A Study in Scarlet – A beginner’s guide to Sherlock Holmes

A Study in Scarlet – A beginner’s guide to Sherlock Holmes

Let’s jump straight into it.*

Sherlock Holmes. Book one. A Study in Scarlet.

(*If you’re not ready to jump straight in then you would do well to check out my last blog post. It’s okay, we’ll wait for you.)

What’s it all about?

Published in 1887, A Study in Scarlet opens with a brief description of the less-than-illustrious military career of one Dr John Watson.

Shipped to Afghanistan as an Army surgeon, the campaign brought “nothing but misfortune and disaster”. Shot, nearly caught, and recovered to safety slung over a pack-horse, only to catch a fever and be dispatched back to Britain with his health “irretrievably ruined”, it is fair to say that war was no friend to Dr Watson.

Back in London, a friend is what he needs, and a friend is what he finds in the unlikely shape of a Mr Sherlock Holmes.

By the end of Chapter 1, Watson and Holmes have been introduced and have arranged to lodge together in rooms in Baker Street. 221B, Baker Street. Already, this early in the first Sherlock Holmes book, the familiar pieces of the “Sherlock Holmes story” are falling into place: we have Holmes, curious and eccentric in his ways, and Watson, the recovering military doctor, lodging together at that address.

As we begin Chapter 3, Holmes is asked to help Scotland Yard investigate a mysterious crime and – lo! – away we go on our first great adventure with this Victorian detective duo.

A little backstory

I have read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

However, this was a long time ago. My copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes was published in 1993 and read shortly thereafter. If I’m honest, I don’t really remember many of the stories.

For the purposes of this blog, this inability to recall these tales is a good thing. Why? Because I can attack each story on its own merits.

Of course, it is impossible to forget all of the “known” Sherlock-isms, those things that have seeped into popular consciousness. The deer stalker hat, the curved pipe, the Cumberbatch-iness of Sherlock Holmes. But, for the purposes of this voyage back into Victorian London, I am seeking to see only that which is put down on the page. For example, I have come across no mention of a curved pipe. Holmes’ hat has remained, thus far, un-described.

With my aim, this year, of illustrating each of the Sherlock stories, it is important that I take the descriptions as I find them in the book. The characters, the situations, they should be from the pages and not from what I “remember” about Sherlock Holmes. Because, after all, memories are curious things.

Who remembers the Mormons?

Hand up. Anyone? Do you remember the Mormons being in this book?

There we were, trundling along familiar lines: Holmes being brilliant, Watson his admiring, baffled stooge, and Gregson from the Yard being left behind in the gloom of confused befuddlement. And then Part 2 arrives, and we lurch into unfamiliar territory.

Gone is Watson’s first-person narrative. Say farewell to fog-ridden London. Here we are in the American West for an adventure story concerning a traveler and his adopted daughter.

I did not remember this.

This is not what I was expecting from my first Sherlock Holmes story. Part 1 gave me many of the things I “remembered”. An inept police force had been well established, the Baker Street Irregulars had made their first, dirt-stained, appearance, and the game was well and truly afoot (although no-one had actually uttered this line, yet). Now we were leaving that all behind to explore a mystery many miles away – a tragedy that has an all-to-obvious connection to the dead men littering London.

It’s all a bit weird, if I’m honest. And the Mormons do not come out of it smelling of roses.

What this sudden shift does, I believe, is to let us know what we are reading. This book is an adventure, a mystery. It is not a whodunnit. There is no chance of us working out the clues, keeping up with the characters, and guessing the ending. It couldn’t happen. We don’t know enough. Without this departure to sun-baked deserts, we would never know enough to be able to unravel this mystery.

Get this straight, I can hear Conan Doyle saying, Sherlock Holmes will always be ahead of you. Stand by his side and try as you might, you will never get there first. I will always hold something back. He will be able to pick out the clues among the bodies, but I won’t let you see them. Not all of them, not straight away. Just come along for the ride and enjoy the journey.

That is my first lesson from revisiting Sherlock Holmes. Don’t expect to keep up.

Let me illustrate this

That is, after all, why I have jumped back into the world of Sherlock Holmes.

One illustration per week, for 50 weeks. That’s the plan.

Here we join Holmes and Watson, examining their first corpse as a new crime-busting duo (my phrase, not Conan Doyle’s). Here, our adventures begin.

A Study in Scarlet Sherlock Holmes illustration digital art doctor dr watson victorian costume

One down, many more to go…

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