It might be hard to believe now (or not, depending on your thoughts on the story in question) that the first Sherlock Holmes book wasn’t exactly successful. Neither, by the way, was the second. A Study in Scarlet was the first, but not last, example of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s struggle with the character of Sherlock Holmes in long-form fiction. As set up by Doyle, Holmes is a character that looks at a scene, at a set of facts, at the available evidence, and seems to have the answer before the rest of the people in the room have even fully formed the question. That’s a hard conceit to sustain over 300 pages. You either have to stump him, keep throwing things at him to distract him, send him out of town for part of the narrative, or – as in A Study in Scarlet – interrupt the narrative with a prolonged and involved flashback and hope you don’t lose the reader entirely in the process.
But what makes the first Holmes book so wonderful and so extraordinary and so necessary is that it gives us the meeting of Sherlock Holmes and his biographer, Dr. John Watson, and sets the stage for one of the single-most enduring partnerships in Western fiction.
The case at the center of this first novel is a fairly simple revenge killing, cloaked in an atypical means utilizing a popular Victorian method – poison. At its basics, it’s a story of boy meets girl, girl is part of a slightly fanatical community, girl wants to marry boy but other boys want her (or, more directly, her adopted father’s land and fortune) for themselves and decide one of them is going to get her no matter what, first boy loses girl, girl dies after being forced into marriage, and first boy methodically plans revenge. There are disguises, red herrings (that fool the police, but not Holmes), and a mostly satisfying conclusion. Along the way, Holmes gets to chide the inspectors of Scotland Yard, show off for his new friend Watson, and prove he’s the smartest man in the room. Watson, our narrator, gets to spend the majority of the direct narrative being utterly mystified, impressed, and occasionally doubtful of his new roommate’s professed skill. It’s the beginning of a several decades-long fascination both for Watson and the reader.
It’s a story that could have easily been five chapters shorter, if not for a middle section that, though well-written and informative, seems out of place. Those who’ve read the book might know this narrative side trip as “the Mormon section,” or “the Mormon bit.” We’re taken out of the first-person observations of our new doctor friend and tossed into an extended flashback to a man and a young girl’s near-death experience, introduction to Mormonism, and ultimately their failed attempt at leaving it. Along the way we also meet the girl’s ill-fated suitor, the aforementioned boy in our “boy meets girl” scenario and our eventual revenge-seeker. While the story in these chapters is directly related to our main narrative – it informs it entirely, in fact – it’s explained well enough in the murderer’s confession later in the book. The Mormon chapters exist almost entirely as filler to beef up the story to novel length: Holmes has it solved and the culprit in hand before we ever get this story.
So the question you can ask, based on that information, is this: is Holmes’ character, and the traits that make him the brilliant creature that he is, make him a poor choice for long fiction? That might be a question better answered after all four of the novel-length stories are consumed, but my initial thought is, as Doyle wrote him, maybe?
But as I said above, the mystery is mostly secondary to the world and character building that Doyle provides us in small, calculated strokes. Scarlet is less important as a mystery than it is as an origin story, and that’s the biggest takeaway from this novel. The murders are oftentimes consequential; the legend of Sherlock Holmes that begins with their solution is essential.
I chose not to start my own take on Holmes and Watson with their first meeting for a couple reasons. To start, I’m not always a fan of origin stories. They’ve become such an overused trope anymore, so formulaic and predictable to become, on occasion, almost boring. (I mostly blame the comic book industry and the movies they’ve spawned for this.). It’s almost simple algebra by now: Character A will meet Character B; Character C, the villain, will come along and cause Character A a Very Traumatic Event that changes A’s life forever (and B’s, by association) and causes the two new pals to team up to defeat Character C and save the day (as well as the universe, potentially). The end. Sometimes, Character B is the agent of the aforementioned chaos instead of the new sidekick, just to shake things up (Peter Parker and Harry Osborn, anyone?)
