The Complete Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet / The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle (#1 of 8 reviews)

My Copy: 9780880292610 (cover image from Abebooks.com)

I admit I couldn’t wait to get back to these great little stories, and I have to have read them several times each by now (especially the two today: “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Sign of Four”).

This particular complete volume organizes the stories and novellas in 9 parts. I’ll make it 8 by putting these two novellas in one post because they’re so short. I also decided to break it down as such so I can give a little time to each story in the collections, with a basic synopsis, some interesting material and notable quotes.

If you can get a copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes somehow, I’d recommend it because though it looks like a doorstop, it’s better than having to go back and forth between several books when they’re all right there in your hands. So I was excited to find this, and if I recall, this was one of my first purchases when I had my own book-buying money.

It took me a smattering of age and wisdom to reverse my initial impression of Watson and his narrating style. I always thought he fawned a little too much over Holmes and too quick to give praise. It felt like he was kissing his ass and maybe we should be, too. Then I realized if we’re in his position, meeting and following this enigmatic detective, we’d probably come to some similar conclusions and exclamations ourselves.

So yes, my initial reading of these stories was initially tainted, which is why I was eager to try again when I’d gotten back into mystery reading.

We get the feeling of Watson’s initial curiosity, his skepticism, his questions, and his limited POV, which allows for Holmes to come up with the clues when he’s out and about but doesn’t let us be privy to them. That comes later at the great reveal.

I guess it took an older mind which had read more British literature to appreciate the structure better. Sometimes it feels like a “gotcha,” and then comes the “spilling-of-the-guts” by whoever’s involved. There is some formulaic structure in that regard, but at the same time, not all cases will end very happily, and some won’t have the clean-cut resolution or Hollywood ending.

Now that I think about it, maybe that’s why I liked “Law & Order” so much–not all cases WILL end well.

Anyhoo, without further ado:

A Study in Scarlet

Ah, the first case, which does the obligatory introduction of our wonderful characters, Holmes and Watson, our narrator. For those who are fun-loving fans of the BBC “Sherlock” series, you know this one as “A Study in Pink”–but with some rather profound differences, so don’t think you know it until you’ve read it. Yes, “rache” makes an appearance, as does poison, but what leads to the first dead body is much different.

To start, we get to feel at home with Watson on Baker Street, and see Holmes through his eyes as a casual observer, trying to put the pieces together without coming flat out asking (because that would be rude). There are hints of Sherlock’s occasional drug use in his mannerisms during the “boring” times also.

As to the case, Sherlock is called out by Lestrade and Tobias Gregson of Scotland Yard to see a dead man in an abandoned home with no apparent injuries and “rache” on the wall in the assailant’s blood. When the body is moved, a woman’s ring appears and the theories are really flying. The Scotland Yard detectives go off on their respective trails while Holmes is a bit quiet about it all, coming up with his own theory.

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Huh–didn’t know they had a cartoon version until I went looking for images & movies…of which there are tons. Hey, it’s the “series pilot,” so why not?

I admit, even though I know how it all turns out and such, I couldn’t quite get how Holmes pieced it together. Maybe another careful read-through will help me get there, but then again, this was also the first case. Perhaps Watson as narrator couldn’t figure out how to describe it well (or A.C.D. hadn’t perfected his touch, so some sketchiness was bound to stick). But I’ll definitely give this one a read, because the perpetrator’s story’s a very interesting one all on its own and worth a read (especially since it takes up a good few chapters all its own).

Sherlock-ism:

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.” (pg 27)

“It is a mistake to confound strangeness with mystery. The most commonplace crime is often the most mysterious, because it presents no new or special features from which deductions may be drawn.” (pg 50)

“A Study in Scarlet” is definitely worth a read.

The Sign of Four

Well, what we might’ve suspected regarding drug use in “A Study in Scarlet” is painted in pretty definite terms with the first sentences of chapter 1:

“Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his shirtcuff…” (pg 89)

He tells Watson it’s the “seven-per-cent solution” of cocaine made famous in other Holmes re-tellings (and even a whole movie by that name). So, for the fans who wanted to know, now we know this novella is where he describes his drugs of choice, either cocaine or morphine.

Okay, the dirtier aspects aside–on to the murder!

I probably shouldn’t sound so gleeful about that, but I can’t stand drug use (personal peeve).

The basic story begins with the arrival of Mary Morstan (yes, THAT Mary) and of some unique pearls that began to appear outside her door once a year. She looked into it and is to meet someone who will explain the situation. Using Holmes and Watson for protection and consultation, they find that her father and another officer had lucked on getting their hands on treasures while stationed abroad. Then we soon have the “locked-room murder” we’ve come to expect in early mystery stories and it really gets going.

Holmes–mostly–is on the case while Watson is somewhat preoccupied with Mary, who could very well become one of the richest young ladies in England if they can get to the bottom of this mystery. Toby, the best nose in England (according to Sherlock) is introduced in this story as well.

While murders come into play, the story of the treasure is interesting all its own, and then is the fantastic tracking-down of the murderer. I liked that scene and the resolution. I did find it funny that Holmes’ anti-social nature comes through just fine when he rolls his eyes and quietly scoffs at the idea of Watson being so enamored of Mary so soon.

Sherlock-isms:

“My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abtruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.” (pg 89-90).

“I never make exceptions. An exception disproves the rule.” (pg 96).

And, as a bonus, because it got me thinking:

“It is of the first importance not to allow your judgment to be biased by personal qualities…. I assure you that the most winning woman I ever knew was hanged for poisoning three little children for their insurance-money, and the most repellent man of my acquaintance is a philanthropist who has spent nearly a quarter of a million upon the London poor.” (pg 96)

I admit, I smiled when I saw that last quote. Hmm…was it a casual reference to the monster we may come to know as Prof. Moriarty?

I guess I’ll have to read on.

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