A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle and Otto Penzler by Arthur Conan Doyle and Otto Penzler - Read Online

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A Study in Scarlet - Arthur Conan Doyle

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by Otto Penzler

About one hundred years ago, Sherlock Holmes was described as one of the three most famous people who ever lived, the other two being Jesus Christ and Houdini. There are some who claim that he is a fictional character, but this notion is, of course, absurd. Every schoolchild knows what he looks like and what he does for a living, and most know many of his peculiar characteristics.

The tall, slender, hawk-nosed figure, with his deerstalker hat and Inverness cape, is instantly recognizable in every corner of the world. In addition to the superb stories describing his adventures written by his friend, roommate, and chronicler Dr. John H. Watson (with the assistance of his literary agent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), Holmes has been impersonated on the stage, television, and radio, and in countless motion pictures. More than twenty-five thousand books, stories, and articles have been written about him by famous authors, amateur writers, and scholars.

Sherlock (he was nearly named Sherrinford) was born on January 6, 1845, on the farmstead of Mycroft (the name of his older brother) in the North Riding of Yorkshire. He solved his first case (eventually titled The Gloria Scott) while a twenty-year-old student at Oxford. Following graduation, he became the world’s first consulting detective—a vocation he followed for twenty-three years.

In January 1881 he was looking for someone to share his new quarters at 221B Baker Street and a friend introduced him to Dr. John H. Watson. Before agreeing to share the apartment, the two men aired their respective shortcomings. Holmes confessed, I get in the dumps at times, and don’t open my mouth for days on end. He also smokes a vile shag tobacco and conducts experiments with loathsome-smelling chemicals. And he failed to mention an affection for cocaine. Although he ruefully noted his fondness for scratching away at the violin while in contemplation, he proved to be a virtuoso who could calm his roommate’s raw nerves with a melodious air.

Watson’s admitted faults include the keeping of a bull pup, a strong objection to arguments because his nerves cannot stand them, a penchant for arising from bed at all sorts of ungodly hours, and an immense capacity for laziness.

I have another set of vices when I’m well, he said, but those are the principal ones at present.

They became friends, and Watson chronicled the deeds of his illustrious roommate, often to the displeasure of Holmes, who resented the melodramatic and sensational tales. He believed that the affairs, if told at all, should be put to the public as straightforward exercises in cold logic and deductive reasoning.

Holmes possesses not only excellent deductive powers but also a giant intellect. Anatomy, chemistry, mathematics, British law, and sensational literature are but a few areas of his vast sphere of knowledge, although he is admittedly not well versed in such subjects as astronomy, philosophy, and politics. He has published several distinguished works on erudite subjects: Upon the Distinction between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos; A Study of the Influence of a Trade upon the Form of the Hand; Upon the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus; A Study of the Chaldean Roots in the Ancient Cornish Language; and, his magnum opus, The Practical Handbook in Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. His four-volume The Whole Art of Detection has not yet been published. When he needs information that his brain has not retained, he refers to a small, carefully selected library of reference works and a series of commonplace books. Since Holmes cares only about facts that aid his work, he ignores whatever he considers superfluous. He explains his theory of education thus: I consider that a man’s brain originally is like an empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. … It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before.

An athletic body complements Holmes’s outstanding intelligence. He seems even taller than his six feet because he is extremely thin. His narrow, hooked nose and sharp, piercing eyes give him a hawklike appearance. He often astonished Watson with displays of strength and agility; he is a superb boxer, fencer, and singlestick player. He needed all his strength when he met his nemesis, the ultimate arch-criminal Professor James Moriarty, in a struggle at the edge of the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. The evenly matched adversaries, locked in battle, fell over the cliff; both were reported to be dead. All England mourned the passing of its great keeper of the law, but in 1894, after being missing for three years, Holmes returned. He had not been killed in the fall, after all, but had seized a good opportunity to fool his many enemies in the underworld. He had taken over the identity of a Danish explorer, Sigerson, and traveled to many parts of the world, including New Jersey, where he is believed to have had an affair with Irene Adler (who will always be the woman to Holmes), and to Tibet, where he learned the secret of long life from the Dalai Lama.

When Miss Adler (the famous and beautiful opera singer Holmes first meets in A Scandal in Bohemia) died in 1903, he retired to keep bees on the southern slopes of the Sussex Downs with his old housekeeper, Mrs. Martha Hudson. He came out of retirement briefly before World War I, but his life since then has been quiet.

Holmes has outlived the people who have participated at various times in his adventures. In addition to Mycroft, Watson, Moriarty, Irene Adler, and Mrs. Hudson, the best-known auxiliary personalities in the stories include Billy the page boy, who occasionally announces visitors to 221B; Mary Morstan, who becomes Mrs. Watson; the Baker Street Irregulars, street urchins led by Wiggins, who scramble after information for Holmes’s coins; Lestrade, an inept Scotland Yard inspector; Stanley Hopkins, a Scotland Yard man of greater ability; Gregson, the smartest of the Scotland Yarders according to Holmes; and Colonel Sebastian Moran, the second most dangerous man in London.

