Fandom can be a terrifying thing. Back in the Victorian era, one poor soul called Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about a fantastic mystery-solving detective that fans couldn’t get enough of, even when he himself got tired of the character. They were so insistent that he keep writing stories about Sherlock Holmes that Doyle actually killed off his main character to get them to stop bothering him. It didn’t work and they protested so vocally that Doyle had to bring him back to life for several more volumes. This just goes to show you that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Personally, I love the thought of rabid Victorian fans and think it’s a shame that we’ll never know how many if them secretly shipped Johnlock. A Study in Scarlet is the first adventure of Sherlock Holmes, and one I felt was fairly appropriate to tackle this month. As a side note, I also highly recommend the audio book series on Project Gutenberg – if nothing else, then for the way the narrator says “Good heavens, Holmes!” which never fails to make me smile.
On to the plot. Our tale is written by one Dr. John H. Watson, who is in no way an objective crime reporter, as is made clear by his beginning with his own history. He relates becoming a doctor in London, joining the army, spending a tour in Afghanistan before getting shot up and knocked down by fever, and getting sent back to London, where he has been staying at a hotel until the point where he has run out of money. Fortunately, he runs into an old friend who just so happens to work in a laboratory and knows someone looking for a roommate to split the cost of a London flat. This friend warns Watson that the man is a little odd (understatement of the year), but Watson doesn’t care so long as the man’s a studious person who isn’t prone to noise or excitement. Well, one out of three will have to do.
They visit the lab to meet Sherlock Holmes, who is celebrating his latest development of a new forensic test for bloodstains. Holmes already has in mind a place on Baker Street, and they do the traditional roommate interview: “Do you mind tobacco? Assorted chemicals? Me doing the occasional experiment? Sulking for days on end? Violins?” asks Holmes. (Sure, when he puts it that way, his habits sound like a minor inconvenience.) Watson has his own vices and asks “Do you mind my bulldog puppy? Or the fact that I don’t like arguments, get up at ungodly hours and am extremely lazy?” None of these issues appear to be deal breakers, so the two save the revelation of the rest of their charming quirks for another day. Watson shakes Holmes’s bandaged hand (presumably the ethics committee isn’t around to faint at the sight of him using his own body for his bloodstain experiments) and they move in to the flat the next day.
There are a few weeks in which Holmes is not a difficult person to live with, and Watson is fascinated by him. Holmes knows a lot about a random assortment of things, and Watson starts to keep little journals of stalkery notes about what he does and does not know. Things known: Opium and various poisons, soils, chemistry, anatomy, sensational literature, British law, boxing, swordplay, and the violin. Things not known: Contemporary literature, heliocentric theories, the solar system, politics, and botany. Well, when you really think about it, life is a bit simpler when you don’t have to get worked up over who’s Prime Minister or whether Pluto is a planet or not.
Alas, the honeymoon period doesn’t last forever and soon Watson starts becoming concerned at all the shady characters who keep dropping by their flat. He reads an article on the science of deduction that is sitting around the flat, and declares it to be “ineffable twaddle” (one of my new favorite phrases). It turns out Holmes is the one who wrote it, and he sets about explaining that, in his capacity as a consulting detective, he can deduce facts from tiny details. Watson declares his roommate to be quite arrogant (even if he does happen to be impressively right).
Later, Holmes gets a letter from Scotland Yard requesting his help on a mysterious murder, and Holmes invites Watson to come along. As one does with confidential murder cases. At the scene of the crime, Holmes is dismissive to the various detectives (namely, Gregson and Lestrade), collects a few clues such as a woman’s wedding ring, and notices someone has written Rache in blood on the wall. (This seems like a rather big clue to have missed before.) While the police deduce that someone was trying to write the name Rachel, Holmes naturally assumes someone intended to write the German word for revenge, despite the fact that the victim is American. In the police officers’ defense, I have to say that if I were trying to get revenge, I wouldn’t bother writing the word revenge, I would just write the name of the person I wanted revenge on. Then again, obviously, I would not be a killer worthy of Holmes’ time. Everyone present also assumes that the killer was the one who wrote the thing on the wall in his own blood, because the victim shows no signs of struggle or wounds. Holmes informs us that the victim, named Drebber, was poisoned, and we go with it because at this point, he’s the only one who seems to have eyes. He has furthermore deduced the height of the killer and discovered from the footprints that the two knew each other.
