Ever since Sir Conan Doyle’s most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, said: “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,” fictional amateur sleuths and professional real life detectives have striven to do just that.
A Study in Scarlet was the first Sherlock Holmes adventure – and by chance, the first I ever read. To this day, some 40 years later, it remains my favourite. There is such unspeakable evil pervading the closed world of Utah’s Mormons of the 19th century that reading about it makes me shudder and count my blessings that I grew up in a family of atheists in the safety of laid-back protestant Schleswig-Holstein.
However, my reason for choosing Conan Doyle’s celebrated classic is not because of Sherlock’s brilliant deductions, it is because of the utterly brilliant use of location. The highly atmospheric descriptions of very different locations have always stayed with me as the perfect example of how influential location is in a story for drawing in the reader and how important locations are for introducing a drastic change of pace successfully.
The Meeting of two unequal Minds
Limitless greed, not religious fervour, is at the bottom of this particular murder mystery, but it is not just greed for another’s wealth and land Conan Doyle describes here. It is the coveting of somebody’s daughter for the brutal amassing of sexual slaves. It is the glorification of rape within marriage by a despotic religious sect that makes this Sherlock Holmes story so memorable and chilling. In essence, this is a revenge story, played out over a period of more than 20 years.
Holmes and Watson have just started their memorable partnership, which only comes about because Holmes has found splendid apartments in Baker Street but can’t afford to rent them on his own and Dr. Watson, badly injured in Afghanistan, has returned from the wars a broken man in need of recuperation, occupation, companionship and cheap accommodation.
Amateur Sleuth and professional Chameleon
The first three chapters are devoted to describing the unusual character of Holmes, and as such they are among the most important chapters ever written in whodunit fiction. This is a wholly new type of investigator, a consulting detective who is called in when official sources are as baffled as the ordinary man in the street. It is also one of the most unusual protagonists ever created in fiction, an arrogant, even rude man, a character it is very difficult to like or even tolerate for long. Conan Doyle introduces the reader – and the world – to the “Science of Deduction”. He also introduces us to a modern anti-hero who will resurface again and again in modern fiction, on TV and in films: the deeply flawed investigator.
When we first meet Holmes, as seen through the eyes of Dr. Watson, he is as charming as can be, friendly and smiling, even a little shy and gauche. Only when Holmes is more sure of Watson’s friendship and continued support (financial and emotional), he begins to reveal his true nature to his new flatmate. Typical for Sherlock, he doesn’t just sit there in the snug apartments of 221B Baker Street and tells his new flatmate about himself by the fireside one evening.
No, Holmes must be theatrical about it. Enter the newspaper article a smug Sherlock presents Watson with at breakfast time. Rather than admitting to having written something for a newspaper about the science of deduction, Holmes draws attention to his work by circling the headline with a pencil. Naturally, Watson misses the clue of the “drop of water” in the article completely, clearly added by Sherlock for Watson’s benefit and enlightenment.
Attentive readers will know right away that the newspaper article was written by Holmes. Watson, having missed this clue, makes fun of the newspaper writer, ridiculing the writer’s theories. However, Watson is soon made to eat his words to his great irritation. In this small episode Conan Doyle sets up the relationship of these two men for all time and reveals pretty much everything there’s to know about their different personalities. Watson’s character is as plain and uninspired as the nose on this reviewer’s face – Sherlock Holmes, however, remains an enigma, a professional chameleon among the multitude of amateur sleuths modern fiction has presented us with to-date.
Holmes scoffs at the comparison with Edgar Allen Poe’s fictional hero Dupin, setting himself up as a far superior detective, fictional or real, right at the start of the book. We only warm to such an arrogant protagonist because Watson does, and what a splendid fictional creation he is. Loyal, brave, inquisitive and ready to give credit where credit is due, even if he isn’t always able to follow Holmes’ quick-witted observations and deductions, Watson is the perfect audience for Sherlock, but also his anchor and protector with regard to society. Watson is us, the reader, rushing headlong after Sherlock’s long intellectual legs, trying ever so hard not to miss important clues along the way.
