Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection - Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Fry

‘Poor devil!’ he said, commiseratingly, after he had listened to my misfortunes. ‘What are you up to now?’

‘Looking for lodgings.’ I answered. ‘Trying to solve the problem as to whether it is possible to get comfortable rooms at a reasonable price.’

‘That’s a strange thing,’ remarked my companion; ‘you are the second man to-day that has used that expression to me.’

‘And who was the first?’ I asked.

This is the primer for, probably, the most influential meetings in literature.

A Study in Scarlet was first published in 1887, and of all places, it was first published in Mrs Beeton’s Christmas Annual. I say of all places, because for one, the story includes a portrayal of a kind of Christian extremism that makes it quite ironic to be published in a Victorian Christmas Annual, and also…Mrs Beeton’s? The Mrs Beeton that has claimed fame for publishing a best-selling cookery book and for advice to ladies on household management is the first to give us Sherlock Holmes? Come on, you cannot deny it is a little bit funny.

Anyway, even if I cannot bring myself to care for Mrs Beeton’s advice to Ladies, I love her for bringing Holmes to an audience who has cherished him ever since – much to Arthur Conan Doyle’s own despair over his creation.

I’ve have read A Study in Scarlet a couple of times before, but this third read was my first with my reading buddy over at – and it was so much fun bouncing observations back and forth. This reading was also the first that I did not mind the break in the story between the London setting and the back-story set in Utah, which reads like a book within a book.

And of course, this was my first time reading the story while listening to Stephen Fry’s narration.

Let me start by saying that Fry’s narration is wonderful. He brings out the different personalities of the characters, and I especially liked the way he pauses. It sounds silly, but his pauses give the story a very naturally sounding effect. But then, I am not surprised because Fry is as much of a Holmes fan as I am a fan of Fry … and Holmes … and Fry, and no image of him as Mycroft in some of the recent films can change that. (Seriously, just don’t go Googling this from a pc at work.)

But back to the story: We get the first meeting. We get Watson’s history. We get Watson’s first impression of Holmes.

Holmes is … different.

‘You mustn’t blame me if you don’t get on with him,’ he said; ‘I know nothing more of him than I have learned from meeting him occasionally in the laboratory. You proposed this arrangement, so you must not hold me responsible.’

‘If we don’t get on it will be easy to part company,’ I answered. ‘It seems to me, Stamford,’ I added, looking hard at my companion, ‘that you have some reason for washing your hands of the matter. Is this fellow’s temper so formidable, or what is it? Don’t be mealy-mouthed about it.’

‘It is not easy to express the inexpressible,’ he answered with a laugh. ‘Holmes is a little too scientific for my tastes–it approaches to cold-bloodedness. I could imagine his giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects. To do him justice, I think that he would take it himself with the same readiness. He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge.’

‘Very right too.’ ‘Yes, but it may be pushed to excess. When it comes to beating the subjects in the dissecting-rooms with a stick, it is certainly taking rather a bizarre shape.’ ‘Beating the subjects!’

‘Yes, to verify how far bruises may be produced after death. I saw him at it with my own eyes.’

‘And yet you say he is not a medical student?’

‘No. Heaven knows what the objects of his studies are. But here we are, and you must form your own impressions about him.’

And, yet, we can see that their first encounter is the start of a very special bromance friendship.

It is also one of the few stories where Watson tells us of Holmes’ (imo, no one should call the original “Sherlock”, but that is just my personal preference…) shortcomings. The story is worth it for this list alone!

In fact, ACD included a lot of humour in the in scenes that introduce us to world that Holmes and Watson inhabit – be it the characters they are or the characters they meet. However, it is also this very specific, jovial tone that distinguishes the story set in London from the injected story set in Utah, the back-story that is key to the solution of the mystery.

It is this second part of the story that took me several readings to fully appreciate how it connects with the case Holmes and Watson are investigating.

It also took me several readings to get over the fact that ACD basically calls out the Mormon Church on being an extremist sect. Believe whatever you will, but ACD held no punches over his descriptions. I am led to believe by my reading buddy’s research that ACD’s estate is apologising defaming this group of believers – and having read the story, I get why: ACD’s description has shock-value and it truly scary.

I read it from a point of view that at the time of writing there would be all kinds of stories of savagery in far-flung places. Whether these be committed by a sect in the far far away lands of Utah or by the sects of the far far away lands of India, may have been of little difference to your regular Victorian reader of Mrs Beeton’s Christmas Annual. Little could have anyone known that over a 100 years later, this story is still widely read! And by an audience that has more awareness and more diverse sensibilities.

 But saying that, ACD’s writing in this part was still great. There was a lot of suspense in this part – would they be rescued? Would they escape before the ultimatum ran out? Based on the writing, this was a good story. It is just that the comparison of this very unsettling story with the familiar, homely, safe, almost cosy, world that we have with Holmes and Watson that makes the Mormon story so unlikeable.
 Overall, I give the London part of the story 4* and the Utah part 2*. The writing was good but it took me three readings to really connect both parts of the story.