More importantly, to me, the start of my Holmes’ story isn’t when she meets Watson. Charlotte’s story starts with a case, one like she’s never had before, that turns her life entirely upside down, professionally and personally. She’s already a fully-realized, if unappreciated, person when her story begins. That doesn’t limit the opportunity for future growth; it means that it’s how she chooses to live her life, not who she randomly crosses paths with and befriends, that defines her strength. As a slightly atypical Victorian Woman whose life is highly atypical to her peers, it’s important that her story very much starts out about her, not her partner.
That doesn’t mean that the details of Holmes and Watson’s first meeting never crossed my mind. I know exactly how it went. Someday, I might delve deeper into those circumstances, though I have a feeling the surrounding events are a lot less exciting than those of their canon counterparts. For now, we have this:
I burst through the door in a cloud of acrid smoke, coughing and blind. My hands are outstretched to keep from tumbling over the railing of the stairs, which I know are directly in front of me. It’s something else – someone else – that I stumble into instead. Both I and the obstacle are knocked to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs and the remnants of a now shattered tea cup.
When we come to a stop, when the smoke clears enough, I look down to see who it is I’ve tumbled into, since I’m certain, by shape and smell alone, it isn’t my aunt. The gentleman in the question is gaunt and pale and unceremoniously pinned beneath me, but there is a warmth in his eyes, as well as an amusement that shouldn’t be there, given he has a strange, unknown young woman in his lap.
“I am to assume you are Mrs. Hudson’s mad niece?” he says without moving an inch.
“I admit to being her niece,” I reply, placing a hand on either side of his head to hold myself above him. “I make no admissions to madness, however.”
“All evidence to the contrary not withstanding, of course.”
“I would posit that you have more evidence to a clumsy nature than madness.” I take a quick perusal of the gentleman, noting the weathered rim of his hat (now beside his head), the nutty brown coloration of his face and the waxy pallor that lies beneath it, the gauntness of the frame trapped beneath me, and the cane lying just out of his reach. Above the band of his glove and the cuff of his coat, I note a line of paler skin.
“And the smoke?” He nods his head toward the door and the gray cloud still pouring through it. “More proof of clumsiness?”
“More a slightly ill-advised experiment. I’m still trying to get the proportions right.” Shifting my weight to just my left hand, I extend the right to him. “Charlotte Holmes. I answer just to Holmes often enough, if it’s more convenient.”
My new acquaintance looked at my hand for a few confused moments, then caught it in his own. “John Watson. It’s very nice to-“
“Charlotte!” The screech comes from halfway down the stairs, where Aunt Anne stands with a market basket of fruit hanging on her arm, struck frozen and glaring. “Get up off Dr. Watson this minute! I swear, girl, your manners…” She rushes up the remaining steps and drops her basket so that she might yank me to my feet with both hands at one of my elbows. “I apologize, Doctor, if…”
“I assure you, Anne, he wasn’t bothered. Men newly returned from Afghanistan rarely find anything as trifling as a wayward young woman stumbling into them so very scandalizing.” I bend to retrieve Watson’s cane, then offer him my hand again, this time for assistance instead of greeting. He accepts it again, as confused as before, and together we get him onto his feet. “Men such as those have seen worse things than all that.”
“How did you know…”
I offer out the cane and he takes it, leaning heavily upon it. “By your complexion, both the darker of your face and the paler of your wrist, you have been somewhere tropical. Anne referred to you as Doctor, though your hat is quite old and possibly came to you second-hand, indicating a certain lack of economic station indicative of your title. Your coat is your own, though it seems ill-fitting, perhaps indicating a recent illness, confirmed by the overall gauntness of your being. The wound to your leg is relatively recent and severe. The latter two, pieced with the directly former, indicates perhaps you were a medic in Her Majesty’s military, where you were injured and took ill. Where would one currently have the chance of that occurring, for that reason, in a tropical climate? Afghanistan, of course.” I pluck an apple from Anne’s discarded basket and polish it against my shoulder. “All very simple, really.”
Anne grabs the apple before I can take a bite and gives me a stern look. “Stop showing off. And go make the sitting room presentable so I can serve tea.” Turning to Watson, who stands there staring at me in abject wonder, she smiles. It’s the slightest bit exasperated. “Come along then, Doctor. I’ll show you to your room.”