of this fantastic novel, I was certainly surprised by the reality. When I first began listening to the story, I found it remarkably difficult to follow. The characters seemed impersonal and distant and I kept forgetting the details of the original murder. Of course, this may have partially been due to the fact that I didn’t have a physical book in front of me, but things certainly became clearer as the story progressed. This may have been a purposeful decision; like the case, the book is, initially, hard to understand, but as it begins to be solved, the narrative becomes simpler.
I believe that the turning point for me was the short interlude where we were introduced to John and Lucy Ferrier. The descriptions before this point were exceptional, but I didn’t care about the story up until this point. After it, however, I felt a strong emotional connection to the murder investigation and even felt myself sympathising with the murderer. It added a layer of depth to the story that I had not expected, as I then realised that the story isn’t really about Sherlock Holmes or John Watson; they are merely passive vehicles, effects reserved only for entertainment value. The story is actually about the murderer themselves, along with John and Lucy Ferrier, yet we only discover this towards the novel’s end. This makes it’s beginning difficult, but its ending overwhelmingly satisfying.