Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Finished on: 22 August 2016
Where did I get this book: Bought on the kindle whilst on holiday
Sherlock Holmes is the most famous literary detective of all time, and an almost ubiquitous figure and reference point when talking about crime fiction.
So reading this, the first ever Holmes story, is like going to Paris and seeing Notre Dame for the first time after looking at hundreds of pictures of it over the years. You have a good idea what to expect, but seeing it first hand is more complicated, more interesting and generally a whole lot more brilliant than all those depictions that were one step removed.
We think we know him, and to some extent we do. But the Holmes of this original story actually comes across as a fairly nice, amiable chap for much of this book. Unorthodox, obsessive and egotistical, yes. But also self-aware, funny and pleasant company.
Watching Watson and Holmes meet, move into 221B Baker Street, and get it know each other feels at once familiar and a revelation. Their ‘getting to know you’ conversations are delicious.
It’s just as well for two fellows to know the worst of one another before they begin to live together.
Holmes’s description of his brain-attic is particularly entertaining (the information storage system that Benedict Cumberbatch upgraded to a mind-palace.) Rather than being an encyclopaedic catalogue of everything, here information is carefully selected and retained, or in many cases ignored entirely. There are plenty of subjects of which Holmes has no knowledge at all.
His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done.
But other than our charismatic heroes and their perfectly complementary relationship, the star of the show here is the highly entertaining process of solving a murder mystery.
This may be the most extreme case of stating the obvious there has ever been, but A Study In Scarlet is a very good detective story. From the corpse found in the deserted house, to the final explanation not only of Holmes’s reasoning, but also how the killer came to be a killer, this is a masterclass in crime fiction. It’s where the incredible legend of Sherlock Holmes all began, and it’s reassuring to see that this legend deserves all the success, plaudits, tributes, and interpretations that came after.
The first time I ever went to Paris and saw Notre Dame in the flesh, it made me cry. Experiencing something widely considered to be brilliant in its original form, and discovering that is is indeed brilliant, is brilliant.