Holmes interviews a constable and determines the killer is still looking for the ring he picked up at the crime scene. Because nothing else could possibly have been of value. He does the logical thing and puts a “Ring found” ad in the paper, assuming that the murderer will show up to reclaim it. (Are we really expecting the killer to be quite that stupid?)
An old woman shows up to claim the ring, which Holmes has switched out with a fake. Holmes decides to follow her after she takes it, assuming she is an accomplice to the murderer. After a short walk, however, she gets into a cab and vanishes soon after. Holmes naturally concludes that she was actually a fast, healthy young man in disguise, (because heaven forbid he get outsmarted by a little old lady).
Fortunately, Holmes has a network of street beggars whom he employs to bring him news of goings on, and when he returns to the flat, he sends them on a mission. (Good thing the justice system doesn’t require reliable witnesses…) Gregson appears at the door to inform them that Scotland Yard has the killer, based on a hat they found at the scene of the crime. They trace it back to the location where the victim had stayed, pinning the blame on a young navy man who presumably killed the man to defend his sister’s honor. Gregson and Holmes congratulate each other when Lestrade appears to inform them of another death – this time, the victim’s secretary, Stangerson, has been found dead in his hotel room with some pills by his bed and the word Rache written on the wall in blood. Turns out the congratulations were premature.
Holmes is thrilled to hear about the pills, and convinces Lestrade to hand them over. He has Watson bring up an old sick dog that he happens to have lying around downstairs (Why, we ask. No one answers us. This is completely normal for them.) Holmes then dissolves half a pill in water (destroying part of the evidence in the process) and feeds it to the dog. (The ASPCA is presumably outraged, having been in existence for 20 years at this point.)
The dog, for its part, does nothing. Holmes gets impatient.
He cuts the other pill in half and feeds it to the dog. This time, the dog keels over dead. There are several lessons here: 1. Never mix your poisons in with your vitamins. 2. Don’t feed your dog from your medicine cabinet. 3. Pay very close attention when your future roommate says he conducts the “occasional experiment.”
The lesson that Holmes draws from the experiment is that one pill was harmless and the other was a deadly poison and that there will be no more murders. One of his street urchins shows up to inform him that the cab has arrived, Holmes handcuffs the cab man and declares he has found the murderer. The man, named Jefferson Hope, struggles to escape and tries to defenestrate himself, only managing to get partway out the window before Gregson and Lestrade stop him. Holmes congratulates himself on a job well done and asks if there are any questions for him.
When the next chapter begins, we are inexplicably dropped into a description of an American landscape – namely, a portion of it which constitutes an “arid and repulsive desert” that ranges from the Sierra Nevada to Nebraska and preserves “the common characteristics of barrenness, inhospitality, and misery.”
To which I reply, Hey, I happen to live in part of that desert! I then pause a moment and add, Wait, what happened with the cab driver? Where are we? Why did you strand us in the desert? To which Doyle responds by giving a long description of the Sierra Blanco, which is not a place I’ve ever heard of, so I don’t feel too bad about it being insulted. His narrative follows a random traveler out in the forsaken desert, who is carrying a rifle and a bundled shawl which happens to contain a whiney little girl. Just an average day, then. It soon becomes evident that the rest of their party has died, and they too are dying of thirst and hunger. Fortunately, another party comes along to rescue the starving man, named John Ferrier, and the whiney little girl he has just adopted, Lucy.
It turns out the rescue party is a band of Mormons who will only allow the man and the girl to stay with them if they convert. The man doesn’t care one way or another about religion, but he’ll do anything for a decent meal and a ride out of the desert, so he accepts. They make their way to the glorious land of Utah and settle in Salt Lake City. Time passes, Lucy grows up, and a tumbleweed rolls by in my mind. I am still puzzled as to why we are here. Did the printer make a mistake in my book and stick in a bunch of pages from a western novel? As I ponder this, Lucy falls in love with a man named Jefferson Hope.
Aha! At last we meet the man whose name matches the killer from that Sherlock Holmes story so many pages ago! There is a point to all of this! Alas, the plot continues.
