A Study in Scarlet Analysis Example

In 1887, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s very first Sherlock Holmes book, A Study in Scarlet, was published. Since then Holmes has become one of the most well known and beloved literary characters. Though not credited with being the first detective novel, Doyle’s creation has gone on to become a staple of not only the mystery fiction genre, but also pop culture.  Holmes has even been awarded the title “Most Portrayed Literary Character in Film” by Guinness World Records.   

Forty years later, art critic Willard Huntington Wright, who wrote mystery novels under the pen name S. S. Van Dine, created  a set of 20 ‘rules’ for writing detective fiction.  In these rules, Van Dine lays out popular mystery cliches, and other elements to avoid when writing detective fiction. Several of the rules even reference Doyle’s creation. Although A Study in Scarlet, was published before these rules were created, there are several common aspects and contradictions in the story. After close comparison, it becomes clear that Doyle’s style, specifically in A Study in Scarlet, differs from Van Dine’s image of a good detective novel.  However, Doyle’s story has a different purpose then the mystery fiction described by Van Dine. A comparison between Van Dine’s rules and A Study in Scarlet illustrates how Doyles main focus was on the Sherlock and Watson rather than the mystery itself.

A Study in Scarlet begins with the introduction of Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes. The two gentlemen decide to let out an apartment together. Dr. Watson is intrigued by Holmes, and tries to understand him better  by observations. When the local police force reaches out to Holmes for help with the murder of Enoch Drebber, Watson encourages him to take the case and accompanies him to the crime scene. Sherlock investigates the crime scene and is able to reason a description of the culprit. Sherlock then uses a ring found by the body as bait, but is lead to a dead end. The murder of Joseph Stangerson occurs and is connected to Drebber’s murder. Eventually, Holmes is able to track down the criminal and has him arrested. The story then jumps to Utah, many years earlier.  

John Ferrier and his adopted daughter Lucy, are rescued in the desert by Mormons. After living with them for several years, they become threatened because Lucy wishes to marry Jefferson Hope, who is not Mormon, instead of prominent Mormon members Stangerson or Drebber. The Ferriers and Hope attempt to escape, but they are caught and John and Lucy both eventually die. Hope the dedicates his life to avenging their deaths. The narrative then returns to London, where Jefferson Hope has been arrested and confesses to the crimes.  However, Hope has an aortic aneurysm and dies before being convicted. Sherlock then relates how he solved the crime to Dr. Watson.

Van Dine’s first rule is, “The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.” The reader gets a detailed description of the crime scene. However, Sherlock examines it silently and after his examination he announces what he has already reasoned from the clues. The reader does not find out until later what the clues were that Sherlock reasoned from.  The reader does not have an opportunity to see the clues and reason from them.

In chapter 2 of the novel, Sherlock says, “You see I have a lot of special knowledge which I apply to the problem, and which facilitates matters wonderfully.” It is clear that Sherlock has knowledge that the reader may or may not have, putting the reader at a disadvantage. All of this points to the fact that the mystery fiction Van Dine has in mind is different from what Doyle is writing. 

Van Dine is looking to leveling the field for the reader, he wants the reader to have just as much opportunity as the detective to solve the mystery. Doyle, on the other hand, is not concerned with making it fair for the reader. Doyle’s focus is on the characters, specifically Holmes and Watson. The reader is presented with the mystery, but not to solve it. The intention is that the reader, in a sense, accompanies Sherlock with his investigation but does not help. The reader is meant to watch Sherlock’s genius and Watson’s assistance solve the mystery.

The tenth rule on Van Dine’s list is, “The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story - that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.” While Jefferson Hope does have a presence in the background, the reader is virtually ignorant of his presence until the mystery is solved.  In a way, Doyle wants the reader to have an interest in Hope, but at the same time, not too interested that it takes away from Holmes or Watson. There is just enough attachment to feel sympathy for Hope, but not necessarily shock or surprise at his arrest.  Hope eventually dies before his trial. However, readers are likely to be unaffected by this as his victims were not well liked characters.  

The sixteenth of Van Dine’s rules, and ironically one of the longest, concerns long passages,

“A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with sideissues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations.  Such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action, and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.”

In the beginning of the story, some time is spent on Watson trying to figure out Holmes. This portion is a little long, but it builds the foundation of the Watson and Holmes’ friendship. The reader gets to learn more about each of the two characters and begins to understand their relationship. Additionally, the reader starts to see Sherlock’s eccentricities. This focus on the two main characters reinforces the fact that Doyle’s emphasis is on the characters, rather than just the mystery. 

The other long-winded portion of the story occurs in the second half. The setting suddenly switches from England to America several years earlier. Its narrative covers the back story of Jefferson Hope. In it are long, almost tedious, descriptions of the wilderness While this portion of the book is long and seemingly out of place, it shows again Doyle’s focus on characters versus the main problem of the story. It does take away from the main story, and Doyle never used that style in his writing again.

The final rule that is relevant to A Study in Scarlet, is number fifteen, “The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent - provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face…” For a reader rereading A Study in Scarlet, it may not be entirely clear how the clues were put together. This rule connects back to rule number because of the fact that Doyle did not write this book for the reader to solve the mystery. The mystery takes a back seat in the story, because the emphasis is on the characters solving it. The story is ultimately about Sherlock Holmes, his genius at solving mysteries, and his new friendship with Dr. Watson.

S.S. Van Dine’s rules for good detective fiction are guidelines to help other mystery writers to avoid common cliches. However, when his rules are compared to the work of one of the first big mystery writers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it becomes clear that Van Dine’s idea of detective fiction is different from Doyle’s. It becomes evident that Sir Doyle’s main emphasis is on his characters, rather than the mystery itself. The mystery is not set up for the reader to figure on their own, even when reading the story again. The culprit does not play a large role in the main story, instead the reader gets a detailed backstory.



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