A Study in Scarlet: The Quiet Creation of an Archetype

In A Study in Scarlet, Dr. Watson is introduced Sherlock Holmes in the detective’s home laboratory. This representation is by artist George Hutchinson and is preserved in the Kent State University Library Special Collections and Archives.

For those that are familiar with the text, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1887 A Study in Scarlet is perhaps best known for its introduction of the character of Sherlock Holmes. A persona that has become synonymous with detection and logic, Sherlock Holmes is seminal and positively implacable – a reality that later lead Conan Doyle not only to kill Holmes, but to bring him back from the grave. By 1893, when Conan Doyle sent Holmes to an apparently watery grave, the consulting detective had become a noble emblem of British identity. After Holmes’s death was depicted in The Final Problem, the British public left Conan Doyle in no doubt of their displeasure. British men wore black arm bands in a state of mourning, the royal family was said to be in deep distress, and, reportedly, one furious reader smacked the dumbstruck author with her handbag (Stashower, 1999, p. 149). Yet the rise of Sherlock Holmes was by no means meteoric. This tentative reception was due partly to popular contemporary attitudes towards this particular sort of literature, and partly due to the curious nature of the tale of A Study in Scarlet itself. A book that is very much a product of 19th-century events, attitudes, and discoveries, A Study in Scarlet is also a reflection of Conan Doyle’s experiences and aspirations.

Spoilers Galore

Conan Doyle lays the foundation for future tales of Sherlock Holmes. A critical aspect of this groundwork is depicting the establishment of the partnership between Holmes and Dr. Watson. As with all of the Holmes adventures, A Study in Scarlet is told through the eyes of the “lovable but absurd” Watson (Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson, 1934, p. 278). At the beginning of the book Watson has just arrived in London after serving in the second Anglo-Afghan War, where he had been providing medical services. Also a doctor, Conan Doyle was trained as an ophthalmologist. Thirteen years after publishing A Study in Scarlet Conan Doyle left London for South Africa where he tended to wounded soldiers during the Boer War (Stashower, pp. 217-225). Unlike Conan Doyle’s return to London, Watson’s is characterized by rapidly-gaining poverty. An acquaintance of Watson’s suggests that he share the space – and expense – of a number of rooms on Baker Street with a Sherlock Holmes (Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, p. 148). Watching Watson’s wonder of Sherlock Holmes mirrors the reaction that is expected of the audience. Watson enjoys living with the inscrutable Holmes and he notices Holmes’s considerable skills, as well as his eccentric deficiencies. Watson notes that Holmes’s knowledge of literature, philosophy, and astronomy is “nil”; his understanding of politics “feeble”; and his familiarity with botany restricted to “opium and poisons”. Watson acknowledges that Holmes possesses other qualities in abundance, including a “profound” knowledge of chemistry, an “accurate, but unsystematic” knowledge of anatomy, and an “immense” knowledge of sensational literature (Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, p. 156).

This introductory interplay between Watson and Holmes is as delightful as the mystery at the centre of A Study in Scarlet is perplexing. A consulting detective, and thus just outside of the law, Holmes brings Watson to a crime scene that baffles Scotland Yard. Enoch Drebber of Ohio is found dead in an empty room. Though there is blood on the body no wound can be surmised, nor the cause of death. On the wall of the empty room, “scrawled in blood red,” (Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, p. 170) the police have found the word “RACHE”. Because of his uncanny but specific expertise, Holmes quickly deduces that the murderer poisoned Drebber, and did so out of vengeance, noting that rache is German for “revenge.” These initial immediate deductions give way to a longer investigation, in which Holmes – as would become a tradition – fully immerses himself in the project.

A scene from the 2010 Sherlock Holmes television episode A Study in Pink.

A Study in Scarlet is divided into two sections. The first half of the story ends with Holmes announcing that he will fully explain the mysterious death of Enoch Drebber. The second half begins with a description of the territory from the Sierra Nevada to Nebraska, “dark and gloomy” with “no habitants in this land of despair” (Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, p. 196). This section does not appear to be narrated by Sherlock Holmes, by anyone other than the third party that has narrated the rest of the story, Dr. Watson. The few inhabitants that enter this dark land do so at their peril, as Conan Doyle demonstrates as he depicts the man John Ferrier and the child Lucy. After their caravan is attacked in the Utah Territory, sole survivors John and Lucy are near death when they are rescued by a local group of Mormons. Real-life Mormon leader Brigham Young pledges to protect John and Lucy in this untamed territory if they convert to Mormonism, which they do. This conversion sparks a betrothal between Lucy and one of the leaders in the Mormon community, Enoch Drebber. The engagement to Drebber is repulsive to both John and Lucy, who in actuality has promised herself to her beloved, Jefferson Hope. Nonetheless Lucy is married to Drebber, “to fulfill her original destiny, by becoming one of the harem of the Elder’s son” (Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, p. 219). Lucy dies soon after the wedding, and Jefferson Hope swears revenge upon the architect of his beloved’s misery.