Jefferson is a pioneer from California, and he proposes to Lucy before he sets off on a dangerous trip to Nevada. Meanwhile, the single female population in the Mormon town is running low due to polygamy, and there are rumors of new brides being kidnapped from elsewhere. At one point, John Ferrier chats awhile with Brigham Young, who helpfully “recommends” that his daughter marry a nice Mormon boy within the month or suffer the consequences. John and Lucy decide it’s probably better to leave Utah as soon as her fiancé gets back. Upon returning home the next day, they meet Joseph Stangerson and young Drebber, two local men who are interested in acquiring another wife. (Aha! The names of the victims from that Sherlock Holmes case!) It turns out Stangerson only has four wives while Drebber has seven, but they’re both intent on marrying Lucy. John isn’t having any of it, and boots them out of the house. He wakes the next day with a semi-threatening note paperclipped to his blanket which says “Twenty-nine days are given you for amendment and then—.” There isn’t actually a warning following this, which, honestly, is pretty lazy as far as threats go. I mean, you could at least say something vague like “you will pay” like most generic villains do. There are standards for this sort of thing. At any rate, every day after that, a countdown is left on his house – numbers painted on the door, burned onto the ceiling, etc. Apparently these guys really don’t have enough to keep them busy at home.
With only one day in the countdown to spare, Jefferson returns home, so close to starvation that he writhes along the ground like a snake to the front door (ahaha, did you see that Biblical reference there). After a meal, he, John, and Lucy pack up their stuff and head for Nevada. During their exodus, however, John dies and Lucy is carried back to the city to be married to Drebber, where she pines away over Jefferson and dies after a month, with only her co-wives to mourn her. Jefferson returns for revenge, ripping the wedding ring off the finger of Lucy’s corpse and retreating to the wilderness to become a wild mountain man. As one does. Occasionally he rides into town to shoot at the two men, just to keep them on their toes. After awhile, they do the sensible thing and leave Salt Lake City. They travel to Europe and eventually end up in London, where our story finally picks up Holmes again (to my great relief).
It turns out that Jefferson is really quite polite to the officers. He hopes no one was hurt and cooperates with his arrest, but informs them he probably won’t be around for the trial – apparently an aortic aneurism will kill him in a matter of days (probably shouldn’t have been defenestrating yourself, then) – but he does want to give them an account of the murders so he isn’t remembered as a common cut-throat. The result is, of course, the confusing stack of pages preceding this chapter, which would probably have benefitted from an editor. He explains that the two people he killed were murderers for killing John and Lucy, though I don’t think kidnapping and her death from a broken heart is quite the same as murder. Still a crime, though, which is good enough for the old west, I suppose.
Jefferson explains how he got various jobs to fund his pursuit of the men. In London, for instance, he became a cab driver. He followed Drebber while he was drunk and, using his knowledge of poisons from a previous gig as a janitor eavesdropping on a chemistry teacher in America, offered the man two pills: one harmless and one poisonous. This seems like a very convoluted way to get revenge. Drebber took the poison pill and Jefferson wrote Rache on the wall in his own blood (apparently his nose was bleeding at the time) because he saw it done in New York over a German victim. All the cool kids were doing it, I guess.
Jefferson next paid a visit to Stangerson’s hotel, pretending to be drunk to get in, and climbed into his room via the bedroom window (which is very spry for a man who’s dying). Stangerson was not impressed by the pill game and instead tried to kill Jefferson, which is probably a more reasonable reaction, in the long run. Jefferson retaliated, stabbing him in the heart and clearing his own conscience by assuming he would have picked the poison anyway because he’s a Bad Man (and we all know what God does to Bad Men). After confessing that he hired another man to pretend to be the old woman retrieving the ring, Jefferson is led off to prison, where he dies just before the trial.
Watson laments that Gregson and Lestrade won’t get their praise, and Holmes just waves the case off as a simple one, admitting that he solved it quickly based on the small tread of the cab’s tire tracks, the smell of poison on the dead man’s breath, the wedding ring, and the pills which were clearly part of a simplified game of Russian Roulette. I mean, obviously that was the only conclusion one could have reached.
Watson is nevertheless impressed, and thinks Holmes is deserving of public merit. He concludes the narration to our first Sherlock Holmes story with a little Latin ditty that means “The public hiss at me, but I cheer myself when in my own house I contemplate the coins in my strong-box.” It’s kind of a weird phrase to know in Latin, but I like to assume that Watson’s interests are actually almost as bizarre as Holmes’, and that the two will be perfectly happy together.