A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four | Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The cover of Doyle's A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the FourSherlock Holmes is the lead character in four novels and five collections of short stories that were written between 1887 and 1927.

The Collector’s Library has bound the first two novels (1887, 1890) together in a small finely-crafted volume. Call me a book snob, but there’s something satisfying about reading a cloth-bound gilt-edged book with a ribbon to mark your place. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the remaining volumes in this series (I have already started with The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.)

A Study in Scarlet

Here is where the whole mythology begins.

Dr. Watson, assistant surgeon during the war in India, returned to London wounded from Jezail bullet. An old friend met him in a bar and heard that he is looking for some reasonable lodging. This friend connects Watson with his soon-to-be roommate: Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is introduced as a very careful man who considers everything very logically and methodologically. Watson is intrigued.

Within a few chapters we find a dead body, incompetent detectives, and the word RACHE (a literary precursor to redrum?) written on the wall in scarlet.

The book is divided into two halves, with the second beginning on a different continent in an earlier era. A dehydrated man and child are about to die on the Sierra Blanco when they are saved by a wagon train of Mormons making their way to their promised land. It was painful to read the way that the Brit, Doyle, painted the majestic Sierra region of the United States:

They all preserve, however, the common characteristics of barrenness, inhospitality and misery. There are no inhabitants of this land of despair. (93)

The novel reaches a satisfying conclusion when the two stories are brought together. The villain is caught and a full explanation of his actions are recorded. A Study in Scarlet not only introduced the world to one of the most popular amateur detectives of all time, it takes the reader across continents on an exciting mystery.

The Sign of the Four

The second Sherlock Holmes novel reminds the reader immediately of the distance between Nineteenth Century England and Twenty-First Century North America. Here’s the first paragraph:

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sign of satisfaction. (171)

Aside from the disdain of Dr. Watson, this habit (a seven percent solution of cocaine) was apparently an acceptable way to pass the time. Holmes found it difficult to live without a mental challenge—some mystery to be engaged in—so he passed the time with recreational drugs.

Fortunately, a mystery appeared forthwith. Holmes’ brilliant powers of deduction are put to the test with a dead body, a peg-legged villain, and small poison blow-darts. The mystery ends with a climax that would be at home in any modern action film.

These two early Sherlock Holmes novels not only provide the reader with good mystery stories, they open a window into the pre-CSI world of Nineteenth Century England.

—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four (London: Collector’s Library, 2005).

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