Holmes is able to identify Jefferson Hope as Drebber’s murder through a number of his aforementioned mentioned skills, including his familiarity with soil composition and his ability to notice the smallest of details. Watson is thoroughly impressed with Holmes’s deductive method, and equally appalled at the lack of recognition given to Holmes by Scotland Yard. By the end of A Study in Scarlet Watson has vowed to make Holmes’s genius known to the world by recording all of his exploits. I had read The Hound of the Baskervilles, the third and arguably most celebrated of the Holmes tales, prior to reading A Study in Scarlet. By the time The Hound of the Baskervilles had been written Conan Doyle was clearly in control of the story and how Holmes could possibly know the secrets of murderers. While A Study in Scarlet is a formidable and puzzling story, it lacks the fine-tuned plot twists that typify the Sherlock Holmes mythos.

A Study in Scarlet debuted in the 1887 edition of “Beeton’s Christmas Annual”.

The Little Mystery That Could

A Study in Scarlet was presented to the reading public in the 1887 edition of “Beeton’s Christmas Annual”. This publication ran Conan Doyle’s short novel alongside other stories, but from looking at the cover it’s clear that A Study in Scarlet is the centrepiece of the literary journal. While the completion of A Study in Scarlet gave Conan Doyle “a greater confidence in his own talent and imaginations” (Stashower, p. 77), having the text published was no small task; the text circulated from publisher to publisher for almost two years before being accepted by Beeton’s Christmas Annual (Wiltse, 1998, p. 107). In comparison with subsequent Sherlock Holmes adventures, there was little critical or public interest in A Study in Scarlet (McConnell, 1987, p. 173). Indeed, it was only the discerning eye of an editor at another publication that commissioned Conan Doyle to write the second Holmes adventure, The Sign of Four, which was a runaway success (Wiltse, p. 107). The Reading Experience Database gives some broader clues as to reception of Conan Doyle’s work. In his book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2001), Jonathan Rose describes the reading habits of a housepainter “lik[ing] a ‘stirring novel’ but nothing more challenging than Conan Doyle” (pp. 87-88). This comment implies that Conan Doyle’s work was considered a romp, but not the stuff of intellectual exertion. This attitude towards reading Conan Doyle may, in part, reflect Conan Doyle’s view on his writing. Conan Doyle believed that it was his historical novels, such as Micah Clarke or Sir Nigel, that represented his “serious” literary work (Fillingham, 1989, 669; Wiltse, p. 107).

Some early thoughts on A Study in Scarlet, and on the character of Holmes in general, are found in The British Medical Journal. Members of the British medical profession drew easy comparisons between Holmes and Dr. Joseph Bell, a medical doctor and former teacher of Conan Doyle’s (Jann, 1990, p. 686; Stashower, p. 76-77). Indeed, Bell was “famed for his diagnoses of the social as well as the medical salient points of his patients” and Conan Doyle himself attributes the soul of Holmes to Bell’s influence (Edwards, p. 150). The deductive method of Sherlock Holmes has been praised as a centrally Holmesian idea, but one that was generated from and has been continually renewed by the medical profession (The Method of Sherlock Holmes in Medicine, 1899, p. 1808). Of course, while some physicians lauded Conan Doyle’s appropriation of the deductive method, this is not to say that the Sherlock Holmes tale appealed to their literary tastes. Writing to The British Medical Journal in 1934, W.J. Young recalls the unfortunate adage, “‘There was enough genius in Poe’s little finger to make a score of Conan Doyles’” (p. 375).

A Book of Its Time

During this era Europe, and particularly England, was a hot-bed of scientific discovery. The British monarchy voiced their support for scientific investigations when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert presented the Great Exhibition from May to October 1851, “showcas[ing] the possibilities for technological advancement” (Roberts, 2003, p. 199). A number of ground-breaking scientific tomes were released during the 19th-century, including Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-1833) and Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). Beyond England’s borders, Russian chemistry professor Dmitri Mendeleev published his periodic table and Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell put forth his theory on electromagnetic theory. The intense industrialization that enveloped London gave way to a number of workers’ union formations and resolutions, including the 1868 establishment of the Trades Union Congress; the passing of the Trade Union Act and the Criminal Law Amendment Act, both in 1871; and the 1880 ratification of the Employers’ Liability Act (Cook & Keith, 1975, p. 256-257).

