A Study in Scarlet

A Study in Scarlet Study Guide

A Study in Scarlet was written in 1886 and published in Beeton's Christmas Annual in 1887 by Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle was rejected three times by publishers; Ward, Lock, and Company finally accepted it in 1886 with the caveat of it delaying publication until the following year because the market was flooded with "cheap fiction". It was the first of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales, and only one of four full-length novels featuring the character. The title of the work comes from a line within the novel where Holmes describes the case –"There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it" (40).

The work is considered one of the first (or even the first) detective novels. Interestingly enough, A Study in Scarlet was only mildly popular at its initial release. It gained in popularity when the Doyle published several Sherlock Holmes short stories in the Strand Magazine in 1891.

The novel featured many of the character traits and plot elements that would be observed in the later Holmes tales. Holmes is revealed as a brilliant and eccentric individual whose success in solving crimes derives from his powers of observation and deductive reasoning. Watson is his loyal and stable companion who narrates the stories and is an everyman stand-in for the reader. His works feature specific allusions to events and tensions during the era in which Doyle was writing, in addition to referencing other popular writers, philosophers, and musicians. Political concerns were often central plot elements.

The character of Holmes did not have much of a predecessor in Doyle's work other than the guru Ram Singh from his Mystery of Cloomber, drafted in 1883, although there were several literary predecessors and contemporaries who were influential in the creation of this singular character. Doyle worked to find the best type of narrator for his stories before A Study in Scarlet and continued to reject several ideas until he came to his Doctor John Watson, modeled after the real Dr. P.H. Watson. This Dr. Watson, a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary at Edinburgh, published several pieces on his travels and studies that Doyle read. Doyle's 1930 obituary summed up Doyle's discovery of how to write his tales –"[he] hit on the idea of an amateur detective who should apply the methods of Joseph Bell to the unraveling of mysteries, with a sort of medical Boswell as foil and showman."

A Study in Scarlet is known for its very pointed and explicit attack on organized religion; the Latter Day Saints are the villains, and very pernicious ones at that. Many of the characteristics of the Mormons limned by Doyle are sensational and exaggerated, and there have been several criticisms from past and contemporary reviewers of the book. It is unclear whether or not Doyle admitted any fault for his work's prejudicial attitude towards the Mormons, but this has not stopped some school boards from objecting to its placement on reading lists (in 2011 it was removed from a Virginia reading list for 6th graders and changed to a 10th grade list).

A Study in Scarlet has been adapted to the screen several times, the first being in 1914 as a silent film. This is now lost, as it was made very poorly. A second silent version was also made, but this was lost too. In 1933 another film was made, but as it only had the rights to the title barely any of the plot elements from the novel were recognizable. In 1968 the BBC's Sherlock Holmes series adapted it in their second season. There has also been a Soviet adaptation, an animated version, a stage rendition, a graphic novel, and radio versions. Other adaptations use part of the novel, such as the meeting between Watson and Holmes. The most current adaptation is the first episode of the BBC's Sherlock, where the characters of Holmes and Watson operate in the 21st century; the plot is more or less the same as the novel but certain elements are changed to reflect technological, social, and political developments.