Plot Summary of A Study in Scarlet
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson
The characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are two of the most famous figures from British literature. Original creations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the pair would appear in four novels and 56 short stories, as penned by the author, and the first of these stories was “A Study in Scarlet.”
A Study in Scarlet from Beeton's Christmas Annual 1887
The World Is Introduced to Sherlock Holmes
Today the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are linked with the Strand Magazine, the monthly magazine where most of the Sherlock Holmes stories were published. The first story about the consulting detective though would appear not in the Strand but in Beeton’s Christmas Annual of 1887.
Conan Doyle had written the piece in 1886, during a quite period at his Portsmouth doctor’s practice, and had sold the rights to the story for £25. Doyle hoping that this sale would lead to greater things.
A Study in Scarlet would appear alongside two plays, R. André’s “Food for Powder” and C.J. Hamilton’s “The Four-Leaved Shamrock”, in the 168 page magazine; with the magazine sold for 1 shilling. A Study in Scarlet received favourable, although not sensational, reviews.
Three years later Holmes and Watson would make their second appearance together, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote “The Sign of the Four” for Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. National and international fame for Conan Doyle and his creations though only came in 1891 when the short stories started to appear in the Stand Magazine.
Despite the slow start, A Study in Scarlet is now widely considered to be one of the greatest mystery novels ever written.
A Short Review of A Study in Scarlet
Overall A Study in Scarlet is a good story, and yet there are elements which are often perceived as being negative.
One central criticism often raised is the fact that the reader has no way of solving the case as the story evolves; the necessary clues are just not there, and the solution only comes when Sherlock Holmes unmasks the culprit.
A second criticism comes from the fact that the solution to the problem effectively comes half way through the story, with the second half given over to a long winded flashback to help explain why the crimes have been committed. The flashback to a time thirty years before and on the other side of the Atlantic is not really required, or at least is not required in as much depth.
The negatives are of course balanced out with plenty of positives. The story itself is well written, and the pace of the story is just right to keep the reader involved in the story.
Of course A Study in Scarlet also introduces the reader to a number of important characters that appear in the canon of Sherlock Holmes. There is of course the world’s only consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, a brilliant minded man, but a man who is also ignorant about many other things. There is also Dr John Watson, Holmes’ chronicler, an ex-army man who is brave and dogged but without the intuition of his friend.
A Study in Scarlet also sees the appearance of Lestrade and Gregson, two detectives from Scotland Yard, and policemen who Holmes thinks are the best that the British police can offer. The Baker Street Irregulars, the street urchins used by Holmes to gather information, also appear.
The original story is now in the public domain as the copyright has expired in most countries, and therefore can be downloaded from sources such as Project Gutenberg.
Additionally the story has been adapted many times for stage and screen, with poetic license often taken in the adaptation of the story. One of the most recent adaptations occurred in “A Study in Pink” from the BBC Sherlock series, a story which kept a number of original features, but also used these original features to throw off the viewer.
Spoiler Alert - Plot Summary for A Study in Scarlet
The story is initially set in 1881, and is written as if it were the memoirs of Watson. The opening pages see Dr Watson in London having been invalided out of the army where he had served in Afghanistan as a doctor. In London, Watson happens across an old acquaintance, a man named Stamford, and it is through this friend that Holmes and Watson are brought together. Both men are on the lookout for some digs at a reasonable cost.
It is during the first meeting of Holmes and Watson when the observational powers of Holmes are first revealed, as Holmes correctly identifies Watson as an injured ex-army doctor.
Ultimately Holmes and Watson take up residence at 221B Baker Street, but Watson soon realises that he knows very little about his housemate, and so starts making his own observations. A great number of people seem to visit Holmes, but Watson is never present at these meetings. Watson also observes the wide range knowledge of Holmes, but also recognises the massive gaps of knowledge that also exist.
Eventually though Watson is told that Holmes is the world’s only Consulting Detective, and Watson is invited to a crime scene, where Gregson and Lestrade, pivotal figures from later stories, are to be found.
At the crime scene, the body of Enoch Drebber is to be found, by whom the word Rache, German for revenge, is written in blood. Little is known about Drebber, aside from the fact he is in London with his secretary, a man by the name of Stangerson.
Holmes recognises the symptoms of poisoning and sets a trap for the murderer. A woman’s wedding ring has been left behind, and so the owner of the lost ring is invited, by newspaper advert, to collect it. The trap ultimately fails, as it was an old woman who came to collect, and indeed the old woman had managed to elude Holmes as he followed her. Holmes though surmises that the woman was merely an accomplice of the murderer, rather than being the murderer herself. Meanwhile Gregson and Lestrade are pursuing their own suspects, Gregson indeed having gone so far as to arrest one of these suspects, although of course it is the wrong man.
A second poisoning is uncovered when Drebber’s friend Stangerson is found dead, again with the word Rache written down. This time some pills are also found, and Holmes discovers that one pill is poison and one is harmless.
At this point one of the Baker Street Irregulars announces that the Hansom Cab is downstairs waiting for Holmes. When the cab driver ascends into 221B Baker Street, Holmes restrains him, and announces he has found the murderer of Drebber and Stangerson, a man called Jefferson Hope.
The story then becomes unnecessarily convoluted with a flashback to Utah some 34 years earlier when the tale of a rescue by Mormons is told. The rescued pair are John Ferrier and a girl called Lucy; these pair would then become part of the Mormon outpost at Salt Lake City.
Ultimately the love of Jefferson Hope, a non-Mormon, Lucy, is married off to Drebber, in preference to Stangerson. Stangerson is revealed to have murdered John Ferrier. The marriage of Drebber and Lucy is short-lived though, as Lucy dies within a month, dying of a “broken heart”, and so Hope dedicates the rest of his life to getting revenge on Drebber and Stangerson.
In America Hope comes close on a number of occasions to killing the pair, but after many years, the two men leave the United States for Europe, and ultimately the pair arrive in London. Hope eventually tracks the two Mormons down to the city, and works as a cabby to narrow down the search even further.
Hope explains how his victims had the choice of a pill to see if they lived or died, although Stangerson had been stabbed as he tried to overpower Hope.
With the arrest made Gregson and Lestrade get the credit for the successful outcome, much to the disgust of Watson. Watson’s disgust would be placated by his own recording and publishing of the true events. Hope himself was never brought to trial though as he died from an aneurysm in the heart.
A Study in Scarlet
- Date of Events - March 1881
- Client - Gregson and Lestrade
- Locations - London and Utah
- Villain - Jefferson Hope
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Colin Quartermain