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Who can really add to all that has been written over the years about this classic? The reader cannot help but be struck with Doyle's writing style. Its economy is a marvel. It is crisp and crackling, not to mention spellbinding. Even a straightforward introduction is masterly handled. Here, for example, is Watson telling us about the crime scene we are about to enter: "....I will.... describe events which occurred before we arrived on the scene by the light of knowledge which came to us afterwards."
Of course Doyle can establish a new scene with the same economy, but turn up the atmospheric temperature a good deal higher. He begins his retrospective "Scowrers" section in the snowbound Gilmerton Mountains, where a single track railroad leads us through a "long, winding tortuous valley," which is part of the "gloomy land of black crag and tangled forest."
This book is really two books woven together by the mysterious history of the central crime victim. The first is set in England, the second in the United States. Keep a sharp ear out for Doyle's deft handling of the King's English and then its transformation into the 19th Century Americanized version. The King's English is all about civility and civilization. In the American tongue, Doyle takes us to the fringes of civilization, to a Western mining town, where cruelty -- not civility -- is the order of the day.
I suppose one could argue that Holmes' deductive reasoning is the ultimate bulwark against chaos and violence. Perhaps for another Sherlock Holmes book. But I can't help but cite one example of Watson's obvious English sense of what is proper. Holmes' companion/narrator takes a stroll in an old-world garden surrounded by ancient yew trees, where he accidentally overhears the murder victim's wife laughing. Worse, she is laughing with her just murdered husband's faithful male companion. As Watson the narrator puts it, "I bowed with a coldness which showed, I dare say, very plainly the impression which had been produced upon my mind......I greeted the lady with reserve. I had grieved with her grief in the dining room. Now I met her appealing gaze with an unresponsive eye." Good ol' Watson!
May I suggest to the reader that, after this classic, you turn to R.L. Stevenson's, "The Master of Ballantrae"? Stevenson's masterpiece also jumps from the old world to the new, and like "The Valley of Fear" the new world for Stevenson also represents murder and mayhem. Something to ponder from these two great Scottish novelists.
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Watson's first impressions of Holmes are merely that he is a man enshrouded in mystery and eccentricity, and Watson politely restrains his curiosity by avoiding asking too many intrusive questions, despite the parade of strange individuals that come to their apartment to consult Holmes, and despite his bemusement at Holmes' passion for playing the violin and his egotism. Watson's perplexation at Holmes' character and profession is slowly unravelled in the second chapter which Doyle appropriately titles 'The Science of Deduction'. Watson observes that 'his zeal for certain studies was remarkable, and within eccentric limits his knowledge was so extraordinarily ample and minute that his observations have fairly astounded me 'His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing ' That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.'(p11). Holmes apparently is brilliant at identifying a stain on your trousers, but completely ignorant about the most elementary contemporary political events.
Ironically, Watson's inability to deduce Holmes' profession proves that he lacks the very ability that he is seeking to uncover in Holmes: deduction. For Holmes doesn't just excel in specialized knowledge, but especially in the science of deduction and logic. By utilizing the skills of observation and analysis Holmes asserts that logic could solve all virtually all problems. In his words: 'From a drop of water, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it. Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study, nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest possible perfection in it. Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the inquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems. Let him, on meeting a fellow-mortal, learn at a glance to distinguish the history of the man, and the trade or profession to which he belongs. Puerile as such an exercise may seem, it sharpens the faculties of observation, and teaches on where to look and what to look for. By a mans' finger-nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boots, by his trouser-knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirtcuffs ' by each of these things a man's calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent inquirer in any case is almost inconceivable.' (p14-15). Watson calls this science of deduction 'ineffable twaddle', but as we know, this is the vintage Holmes we love and the very core of his being. Not only does he prove it to Watson by remarkably deducing that Watson had served duty in Afghanistan, but by collaring the criminal in a murder case.
The story itself consists in two parts: the first part introduces us to Holmes and Watson, and describes the murder of Enoch Drebber and his secretary Joseph Stangerson, and several failed attempts of Scotland Yard detectives to solve it, concluding with Holmes unmasking the real perpetrator, to the complete astonishment of all present. The second part is a flashback, explaining the background and motives for the murder, as finally Holmes relates the observations and deductions that led him to solving it. In short, 'the crime was the result of an old-standing and romantic feud, in which love and Mormonism bore a part.' (p103)
But what is fascinating about 'A Study in Scarlet' is not so much the mystery, but the man: Holmes himself. Doyle would later learn to eliminate some of the excess baggage present in this story (such as the extended flashback) and focus on Holmes and his deductions. The characterization of Holmes as an eccentric man driven by logic is wonderfully created for the first time in this novel. Already here is the foundation of the Sherlock Holmes that would become so successful in all of Doyle's later stories. A few quotes illustrate how the tone of the deductive Holmes is set: 'In solving a problem of this sort, the grand thing is to be able to reason backward. That is a very useful accomplishment, and a very easy one, but people do not practise it much.' (p99-100) 'There is no branch of detective science which is so important and so much neglected as the art of tracing footsteps.' (p100) 'You see, the whole thing is a chain of logical sequences without a break or flaw.' (p102)
Here the successful formula is already established: Scotland Yard is baffled, so is his foil the bumbling doctor Watson, and so are we the readers. Holmes has long solved the mystery before we have even begun identifying red herrings, and it is when he sits by the fire and explains to Watson the process of deduction that we curl up in delight. The partnership between the super-sleuth Holmes and his beloved side-kick Watson all starts here, and if you love Sherlock Holmes, you won't want to miss it!
All becomes clear when Watson is called on to assist Holmes as he solves a murder mystery which completely baffles Scotland Yard. The story moves quickly to the inevitable capture of the "bad guy," and then through a lengthy flashback sequence we discover the "bad guy's" motive. Next we return to the "present," where the story draws to its satisfying conclusion.
Thus begins a crimefighting partnership that Conan Doyle took through four novels and fifty six short stories. And long after Conan Doyle put down his pen forever, the parternship continues to thrive in countless theatrical performances, radio plays, movies, and literary pastiches.
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The author had Sherlock Holmes killed but public demand was so high for further adventures that we find him back in action. Determined to have a permanent retirement, Sherlock Holmes moves into a small farm and dedicates himself to other matters, refusing to offer his intellectual ability to the government. With World War I approaching he backs up on this determination and his return into action is narrated in "His Last Bow." The cases range from theft, burglary, kidnapping, to murder, and in all of the them Sherlock Holmes is a master in the science of deduction and analysis.
By those considered expert "Sherlockians," this is not Holmes at his best and certainly not as good as his masterpiece "The Hound of the Baskervilles."
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