The first story written about Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet, originally appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887 and subsequently was published in book form in London by Ward, Lock & Company in 1888; the first American edition was published by J. B. Lippincott & Company in 1890. Holmes is called to assist Scotland Yard on what Inspector Tobias Gregson calls a bad business during the night at 3, Lauriston Gardens. An American, Enoch J. Drebber, has been murdered, and Yard men can point to only a single clue, the word Rache scrawled on the wall in blood. They believe it to be the first letters of a woman’s name, Rachel, but Holmes suggests that it is the German word for revenge. Soon, the dead man’s private secretary, Stangerson, is also found murdered; the same word is written in blood nearby. A long middle section of this novel, dealing with Mormons, is an unusual flashback.

The Sign of the Four first appeared simultaneously in the English and American editions of Lippincott’s Magazine for February 1890. Spencer Blacket published the first English book edition in the same year; P. F. Collier published the first American book edition in 1891. Calling at 221B Baker Street for help is Mary Morstan, a fetching young lady by whom Watson is totally charmed; ultimately, he marries her. She is the daughter of a captain in the Indian Army who mysteriously disappeared ten years earlier and has never been heard from again. Four years after the disappearance, Miss Morstan received an anonymous gift, a huge, lustrous pearl, and got another like it each year thereafter. Holmes and Watson accompany her to a tryst with the eccentric Thaddeus Sholto, twin brother of Bartholomew Sholto and the son of a major who was Captain Morstan’s only friend in London. Holmes sets out to find a fabulous treasure and is soon involved with the strange Jonathan Small and Tonga.

A Scandal in Bohemia first appeared in the Strand Magazine in July 1891; its first book appearance was in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892). The first published short story in which Holmes appears features the detective in an uncharacteristic battle of wits with a lady, and with no real crime to solve. The king of Bohemia has had a rather indiscreet affair with Irene Adler, who threatens to create an international scandal when he attempts to discard her and marry a noblewoman. Holmes is hired to obtain possession of a certain unfortunate photograph before it can be sent to the would-be bride’s royal family. Holmes is outwitted, and he never stops loving Irene for fooling him.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), Sir Charles Baskerville, of Baskerville Hall, Dartmoor, Devon, has been found dead. There are no signs of violence at the scene, but his face is incredibly distorted with terror. Dr. James Mortimer enlists the aid of Holmes to protect the young heir to the estate, Sir Henry Baskerville. Watson goes to the grim moor to keep an eye on Sir Henry but is warned to return to London by a neighbor, Beryl Stapleton, the lovely sister of a local naturalist, who hears a blood-chilling moan at the edge of the great Grimpen Mire and identifies it as the legendary Hound of the Baskervilles, calling for its prey.

The original stories about Holmes number sixty; more than that number have been written by other authors, however. Even Conan Doyle wrote a parody of the characters, How Watson Learned the Trick, first published in The Book of the Queen’s Dolls’ House in 1924. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1974) by Nicholas Meyer was a longtime bestseller. Among the most famous pastiches are those by H. F. Heard, whose Mr. Mycroft is a pseudonymous Holmes; the tales of August Derleth, whose Solar Pons is the Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street; and The Unique Hamlet (1920) by Vincent Starrett, in which the great detective appears under his true name.

Other names (and guises) under which Holmes has appeared are Herlock Sholmes and Holmlock Shears (in Maurice LeBlanc’s The Exploits of Arsène Lupin, 1907, and The Fair-haired Lady, 1909); Picklock Holes (in R. C. Lehmann’s The Adventures of Picklock Holes, 1901); Shylock Homes (in John Kendrick Bangs’s series of short stories in American newspapers in 1903, reprinted as Shylock Homes: His Posthumous Memoirs, 1973; Bangs also wrote many parodies of Holmes using the detective’s real name, as in The Pursuit of the House-Boat, 1897; The Enchanted Type-Writer, 1899; and R. Holmes & Co., 1906, in which the hero is the son of Sherlock Holmes and the grandson of A. J. Raffles); Shamrock Jolnes (by O. Henry in two stories in Sixes and Sevens, 1911); Hemlock Jones (by Bret Harte in The Stolen Cigar-Case in Condensed Novels: Second Series, 1902); and Schlock Homes in many stories by Robert L. Fish.

Today, of course, Holmes continues to be a multimedia superstar, appearing in two internationally successful films starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes; the BBC television series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch; and Elementary, the wildly popular CBS series starring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Dr. Watson.


(Being a reprint from the reminiscences of JOHN H. WATSON, M.D., late of the Army Medical Department.)



IN THE YEAR 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army. Having completed my studies there, I was duly attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as Assistant Surgeon. The regiment was stationed in India at the time, and before I could join it, the second Afghan war had broken out. On landing at Bombay, I learned that my corps had advanced through the passes, and was already deep in the enemy’s country. I followed, however, with many other officers who were in the same situation as myself, and succeeded in reaching Candahar in safety, where I found my regiment, and at once entered upon my new duties.

The campaign brought honours and promotion to many, but for me it had nothing but misfortune and disaster. I was removed from my brigade and attached to the Berkshires, with whom I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery. I should have fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray, my orderly, who threw me across a pack-horse, and succeeded in bringing me safely to the British lines.

Worn with pain, and weak from the prolonged hardships which I had undergone, I was removed, with a great train of wounded sufferers, to the base hospital at Peshawar. Here I rallied, and had already improved so far as to be able to walk about the wards, and even to bask a little upon the verandah, when I was struck down by enteric fever, that curse of our Indian possessions. For months my life was despaired of, and when at last I