A Study in Scarlet

This article was first published in The Reader, issue 29. This version is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license, April 2008.

A Study in Scarlet

By Christopher Routledge

Everybody knows Sherlock Holmes. He is right up there with Hamlet, Heathcliff and Oliver Twist as one of the best-known characters in all of English Literature. His name is familiar even to people who never read. He is the archetypal fictional detective and a byword for careful observation, rational examination of evidence, and clear-sighted intelligence. Howard Haycraft, whose book Murder For Pleasure (1941)1 was one of the first serious works of criticism on detective fiction, finds many problems with the Holmes stories, yet he concludes ‘But for the tales in which [Holmes] appeared the detective story as we know it today might never have developed – or only in a vastly different and certainly less pleasurable form’.

Holmes first appeared in print in 1887, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s short novel A Study in Scarlet. In practical terms this first Holmes story is structurally weak, broken-backed, stylistically uneven, and derivative. It has been noted many times that Holmes arrives at the solution to the mystery using information he has kept secret from the reader, a cardinal sin in detective fiction. But for all that, A Study in Scarlet was revolutionary. Its impact was felt almost immediately on popular culture in general and on the genre of detective fiction in particular. In the 120 years that have passed since publication, A Study in Scarlet has emerged as arguably one of the most influential pieces of writing to come out of the nineteenth century. As George Orwell asks in his article ‘Good Bad Books’ (Tribune, November 2, 1945), ‘Who has worn better, Conan Doyle or Meredith?’

A Study in Scarlet was published by Ward Lock when Conan Doyle was 28 years old. The book had been rejected by several publishers and like many young writers who would rather see their work published than take a stand, in November 1886 Conan Doyle signed away all his rights for a miserly £25. The following year it appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual and while Conan Doyle did not benefit financially its publication eventually led to a commission to write a second Holmes story, The Sign of Four, for the American magazine Lippincott’s. By then Conan Doyle was well aware that Ward Lock had taken advantage of him and he also offered the new story to British publisher Spencer Blackett. It was published in 1890 and in 1891 Conan Doyle began his long association with Strand Magazine, where most of the Sherlock Holmes stories were serialised over the next 25 years.

Holmes’s powers of observation and deduction have become a benchmark for detectives, real and imagined, but Conan Doyle did not invent the rationalist detective. Holmes is preceded by detectives in stories by Emile Gaboriau, Wilkie Collins, and in particular by Edgar Allan Poe. What Conan Doyle did was to transform a sensational figure into a serious literary creation, though it is only relatively recently that he has been treated as such. Poe’s detective stories from the 1840s featured amateur sleuth C. Auguste Dupin and a nameless, awestruck narrator-sidekick. The link with Holmes and Watson is obvious. Poe’s stories were popular, but tales of mystery and suspense, then as now, were considered inferior, even disreputable fare.

Conan Doyle was aware of the limitations of detective fiction when he began A Study in Scarlet and wanted his detective to be a cut above the usual mystery story fare. It begins with reassurances that here was a story for a more knowing, more sophisticated audience. Not for his readers the gaudy voyeurism of the ‘Penny Dreadfuls’; here was science and philosophy, music and poetry, as well as murder. At the beginning of the novel, not long after Holmes and Watson have moved into their lodgings at 221b Baker Street, Watson tells Holmes that he reminds him of Poe’s ‘great detective’ character:

‘No doubt you think you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,’ he observed. ‘Now in my opinion Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.’ 2

Holmes’s own ability to see the significance in tiny detail is better developed than Dupin’s. It is also placed in the context of a man whose personal habits and mode of living are both regular and chaotic; industrial and artistic. On the one hand Holmes embodies rationalism, scientific endeavour, and careful observation. At the scene of the first murder in A Study in Scarlet he analyses the room, taking measurements, collecting clues, and studying surfaces with his trademark magnifying glass. At this he is better than the police, who are unscientific and ignorant. But on the other hand Holmes is also a speculative man, who plays the violin in a freeform, abstract way and, as becomes more clear in later stories, takes mind-altering drugs. In this respect Holmes combines several great Victorian character tropes: the inspired natural scientist and the disturbed lone genius; the savvy, modern, man about town and the alienated urban outcast. Rather than making him a detached researcher, Conan Doyle gave Holmes a worldly doctor’s eye. His refined analytical skills make him more ‘of the world’ not less.

A mark of the significance of A Study in Scarlet is that despite its weaknesses it seems to have established the general structural arrangement of most successful detective stories, as described by critic Tsvetan Todorov in his important essay ‘The Typology of Detective Fiction’.3 It begins with a murder, which appears at first to be the central problem facing the detective. But the real mystery lies deep in the past, long before the central crime takes place. Like all good detective stories A Study in Scarlet extends beyond the ‘murder in Brixton’ with which it begins, to address greater mysteries. Its scope includes the great westward migration in the United States, the alien (to British readers) culture of ‘The Country of the Saints’ and, in the figure of Watson himself, the damaged young men who returned to London from military campaigns in Afghanistan and India.

Contrast this with ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841), often considered to be the first true detective story in English. Like A Study in Scarlet Poe’s story features a reclusive detective whose eccentric habits and peculiar talent for reading clues fascinate and amaze the narrator. But the focus of Poe’s story, a double murder and a locked room, is the only mystery. There is nothing of any consequence ‘behind’ the events in the Rue Morgue, even if the solution to the mystery comes as a surprise. This mid-nineteenth-century tale has none of the doubt and uncertainty of Conan Doyle’s, though Dupin, like Holmes, combines rational method with elastic imagination to solve his puzzles. Holmes is essentially a Romantic hero, risking his health, his sanity, even his life, to be able to see more clearly than those around him. But he is also in his own way an institutional figure, developing his theories on detection and forensic science for the general good.

Conan Doyle also went a long way towards making Holmes seem real. The offset narration, taking the form of Watson’s journal, is calculated to confirm the truthfulness of the story. His success in convincing readers that Holmes actually existed would soon become a curse for the real-life tenants of 221b Baker Street who had to deal with the detective’s mailbag. This may well have been one reason for the runaway success of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Victorian readers living in many of Britain’s large cities were afraid of street crime, drunkenness, and seemingly random acts of violence, much of which was blamed on ‘foreigners’ and the failings of the police and justice system. In such an atmosphere Conan Doyle’s masterly construction of Holmes through the authoritative voice of a doctor and military man made him seem a plausible enough saviour.

In his extraordinary intelligence, physical abilities and self-reliance, Holmes seems at times a hero more suited to the twentieth century than the Victorian era. Detective fiction after A Study in Scarlet was dominated by amateur and ‘consulting’ detectives, including Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, and, in the United States, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. But as Conan Doyle’s brother in law E.W. Hornung once said, ‘Though he might be more humble, there’s no police like Holmes’.


1. Haycraft, Howard. Murder for Pleasure (1941). This edition New York: Carroll and Graff, 1984. p. 61.
2. Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. A Study in Scarlet (1887), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981. p. 25.
3. Todorov, Tsvetan. ‘The Typology of Detective Fiction’. In The Poetics of Prose. Oxford: Blackwell, 1977.