A man as unemotional and antisocial as Sherlock would have driven clients away in droves! Enter affable Watson, a doctor, a respectable man able and trained to relate to people. Always looking for a new intellectual challenge, Holmes tells us at the start of the story he’s far too lazy to investigate the common place murder in Lauriston Gardens, another empty, cheerless and inhospitable place incidentally, where the killers shows his powers of improvisation.
It is only Watson’s intervention and assertion that something must be done about such a horrible crime that finally prompts the consulting detective to leave the comfort of his Baker Street rooms and get involved. This investigation sets a precedent in the two men’s relationship. In Conan Doyle’s following stories we’ll see that it is typically Watson’s emotional response to a client’s conundrum that eventually moves Sherlock to investigate.
Locations as hostile as a Murderer
By the unexpected literary device of beginning with Dr. Watson as the narrator and then switching to a totally different style of narration, location and point of view in part two of the book, Conan Doyle draws the reader into two very different worlds with perfect ease, displaying great skills as an author and observer of mankind.
To show us the killer’s character, Conan Doyle employs two very different locations, both hostile in their own way, both difficult to survive in, unless you have the stamina to hold onto life with both hands, no matter what hardships you’ll face in pursuit of your objective or how long it will take to succeed. Although the audience doesn’t meet the killer until the latter part of the story, the reader feels the killer’s presence throughout the book; we know what type of person the killer must be simply from the hostile environments he has mastered.
The harsh desert landscape of the Wild West and the run-down districts of London are two sides of the same coin for the killer, an anti-hero who is not judged by mankind in the final chapter, but brought to justice by God. Whereas a person could die of thirst in the hot desert landscape of the Wild West of America, where no animal or plant can live, where only death is thriving, the streets in London are teeming with life, but are mud-filled, the very air is water-logged and the sun hardly ever warms the bones. The desert’s vultures are replaced by criminals here, birds of prey hunting the weak and gullible.
Having introduced the reader to the hot and arid American desert, where a person could walk for days without ever hearing a sound other than their own footsteps and the squawking of vultures commenting on the lonely traveller’s inevitable demise, Conan Doyle plunges us back into the maze of London, a bustling metropolis with four million inhabitants, a city as noisy as the desert is silent, in the third and final part of the book.
This is a city full of smog and cheap boarding houses, a settlement where streets are crawling with horse-drawn carriages, rude cabbies, street vendors and newspaper boys, elegant men with side whiskers and canes, ladies with wagon wheel hats and bustles, street urchins and beggars in rags.
In the desert, the reader is positively squinting into the brightness of the sun before the reader can see the approaching column of wagons more clearly. London, by contrast, is dark and dingy, tall houses block out the sun. The fresh air of the mountains and the verdant farms of Utah are nicely contrasted with the unpleasant odours of city life back in the old world. The literary audience is forced to hold their noses as the stench of horse manure in the streets and human excrement in gutters, rotting vegetables, rat droppings and coal fires assaults their collective nostrils.
Both locations serve exceptionally well to characterise the killer for us before we are ever introduced to the man himself. This is an anti-hero who can deal with every situation and hostile environment. It is an exceptional man, not an ordinary criminal, a man who will make use of whatever he finds in his surroundings to achieve what he has set out to do.
An impoverished killer has only one way open to him to track down his quarry in the bewildering cesspool of humanity that is London – and it is due to Sherlock’s brilliant deductive powers that the perpetrator’s disguise is revealed. And again Conan Doyle breaks with literary tradition here. Instead of haring after the killer, as Lestrade and Gregson would have done – and with them most writers of adventure stories – Sherlock lets the killer come to him. Directly to cosy Baker Street’s airy sitting-room. At this point, the reader suspects that it is the amazing character of the killer which moved Sherlock to investigate in the first place and not Watson’s pleading.
