In 1886, a then-unknown writer named Arthur Conan Doyle had a story published in the Strand magazine. The story was titled A STUDY IN SCARLET
and it featured a rather pompous private detective called Sherlock Holmes.
The story is described as "Being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, MD, late of the Army Medical Department." We meet the war weary Watson first, a seemingly broken man who is about to meet the person who would change his life.
Holmes and Watson are first introduced to each other by an old war buddy of Doc Watson's called Stamford (No first name given), a seemingly significant and well fleshed out character who appears destined to be a recurring figure in the Holmes canon, but who in fact vanishes after the first few chapters, never to be seen or mentioned again. (Sorry Stamford. We hardly knew you.)
Watson served in India as an army surgeon until he was wounded and sent home. After a nine month convalescence in Portsmouth, he gravitates toward London, "That cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained." He hopes to start a medical practice there.
Watson runs into Stamford and quickly learns of a strange individual named Sherlock Holmes, who is working with Stamford in a Chemical laboratory. Both Holmes and Watson are short on money and looking for a flatmate to share expenses with. After a brief initial meeting, where Watson becomes considerably curious about this enigmatic new acquaintance, the pair agree to share rooms at 221-B Baker Street.
Watson's fascination and curiosity about Holmes and his atypical activities grows over the next few weeks. At first, Watson doesn't know that Homes has aspirations of being a private detective. He is puzzled by Holmes' odd hours and odder visitors. He begins to make a list of Holmes abilities, of his strengths and weaknesses. He notes that Holmes knows absolutely nothing about the solar system, but is a genius in chemistry, botany and in the history of crime. Poor Watson just can't figure this guy out.
When Watson finally learns of Holmes intentions to be the best detective in London, and hears Holmes' cocky claims of investigatory superiority, the good doctor scoffs. Soon, however, the evidence of his own eyes persuades Watson that he is bunking with a very talented and intelligent man.
And then comes Homes' first big case as a professional detective. After making a name for himself sniffing out clues in minor crimes, Holmes is summoned by Tobias Gregson, the smartest of the Scotland Yard inspectors, to the scene of a confusing homicide.
Holmes arrives with impact at the scene of the murder of Mr. Enoch J. Drebber, quickly taking over, and noticing all the minutiae that neither Gregson nor his rival Inspector Lestrade (Making the first of many appearances here) are shrewd enough to detect.
As the case proceeds, Holmes gets a self-satisfied chuckle out of watching the two inspectors trying to outdo each other, as he remains 10-steps ahead of both of them. Meanwhile Watson, still serving as our narrator, becomes almost mesmerized by Holmes methods and observational skills. He describes Holmes' activities with awe.
In a rare plot device for a Holmes story, a large section of the book is given over to an extended flashback (In which Holmes does not appear) told by an omniscient narrator rather than by Watson, as the rest of the story is. This digression is necessary to allow us readers to understand the facts that Holmes has already figured out. This lengthy Holmes-less flashback technique would only be used on one other occasion.
It's not exactly a spoiler to say that Sherlock Holmes sorts out the tangled web of clues and solves the murder, winning the admiration of his new pal Watson. A powerful friendship has been formed.
A STUDY IN SCARLET
(so named for the clue written in blood on the wall) is a good introduction to the master detective. To his quirks formidable skills and his blustering ego. Watson is our sympathetic link to Holmes. He is the everyman who falls into the orbit of an incredible individual, and is drawn (willingly and eagerly, it must be said) into a roller coaster life of mystery and adventure. He is Holmes' biggest fan and best friend.
Arthur Conan Doyle's gift of description and characterization are wonderful, even here in this first Holmes outing, bringing these soon-to-be iconic heroes to life. The mystery itself is fine, but it's secondary to the birth of Holmes and Watson, literature's best ever detective/sidekick team. And this is just the beginning!