“I might not have gone but for you, and so have missed the finest study I came across – a study in scarlet, eh? … 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.” (p. 41)
So, here we are, the very first meeting of the Reading Public with the great consulting detective, Mr Sherlock Holmes. And, if you would pardon the football analogy (Match of the Day is on in the background), but this really is a book of two halves. In fact, apart from the final two chapters, you could probably skip the bulk of the second half of the book; Utah in the late 19th century may have been a wild and lawless place, but I do think a lot of what takes place is a little far-fetched. Good motivation for a couple of murders though, it has to be said.
It has to be remembered that when this story was published, back in 1890, there was very little in the way of detective fiction, and the conventions that have been established over the years simply didn’t exist. Essentially, Conan Doyle could have done what he wanted with his detective and nobody would have minded. As it stands, we have a layman with an interest in forensic science, keen observation skills and a cold, objective outlook on everything he comes across.
It’s in his sidekicks where I have an issue. Almost to a man – and they are all men – they appear bungling, dim witted and too keen to chase the obvious, and I am including Watson in that statement. The star of the show was always Holmes, and Holmes would always have to come out on top, no matter how bad everyone else had to look. Which is a shame, because Holmes himself considers Lestrade and Gregory to be “the keenest of a rum lot” which for him is praise indeed.
Despite his experiences as a military doctor, Watson comes across as strangely innocent, naïve almost, in his outlook. He seems to find it nonsensical that by the application of careful observation, a considerable amount of information may be ascertained about a person without them having to tell you anything. Even when Holmes shows Watson carefully how his method can be applied, Watson treats it with a certain amount of scorn – yet is quickly astonished when Holmes is unfailingly proved correct.
For the hardened Sherlockian, all the essentials are here – Mrs Hudson, the Baker Street Irregulars, Lestrade, a cunning villain – indeed, all that’s missing is Moriarty although it’s possible he’s lurking in the background. I can see why the stories have remained popular over the years; they are easy to read, fun and educational, even if sometimes factually wrong or with gaping great plot holes. Who cares?