Changing Place to change Pace
221b Baker Street is a womb into which the two friends can retreat to take stock of their investigations, recover from their adventures and re-affirm their relationship. Their lives in Marylebone are only interrupted by their landlady’s culinary offerings or the occasional clients who make it past the vigilant servant and up the stairs. For two gentlemen of limited financial means, this is a veritable domestic haven “with a couple of comfortable bedrooms and a single large airy sitting-room, cheerfully furnished, and illuminated by two broad windows”.
We learn of their respective vices, which are that Dr. Watson keeps a bull pup and is extremely lazy, and Sherlock likes to do chemical experiments and play the violin. Both like to fill their sitting-room with smoke and newspapers and get up at irregular hours. For two bachelors, this is a blissful environment where they can remain “boys” and don’t have to grow up, be responsible husbands, bread-winners and fathers.
Whenever these two friends enter the large airy sitting-room in Baker Street, the reader breathes a sigh of relief – our heroes are safe from harm and about to present us with another clue in the present mystery or the beginnings of a new adventure. It’s also a brilliant literary device for changing pace entirely. Here Conan Doyle can take his time to reveal more about the characters of these two unlikely heroes.
When the identity of the killer is known to Sherlock, he has no need of chasing through the streets of London in a horse-drawn carriage; the comfortable surroundings of his home will do to deal with the rest of the adventure. Only one more location switch is needed, this time to a small, quiet but cheerless interrogation room at Scotland Yard, and justice has been done. The gaps in the plot have been filled in for the reader and Conan Doyle can put away his pen. Exhale everyone!
The literary Cradle of modern Crime Investigation
Interestingly, the reader learns an important fact about the first murder victim early on, a clue to the victim’s personality so subtle that we blink and almost miss it. The murdered man has in his possession the pocket edition of Boccaccio’s Decameron…and when the narration switches to Utah, we begin to see why such a book would have been in the possession of victim Mr Drebber.
In modern crime investigation professional detectives begin by looking at the victim and what type of person they were etc. Gregson and Lestrade only regard clues that may hint at the identity of the murderer as important. However, Sherlock Holmes looks at the whole picture and deduces from the personality of the victim and the nature of the crime what type of murderer he’s hunting. Sherlock Holmes looks at crimes committed throughout history and deduces a pattern, whereas Gregson and Lestrade only see unconnected dots in front of their noses.
Many, many years later, murder mystery writer Agatha Christie would employ much the same deductive and comparative methods with her splendid creations, village spinster Miss Marple and former Belgian policeman, Monsieur Poirot, two of modern fiction’s most influential and beloved sleuths.
By using two inept Scotland Yard detectives, Gregson and Lestrade, as an example of outdated police methods and attitudes, contrasting them with successful duo Holmes and Watson, Conan Doyle introduces his audience step by step to the kind of modern investigative methods, including forensics and profiling, that should be employed in crime detection, a totally novel concept at the time the story was published.
The story ends with a disillusioned Sherlock, who even at the outset of his career must be content with the status of amateur sleuth, while idiots like Lestrade and Gregson take the credit. We are back in Baker Street, the safe womb, at this point, which allows Conan Doyle to deepen our knowledge of his protagonist and to lay Sherlock’s deductive methods before the reader at a measured pace.
By offering to reveal the true facts to the public, Dr. Watson assures himself of Sherlock’s friendship and gratitude (and ours!), even if that infuriating man will never admit to it during the long years of their partnership. It is another brilliant device by Conan Doyle to explain to readers in a subtle way, why a brilliant man like Sherlock Holmes would continue to share his life with a man of Dr. Watson’s limited deductive abilities.
It is a must-read for anyone interested in reading whodunits, a classic without which we would not have this genre today and an example par excellence, how the use of location can serve a multitude of purposes within a story.