A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)

Introducing Sherlock

A Study in Scarlet is the first of the four canonical Sherlock Holmes novels. It was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1887 and attracted very little attention. Conan Doyle went on to write a sequel, The Sign of Four for Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (1890), and then persuaded Strand magazine to take 13 short stories to appear monthly in 1890-91. These stories are collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892). It was the stories which became popular and led to a further 13 being commissioned (collected as The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894).

Watson’s metafiction

The novella (130 pages) is described as being a ‘Reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson MD, late of the Army Medical Department’. This is very much of the period which revelled in intertextuality, enjoying texts made of other texts, from letters, journals, diaries, newspaper accounts etc. Later Watson reads out newspaper accounts of the murder, includes his transcript of the killer’s confession taken down shorthand, and the text includes notes, adverts, even the message scrawled in blood on the wall.

At the end of the book, Holmes laughs at the way the incompetent Scotland Yard detectives get the glory of solving the crime in the Press. Watson comforts Holmes that he will publish the truth: ‘Never mind. I have all the facts in my journal, and the public shall know them.’ To the duality of story and plot (see below), and the duality of the various disguises characters adopt in the story, is added a fundamental duality between what actually happens in the detection of the crime, and a) what is reported in the Press and b) what is published in Watson’s accounts/stories.

Watson’s career and character

For someone interested in late Victorian history, Watson’s biography as as interesting as Holmes’s. Watson took a medical degree from University of London in 1878. He enlists in the army and joins his regiment in India just in time to take part in the Second Afghan War (1878-80) and sees action in the Battle of Maiwand where he is shot in the shoulder and, upon recovering, invalided out of the service a pension. Not exactly a long career, then.

Because he is not a freak, like Holmes, his views can be presumed to be characteristic of the times and therefore have great sociological interest. It is notable, then that he refers to ‘London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained’.

Plot and story

In a way the stories are made out of, or capitalise on, one of the fundamental ideas in narrative, the difference between story and plot, or story and discourse, or fabula and sujet – ie between the actual chronological course of events in the ‘real world’ and the way the narrative reveals these for our entertainment. Study in Scarlet and most of the other Holmes stories are in two parts: the mystery; and the backstory or mystery explained. Thus:

Plot 1881. A murder in the Brixton Road, the word Rache in German written in blood; Lestrange and Godfrey of the Yard pursue their wrong-headed theories; Stangerson found dead in lodgings. Finally, in a coup de theatre, Sherlock arrests the cabman they call to their rooms.

Story 1840s. John Ferrier dying in the Salt Lake Desert with a little girl, daughter of one of his party. Rescued by the Mormons migrating to Utah, at the price of demanding they adhere to their beliefs. 1860s Ferrier thrives but the Mormons insist his (adopted) daughter, Lucy, marries one of the sons of the founding Elders – Drebber or Stangerson. Instead she loves the trapper Jefferson Hope. One night Jefferson, Ferrier and Lucy make a break for it. Three days into their trek Jefferson leaves them to catch game, returns to find Ferrier dead and Lucy kidnapped by the Mormons. She is forced to  marry Drebber, pines and dies. Jefferson vows revenge, goes away to plan. 1880s Hope returns years later to find Drebber and Stangerson have quit the Mormons and left Utah. He tracks them across the States, to Europe and to London, where he confronts Drebber with the choice of two pills he has concocted, one with deadly poison, one anodyne. Drebber picks the poison and is dead & contorted in seconds, as the police find him. Hope’s nose had bled and on a whim he wrote the German word Rache on the wall in his own blood, thus foxing the coppers but not our Sherlock.

London the cesspool of Empire

Cesspool of Empire London may well have been (see Conrad’s spooky vision of it in Heart of Darkness or Kipling’s bitter disillusionment in stories like One View of the Question); but its awesome size (4 million inhabitants!) and its place at the centre of the great Empire mean criminals and victims with concerns from all over the world turn up there and provide Holmes and Watson with a potentially vast cast of characters and limitless possible plots.


To the two categories, above, created by various literary theorists from Aristotle to Shklovsky I would add the tidy-up or wash-up, as Press Offices call it. The Post-script. Addendum. Loose ends. While awaiting trial Hope dies in custody from a weak heart brought on by a life of trial. Leaving Holmes and Watson with cheesy reflections on Justice Done.

Cover of Beeton's Christmas Annual for 1887, featuring 'A Study in Scarlet' (Wikimedia Commons)

Cover of Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, featuring ‘A Study in Scarlet’ (Wikimedia Commons)


A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1891–1892 in The Strand)
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1892–1893 in The Strand)
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1903–1904 in The Strand)
His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1908–1917)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1921–1927)

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