Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Book Review - A Study in Scarlet

As the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet does a good job of introducing new readers to the characters of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. In the 21st century, it’s hard to escape some general knowledge of Holmes so a lot of what is described won’t come as much of a surprise or a revelation to new Holmes readers.

What may come as a bit of a shock is the slow pace of the story and the immense amount of exposition and in-depth description of situations and actions. Many of the descriptive segments are elegant and vibrant and just a lot of fun to take in. Other sections felt rather wordy and a drudgery to work through. In particular I found the distanced narrative of life in 1840s Western United States to be very dry and boring in spite of some interesting events presented during the narrative.

I enjoy having Watson as the narrator and like the way he presents the case after the fact but in such a way that it keeps the mystery hidden until the point at which it was revealed to him. That said I felt like this particular mystery (as is potentially likely in many Holmes stories) suffers from not providing the readers with enough palpable clues to actually solve the mystery on par with the hero. When Holmes presents his revelations and conclusions he is kind enough to reveal from whence he made his deduction. However it is impossible for the reader to make the same conclusions because frankly we don’t have the same information at our fingertips. This is partly because Watson is our narrator and he doesn’t have the same eye for observation as does Holmes (“he observes but doesn’t truly see”).

Honestly though the main reason for the reader being kept in the dark is that it would be even more tedious to write a descriptive mystery where the reader has all of the same information made evident to Holmes through his observation. It’s one thing to have Holmes explain how he saw a dozen clues on the scene and used them to analyze a solution. It’s another thing to have the author describe those dozen clues in such a way that they aren’t immediately obvious clues but they are still clues that the reader could use to arrive at the conclusion. In order to adequately do so, the author would have to also provide dozens of “red herring” elements in describing the scene. Beyond presenting very detailed analysis of the depth of the scrapes in the wall to make the word “Rache” or detailed description of pocket contents, he would also have to present elements about the insignificant elements observed. So if I had to choose between being kept in the dark and having all clues presented to me, I would certainly opt for the method implemented. My only hope is that subsequent novels keep even further away from the extremely dry narrative descriptions that bear no relevance on the story at hand.

Overall I found the story engaging and I was definitely impressed by Holmes’ methods. His personality is abrasive and flippantly derisive and so Watson provides a good foil for the adventure and also acts to temper Holmes a bit in the presentation of the narrative. Not a bad start to the Holmes collection.

3 out of 5 stars

View all of my reviews on Goodreads.com


Brian Miller said...

i wonder at your opinion of the original in relation to the one from yesterday....

hope you and yours have a merry christmas

Mari said...

The stories are definitely not like modern day mysteries where the clues are there for the reader to use to discover whodunit. The whole Mormon section was a bit weird. And seemed very out of place to the rest of the story until I figured out why it was there.