Even as I key in the first word, I know this is going to be a long one. How can it not be, for it’s a jubilant celebration of worlds created by words. Many years ago, when I had the leisure to lose myself in books of every kind, there happened a time my interest had turned in the direction of classics. Although an ardent fan of Jane Austen and her minute exploration into emotional dynamics in relationships, I guess there was a part in my mind that seemed equally comfortable getting friendly with the logical unraveling of crime in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle. I remember reading quite a few books and being wowed by the skill of Mr. Holmes and the way he explained away his skill to his admiring companion with his customary, ‘Elementary, my dear Watson!’ Recently, I got to see the British TV Series on Sherlock Holmes and was much taken away by this sleek and open-ended interpretation. What pulled me towards this, was the way a story from the 1880s has made its transition to 2010s. A journey of more than a century! What was the power of this creator who could make his plots time-travel? How superior must have been his understanding of the core of human nature!
’A Study in Scarlet’ happens to be the first book in which Holmes makes an appearance. Thus, we meet for the first time, this enigmatic British gentleman, who can be called the godfather of many generations of spies and detectives around the world. It’s a little novel and you can read the entire book for free on Project Gutenberg. The challenge is finding the time to start. But you just have to start and then Doyle will work his magic on you and keep you engaged till you finish the book in a feverish read. What had driven my curiosity initially was just to observe the transition from book to screen and from the nineteenth to the twenty first century. But, as I read it, the turn of phrases and the nuances of human nature propped the book in a special place and I wanted to do justice to it.
If this is the first book that Sherlock Holmes appears in, then this is also the first book where Watson and Holmes meet. We should remember that in spite of all his fame, the world-famous Holmes will not be, if not for the reminiscences of Dr. Watson. The story starts with the doctor and his career trajectory in the military, with his wanting to go to India and how the Afghan war overtakes his dreams of a peaceful practice and he is led to face the fire of the battlefield. Being wounded in war, he soon finds himself on his way to London, which he describes as ‘that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.’ This is the simple story of how Watson and Holmes, who have regaled people across time and space, meet. Not for some grand purpose but as two men in search of a decent place to live and share expenses with another… As if they were penny-pinching students at a university of our times. Great things have simple beginnings, indeed!
The restraint of Watson in asking Holmes what the nature of his work was, in spite of multiple conversations, sketches that era in clear strokes. Not knowing that it was written by Holmes, ’The Science of Deduction’ is disparaged by Watson, but quickly understands that Holmes is no armchair philosopher when he explains how he knew that Watson had returned from Afghanistan, knowing nothing about him, but with just a careful look. It’s illuminating to watch a brilliant mind reveal its reasons as to why it made a certain decision and came to a certain conclusion. In this book, we also meet Gregson and Lestrade, both officers of the Scotland Yard and having their ardent followers, even without Twitter, Facebook and whatnot. Holmes does not think much of them as can be seen by this observation in French, ‘Un sot trouve toujours un plus sot qui l’admire’, which apparently is translated thus: ‘A fool always finds a greater fool to admire him.’
The excitement of Holmes when he scents a murder is palpable, as is revealed by the tone of piqued interest in which he gives this collection its name and his view on this thing called murder: ‘A scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life.’ Sensing this unnatural yearning for murder and indifference to the emotional trauma of it, people sometimes suspect him to be the murderer. This happens especially at times when he demonstrates his skill of knowing without being told and he disarms them with this comment that he’s no wolf, just a hound. In another instance too, Watson observing Holmes in the crime scene, compares him to a ‘well-trained foxhound’, one scampering about in search of a lost scent and whining in excitement on getting a whiff of it.
The relational dynamics between Holmes and Watson is a delight to behold. Watson is no empty flatterer. He is truly impressed by the skills of Holmes. But Watson understands the power he has over Holmes. In a multi-layered observation, one looking at his own words as if he’s a third person and the other, by looking at the response it evokes in Holmes, Watson remarks that ‘I had already observed that he was as sensitive to flattery on the score of his art as any girl could be of her beauty!’
In different scenes, the tiny contours of human nature are drawn with the delicacy of a creator of miniature art: The scene in which a low ranking police officer is tempted by the bribe of a half-a sovereign coin and promises to tell all he knows. The arm of corruption has long been at play, one supposes; The way Watson’s nature is revealed in actually feeling gratitude for the man who had removed the abhorrent looking victim, not just in physical looks but in the deeply ingrained flaws of his soul. This is also a clue, an omen of sorts about where the story is going; In a discussion between Holmes and Watson wherein Watson wonders why having seen so many murders in the battlefield, he’s still affected by these crimes of the civil world. To which, Holmes explains that reason for the heightened response is the presence of a mystery. Only when mystery is there, imagination comes to play and without imagination, there can be no horror, he pithily concludes.
Watson describes a moment when Holmes concedes defeat, as a tangibly expressive moment when on Holmes’ face, amusement and annoyance struggle for mastery and how he lets lightness take over him and accepts with grudging praise of how he’s been taken in. In another light moment, not for Holmes but for us, when Gregson remarks excitedly of how he’s managed to untangle the mystery, Sherlock remarks with a yawn, ‘How exciting!’ Guaranteed to let out those peals of laughter from within you.
In a series of stunning moments, Sherlock Holmes manages to lure the murderer to his home and then arrest him, in the presence of Watson, Gregson and Lestrade. The passion of this cornered person is captured in the lines, ‘He appeared to have the convulsive strength of a man in an epileptic fit’. The first part of the novel ends with the capture of the murderer and Holmes’ promise to explain how he made this happen.
As we sit waiting for Holmes to explain, instead we are whisked off to the wilderness of Sierra Blanca in the North American continent, as if the pages of another book got bound in, by mistake. If our acquaintance with Conan Doyle made us think that he was just a master weaver of stories of crime and nothing else, he knocks us out with a travelogue, a historical fiction, a cultural account, a passionate love story, a thrilling adventure and a seed for a vendetta, all rolled into one. We get to travel the American wilderness; see the life of Mormons in Salt Lake City in that era and observe their customs, such as in one quaint point, when a man refuses to marry, as is their custom to take many wives, he is described as one reluctant to incur ‘expense’. This has much to tell about views on marriage and women as much as the Mormons, I suppose; gaze with a smile at a moving romance, which is foretold by some of the most beautiful lines I’ve ever read on how a girl becomes a woman: ‘Least of all does the maiden herself know it until the tone of a voice or the touch of a hand sets her heart thrilling within her, and she learns, with a mixture of pride and of fear, that a new and a larger nature has awoken within her.’ So here weaved inside this crime novel is a delicious spread of a sumptuous literary feast!
Pages can be written just about the characterization of the murderer and who I think, is the hero of this novel truly, no offence to Mr. Holmes. Doyle talks about how he gets his power of sustained vindictiveness from living with Indians. His skill and practice in hunting, which he later employs to hunt down the men who took away the love of his life. His experiences, his motives, his mannerisms, even his physical characteristics are all interwoven in one coherent whole! In the end, you totally take sides with this murderer and give him a standing ovation when looking at the police, he says, ‘I am just as much an officer of justice as you are’.
The story winds back from the history of the murderer to story of Holmes as told by the doctor. After reading the accounts of how this incident is reported in the newspapers giving all credit to Gregson and Lestrade, Sherlock Holmes remarks cynically, “What you do in this world is a matter of no consequence. The question is, what can you make people believe that you have done.” Dr. Watson consoles him by making a pragmatic observation asking him to take comfort in the coins that fill his pocket and adding that he was now there to take all these facts to the world. Lucky us!