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A Study in Scarlet

A Study in Scarlet is a detective mystery novel written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which was first published in 1887. It is the first story to feature the character of Sherlock Holmes, who would later become one of the most famous and iconic literary detective characters, with long-lasting interest and appeal. The book's title derives from a speech given by Holmes to his companion Doctor Watson on the nature of his work, in which he describes the story's murder investigation as his "study in scarlet": "There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.

Conan Doyle wrote the novel at the age of 27. A general practice doctor in Southsea, England, he had already published short stories in several magazines of the day, such as the periodical London Society. The story was originally titled A Tangled Skein, and was eventually published by Ward Lock & Co. in Beeton's Christmas Annual 1887, after many rejections. The author received £25 in return for the full rights (although Conan Doyle had pressed for a royalty instead). The novel was first published as a book on July 1888 by Ward, Lock & Co., and featured drawings by the author's father, Charles Doyle. A second edition appeared the following year and was illustrated by George Hutchinson; a year later in 1890, J. B. Lippincott Co. released the first American version. Numerous further editions, translations and dramatisations have appeared since.

The story, and its main character, attracted little public interest when it first appeared. Only ten copies of Beeton's Christmas Annual 1887 are known to exist now and they have considerable value. Although Doyle wrote fifty-six short stories featuring Holmes, A Study in Scarlet is one of only four full-length novels in the original canon.

The novel was followed by The Sign of Four, published in 1890.

Plot summary

The novel is split into two quite separate halves. The first is titled Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of John Watson, M.D., Late of the Army Medical Department. This part is told in first person by Holmes' friend Doctor John H. Watson and describes his introduction in 1881 to Sherlock Holmes through a mutual friend and the first mystery in which he followed Holmes' investigations. The mystery revolves around a corpse found at a derelict house in Brixton, England with the word "RACHE" scrawled in blood on the wall beside the body.

Holmes firmly resolves to solve the case despite the fact that he won't be given any credit of it. For this purpose, he makes up a plan using a wedding ring that had been lost at the crime scene. After placing an ad in the newspaper, asking for the ring owner, Holmes is visited by an old woman who claims the ring. Holmes follows "her," who turns out to be a man in disguise, but the man manages to escape.

Minutes later, Holmes is visited by one of the police detectives assigned to the case, who claims that the case has been solved and the murderer is now jailed. After the detective finishes explaining how he solved the case, a second police detective (Lestrade) arrives to announce that there has been a second murder - it is clear that the man the police have arrested is innocent. The police are now completely at a loss - both detectives have arrived at dead ends.

By way of reply, Holmes announces that he himself has solved the murder and will shortly arrest the killer. Pretending to be packing his bags for a journey, he asks the waiting cab driver to come and assist him with his luggage. As soon as the cab driver appears in his room, however, Holmes takes out his handcuffs and arrests the driver. Proudly he says, "Gentlemen... Let me introduce you to Mr Jefferson Hope, the murderer of Enoch Drebber and of Joseph Strangerson.".

The second half of the story is called The Country of the Saints and jumps to the United States of America and the Mormon community, and incorporating a depiction of the Danites, including an appearance by Brigham Young in a somewhat villainous context. It is told in a third person narrative style, with an omniscient narrator, before returning in the last two chapters to Watson's account of Holmes' investigation, and then Holmes' own explanation of his solution. In these two chapters the relationship between the two halves of the novel becomes apparent. The motive for the crime is essentially one of lost love and revenge.


There are several minor inconsistencies in the story which are incompatible with later Sherlock Holmes stories. Dr Watson provides a short autobiography of himself at the start. In this he is invalided out of the army after being wounded in the shoulder in the Second Afghan War at the Battle of Maiwand. In later stories, his wound has moved to his leg.


According to a 1994 Salt Lake City newspaper article, when Doyle was asked about his depiction of the Latter Day Saints' organization as being steeped in kidnapping, murder and enslavement, he said, "all I said about the Danite Band and the murders is historical so I cannot withdraw that". However, Doyle's daughter has stated, "You know, father would be the first to admit that his first Sherlock Holmes novel was full of errors about the Mormons." Years after Doyle's death, Levi Edgar Young, a descendant of Brigham Young, and a Mormon general authority, claimed that Doyle had privately apologized.

Allusions/references from other works

Doyle paid ambiguous tribute to the influence of Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin and Émile Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq by having Holmes denounce them as "a very inferior fellow" and "a miserable bungler," respectively.

In his Naked is the Best Disguise, Samuel Rosenberg notes the similarity between Jefferson Hope's tracking of Enoch Drebber and a sequence in James Joyce's novel Ulysses. Several other associations between Doyle and Joyce are also listed in Rosenberg's book.

The British fantasy and comic book writer Neil Gaiman adapted this story to the universe of horror writer H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. It is titled A Study In Emerald and is modelled with a parallel structure.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

As the first Sherlock Holmes story published, it was fittingly the first one to be adapted to the screen. In 1914 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle authorized a silent film be produced by G. B. Samuelson. Holmes was played by James Bragington, an accountant who had never before (and evidently never after) worked as an actor. He was hired for his resemblance to Holmes as presented in the sketches originally published with the story. Unfortunately, as early silent films were made with film which itself was made with poor materials and film archiving was rare, this is now a lost film. The success of this film allowed for a second version to be produced that same year by Francis Ford, which has also been lost.

The film entitled A Study in Scarlet (1933) bears no plot relation to the novel, the producers having only purchased rights to the title, not the story. Aside from Holmes, Watson, Mrs. Hudson, and Inspector Lestrade, the only connections to the Holmes canon are a few lifts of character names (Jabez Wilson, etc.). The plot contains an element of striking resemblance to one used several years later in Agatha Christie's novel Ten Little Niggers, that of murder victims being counted off by lines from the same nursery rhyme (though the Holmes film takes the precaution of using the phrase "ten little black boys").

It has been adapted many times, although frequently only the portions of the first section of the book in which Holmes and Watson's relationship is established are used. The Ronald Howard/H. Marion Crawford television series used that section of the book as the basis for the episode "The Case of the Cunningham Heritage". The John Gielgud/Ralph Richardson radio series combined it with details from "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton" to create its "origin story". The book has rarely been adapted in full, notable instances being in the Peter Cushing/Nigel Stock television series, as an episode of CBS Radio Mystery Theater, by Bert Coules for the first project starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson and, in 2007 by M. J. Elliott for the American radio series The Classic Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. A surprisingly faithful animated version of the tale with Peter O'Toole voicing Holmes was produced in 1984 by Burbank Films and helmed by frequent Disney animator Alex Nicholas.


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