Getting to the heart of Holmes’s character and strategy. This A Study in Scarlet graphic novel was adapted by Ian Edginton and illustrated by I.N.J. Culbard.

The industrialization, and the rapidly growing population, of London brought the need for crime reform. In 1829 the London Metropolitan Police was instituted, although the positive impact of this did not reach as far as the countryside or the boroughs (Smith, 1988, p. 200). While scarlet fever, diphtheria, measles, and smallpox, among other diseases, ravaged the lower classes of the population, the British population saw an overall improvement in health. This improvement was in part due to institution of innovative housing, sewage, and water supply regulations (Pinkus, 1988, p. 355). The medical profession’s advancements in germ theory, bacterial theory, and anesthetics and the antiseptic method also contributed to an overall healthier population in England (Pinkus, 1988, p. 492). On the education front, the 1870 Elementary Education Act ensured that elementary education was given to all children in London and Wales. A decade later elementary education was enforced by law until the age of ten (Novo, 1988, p. 242-243).

The Mormon community, better known as the Latter-Day Saints Church, plays a central role in the second half of A Study in Scarlet. Founded by American Joseph Smith, Jr. in 1830, Smith claimed to have received prophetic dreams that lead him to holy scriptures, now known as the Book of Mormon. Hostility has marked much of the church’s history, with Mormon settlers persecuted and driven out by their neighbours in many cities across the United States of America. (Arrington, 1991, p. 748-749). This hostility between the Mormon community and their neighbours reached a fever pitch in 1844, when Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were arrested for inciting a riot in their home of Nauvoo, Illinois. The jail where the brothers were held was stormed by an angry mob, who murdered the Smith brothers (Arrington, p. 749). Brigham Young, an 1832 convert to the Church of Latter-Day Saints and a fervent follower of Joseph Smith, was chosen as the new leader of the religious community after Smith’s murder – a position he held until his death in 1877. While the Mormon community continued to experience harassment and ignorance from others, Young was able to influence the state of Utah to give women the vote in 1870 (Arrington, 1991, p. 1185-1186).

A fervent believer in psychic mediums, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is pictured with a psychic extra in 1922. Barlow Collection, British Library, London.

Book’s History

Since first being published, A Study in Scarlet has enjoyed a steady publication history, if not a vigorous one. A Study in Scarlet is available in a number of formats, including as an ebook, on Project Gutenberg (2010). As mentioned above, The British Medical Journal has mentioned Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle many times, delighting that Conan Doyle represented Dr. Watson as an avid reader of the publication. Indeed, Conan Doyle’s first scientific publication was a letter to The British Medical Journal, reporting on an experiment he had carried out himself (Harris, 2003, p. 449). To speak to the eventual meaningfulness and authenticity of Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson to the British public, “scholarly ‘biographies’ of both Holmes and Watson appeared in 1932” (Saler, 2003, p. 600).

While A Study in Scarlet, and the other Holmes books for this matter, did not make immediate waves in many literary and scholarly circles, many academics have found their inspiration in these books. The interdisciplinary nature of these studies is astonishing, considering “the limitations” defined by Dr. Watson on Sherlock Holmes’s own knowledge. Ehrenkranz (1983) applauds Conan Doyle’s representation of tropical infection-stricken military servicemen in A Study in Scarlet (p. 222). Jann (1990) has pointed out that Holmes’s astute observations of individuals’ habitual behaviour relate to the coding of the social body as a whole. The advantage taken by Holmes of Freudian slips, and the very psychoanalysis of Freud himself, has been explored in academia (During, 1997; Jann, p. 686). In another branch of science, Krogman (1955) commented upon the anthropological approach employed by Sherlock Holmes in the investigation of murders. Berg (1970) stated that Holmes is a model for forensic scientists and others involved in crime detection.

Literary scholars have also been motivated to study and comment upon the Holmes books. McConnell (1987) noted that T.S. Eliot was a “Sherlock Holmes enthusiast” (p. 172). In addition, McConnell suggested that despite the underwhelming reception to A Study in Scarlet, “every detective story written since Scarlet stands in its shadow” (p. 173). Kissane & Kissane (1963) compared The Hound of the Baskervilles, Conan Doyle’s 1902 Sherlock Holmes tale, to the earlier Sherlock Holmes adventures, stating that The Hound of the Baskervilles “stands above its author’s other works at the same time that it stands for his predominance in the field of detective fiction” (p. 353). Atkinson (1980) suggests that English teachers should implement Sherlock Holmes novels in teaching students “the process of fiction itself” and “the relationship between fact and meaning” (p. 153).

