Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Study in Scarlet (Mystery Book & Thoughts)

I must thank you [Watson] for it all. I might not have gone but for you, and so missed the finest study I ever came across: a study in scarlet, eh? Why shouldn’t we use a little art jargon. There’s a scarlet thread of murder through the colorless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.
In solving a problem of this sort [unraveling the murder], the grand thing is to be able to reason backwards…There are few people…who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own consciousness what the steps were that led to the result.
“You are going to read Sherlock Homes.” I heard the thoughts in my head as loud as I heard that I was going to read the Hugo winners over a year ago. I have no idea whether this idea is from my subconscious, my intuition, or some literary divine guidance [or the high humidity and insomnia making my synapses fire oddly]. All I know is that the thought has been very, very insistent. I don’t remember reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. My neighbor-sister, who is two years older than I am, insists that we had to have read it in school. I admit that we probably read some short stories, but I don’t remember the novels: A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hounds of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear. So, I begin a four novel mini-adventure, with at least five mysteries to solve: the mystery in each book and the mystery of why I feel so driven to read them.

Einstein talked about standing on the shoulders of the scientist that came before him. Many contemporary mystery and some science fiction writers stand on the shoulders of Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes series. As I was reading A Study in Scarlet, I had flashes of the many detective TV shows that I have watched over the years, particularly Monk who shares Holmes's gift of observation. After reading how Holmes uses “young scoundrels” to help him research his case, I was reminded of how the detectives in Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series –one of my favorite series of any genre– often use various unsavory individuals to help them solve a case. In thinking about this, I am reminded of how a skilled winemaker can describe the grapes used in a wine that he has tasted for the first time. I am sure that an astute reader can identify the influences of a particular author.

In A Study in Scarlet, originally published in 1887, Watson first meets Holmes. Both men are looking for a roommate. Watson originally is derisive of the concepts on which Holmes builds his discipline. After Holmes takes Watson on a case, his opinion quickly changes and he becomes one of Holmes's biggest fans.

Very briefly, Holmes is called in by detectives to help them solve a case. The body of a man is found in an empty house. The body does not appear to have any signs of trauma and any obvious cause of death, but there is blood on the scene. On the wall are the red letters RACHE. As the story progresses, the detectives first choose the wrong suspects, and, of course, Holmes finds the killer.

The novel has two parts. At the end of Part One, Holmes identifies the killer. At first, Part Two appeared to be a totally unrelated story about a man and a little girl who are dying in the desert and rescued by Mormons. I wondered if the book actually was two separate stories. Finally, I realized that this was the backstory that explains the motive for the murder(s). If A Study in Scarlet were written today, I would expect the author to alternate the storylines until they came together. Even when I thought there were two separate plots, I was very impressed by Doyle’s ability to tell a good story.

I am feeling a vague sense of reverence while I read these classic novels. I have a 900 page, annotated compilation of the four books out from the library, adding to the mystique. I adore Holmes power of observation and his ability to “reason backwards.”

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