The adventures of Holmes and Watson are continually renewed for new audiences, many to great acclaim. Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes) and Nigel Bruce (Dr. Watson) appeared in fourteen Sherlock Holmes films between 1939 and 1946.

Present and the Future

Current reviews of A Study in Scarlet are mixed. On GoodReads, a popular book review web site, Tatiana (2011) states that “at the half point […] the story completely changes its course and becomes the most awkward introduction of the murderer’s back story and motives involving Mormons, polygamy, violence, money, and Brigham Young. The structure of The Study in Scarlet is utterly bizarre”. Also giving her opinion on GoodReads, Maddalena (2012) states that she was prompted to read A Study in Scarlet by the Sherlock Holmes movies and the BBC television series. Unlike Tatiana, Maddalena says that “the story is interesting, the writing good, the characters quite likeable (well, most of the time)”.

On Amazon, an online store that also allows users to provide reviews of a given book, the split reaction is similar to that seen in the reviews on GoodReads. On Amazon Paul Weiss (2007) questions the accuracy of the depiction of Mormons, and notes that Conan Doyle “is clearly new to the craft of writing mysteries and the great detective’s debut outing suffers from characteristic first novel and new character jitters”. Nicola Manning (2011) enjoyed the introduction to and interaction between Holmes and Watson, stating that “both Holmes and Watson came across as genuine”.

While A Study in Scarlet has not necessarily gained in popularity, it certainly has not lost its audience. The 2009 adaptation of Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr. in the title role drew a large crowd, collecting $208.7 million at the box office (Rotten Tomatoes, n.d.a). The 2011 sequel A Game of Shadows, also starring Downey Jr., brought in a respectable $186.8 (Rotten Tomatoes, n.d.b.). The Friends of the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection, an initiative of the Toronto Public Library, ensure that the surrounding communities are aware of and have access to the library’s substantial collection of Conan Doyle’s works, as well as creating programmes and activities that promote the collection (Friends of the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection, n.d.). On the other hand, in August 2011 A Study in Scarlet was removed from the reading list in Albemarle County Schools in Virginia due to its depiction of Mormons as tyrannical and heartless zealots (Flood, 2011). One thing is almost certain: the first edition of A Study in Scarlet, the original Beeton’s Christmas Annual, will continue to grow in price. In 2007 a copy sold for $156,000 at Sotheby’s auction house in London, making it one of the most expensive magazines in the world (Stock, 2012).


Arrington, L.J. (1991). “Mormons.” In The Reader’s Companion to American History. Foner, E. & Garraty, J.A. (Eds.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, pp. 749-750.

Arrington, L.J. (1991). “Young, Brigham.” In The Reader’s Companion to American History. Foner, E. & Garraty, J.A. (Eds.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, pp. 1185-1186.

Atkinson, M. (1980). Sherlock Holmes and “the red-headed league”: A symbolic paradigm for the teaching of plot. College Literature, 7(2), 153-157. Retrieved March 20, 2012 from JSTOR.

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Ehrenkranz, N.J. (1987). A. Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, and murder by tropical infection. Reviews of Infectious Diseases, 9(1), 222-225. Retrieved March 15, 2012 from JSTOR.

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Flood, A. (2011). School bans ‘anti-Mormon’ Sherlock Holmes book. The Guardian. Retrieved March 24, 2012 from http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/aug/16/school-bans-anti-mormon-sherlock-holmes

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Maddalena. (2012). After watching both the Guy Ritchie’s movies and the BBC series. GoodReads. Retrieved March 21, 2012 from http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10614665-a-study-in-scarlet

Manning, N. (2011). Wonderful adaptation of the classic. Amazon. http://www.amazon.ca/Penguin-Classics-Study-In-Scarlet/dp/0140439080/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1333471905&sr=1-3

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Tatiana. (2011). Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel is utterly unimpressive. GoodReads. Retrieved March 21, 2012 from http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/102868.A_Study_in_Scarlet

Weiss, P. (2007). Dr Watson, I’d like you to meet Mr Sherlock Holmes! Amazon. Retrieved March 21, 2012 from http://www.amazon.ca/Penguin-Classics-Study-In-Scarlet/dp/0140439080/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1333471905&sr=1-3

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Young, W.J. (1934). Origins of Sherlock Holmes. The British Medical Journal, 2(3842), pp. 374-375.


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