Hello, fellow literature fiends! It’s the end of February and that means it’s time for the second month of Book Club Classics. If you’re new to book club, welcome and thanks for joining us! (If you’re super new and don’t know what I’m talking about, check out this post to get you up to speed.)
2015 Book Club Classics List
January – Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (January 28) My review here
February – A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (February 25)
March – A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (March 25)
April – Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare (April 29)
May – The Awakening by Kate Chopin (May 20)
June – The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (June 24)
July – The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (July 29)
August – Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (August 26)
September – Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (September 30)
October – Dracula by Bram Stoker (October 28)
November – Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney (November 18)
December – The Chimes by Charles Dickens (December 16)
As you can see, this month’s book is A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Be sure to read this introduction post about the author and everyone’s mystery-solving duo if you haven’t already. Oh, and there will be spoilers past this point. Don’t say I didn’t, say I didn’t warn ya!
Dr. Watson’s narration
Even though this is my first story from the Sherlock Holmes canon, A Study in Scarlet brought up all kinds of nostalgia for me. I’ve known of Sherlock and Watson for most of my life having seen the movies and TV adaptations, but the one interpretation that kept coming back to me upon reading Dr. Watson’s thoughts was Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective. I have to take my hat off to Disney and Eve Titus, the woman who wrote the children’s series with Sherlock in mind; Dr. Dawson’s narration in that animated film emulates Dr. Watson’s so perfectly. The words, the ambivalence toward the brilliant detective, the compassion toward others that Holmes didn’t quite have, it all reminded me of that cute little mouse doctor and his voice over narration.
Reading up on the author also brought me to the conclusion that Watson’s thoughts probably contain a decent bit of Conan Doyle himself. Watson is smart and scientific, but he also appreciates other facets of life, and his social and emotional maturity seem to make him a bit of a foil to Holmes. Conan Doyle was a trained medical professional who made a living as an author later in his life, and he also had the family lifestyle that was closer to what Watson achieves than what Holmes ever had. I think Conan Doyle’s interactions with his professor on whom he supposedly based Holmes gave him a peek into the genius of such a man as well as his shortcomings, something of which Watson seems particularly aware. In short, I always find myself esteeming Holmes and relating to Watson.
Across the pond to the American southwest
Well the beginning of Part II was a bit disorienting, am I right? I legitimately went back to the table of contents, checked to be sure I was still reading A Study in Scarlet, and then flipped through until I found the next section from Dr. Watson’s perspective just to be sure. Going from London to unfounded Utah was a bit of a jump, and I still haven’t been able to find if Conan Doyle ever made it across the pond himself. Regardless, I thought he did a good job of at least giving me the feel of the old west with his words. Even though I never in a million years would have expected a Sherlock Holmes story to suddenly land in America, the story was incredibly captivating.
First of all, whoa Mormonism. And of course, by that I mean late nineteenth century Mormonism when the LDS Church still condoned plural marriage. Since I know very little comparatively, I’ll just leave everything else to Bon’s explanation. Regardless of my knowledge of the Mormon Church, I was incredibly surprised by Conan Doyle’s depiction of this religion. From what I can gather, the Mormon religion was small, it was virtually unknown, and it had gotten a lot of bad press on the east coast due to raids allegedly carried out by Mormon men who had run out of women to marry. We fear what we don’t know, you know?
Does that make Conan Doyle’s depiction any less offensive and unjust? No. According to Wikipedia, he regretted all of the historical inaccuracies, and even apologized to Brigham Young’s descendants. If that’s true, it makes me feel a little better, but I still haven’t been able to shake how surprised and upset I was to read his words. I don’t know a lot about the Mormon religion, but blogland is full of some lovely Mormon women, and I’m learning.
The villain of the story
On the one hand, I like it when the “villain” of a story, in this case Jefferson Hope, the man who murdered Drebber and Stangerson, doesn’t turn out to be quite so villainous. Yes, he killed both men, but we know by the end that these weren’t the most innocent guys in the world, and we feel for Lucy and John Ferrier enough to understand and perhaps even agree with the revenge plot. It’s nice that he conveniently had a terminal illness, so he could tell his story of Watson and die peacefully in his sleep instead of by the hangman’s noose. Almost poetic, Conan Doyle.
However, by unvillainizing the obvious villain, we are left with one (maybe two) real bad guys: Brigham Young, or just the entire Mormon group that founded Salt Lake City. I’m not really comfortable with that, and I feel like we have Conan Doyle’s other passion as a writer of historical fiction to blame. Any other novelist would have made up some religious leader of some obscure group of outsiders instead of using an actual public figure who led an actual group of people into an actual iconic area of the United States. I guess he figured if he could fictionalize Napoleon, why not Young?
Instead of considering either of these possible villains, the obvious and the complex, I have decided that I prefer villainizing Drebber and Stangerson. They shouldn’t have killed the poor old man and forced Lucy into marriage, and therefore I have completely ceased viewing them as victims. They may be silly, but I want to like this story because I did like a lot of it, but I just can’t do that if I have to buy into Conan Doyle’s anti-Mormon sentiment. Isn’t it crazy to read classics and recognize prejudices and other offensive notions from times before ours? I think it’s absolutely fascinating, and it also makes me feel just a bit better about our own (still imperfect) world.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story. I appreciated Sherlock’s characterization, and expected it due to the multitude of adaptations that I’ve grown up with, and I also liked that Sherlock kept his cards close to him even toward the conclusion of the story. For instance, like in the BBC series, we don’t see when Sherlock catches on to certain aspects of the case; he never lays it all out for Watson with the moment that he knew the killer was American, or when he firmly decided that “RACHE” wasn’t relevant to determining the killer. You expect him to give up how he knew, but I was relieved to see that it didn’t all come at the very end in a big long paragraph over a cup of tea. We’re left with a few questions even at the story’s conclusion.
I am very interested to read other stories concerning Holmes and Watson because I feel like one of my favorite things about the canon is their relationship with one another, and that doesn’t get fully developed in this story. You catch a glimpse of what could be with Watson convincing Holmes to take on the case, and Holmes appreciating Watson’s esteem for his skills in deduction, but it takes more than a hundred pages to bring out the kind of bond that I’ve seen in the adaptations. So I’m on to The Sign of the Four per the recommendation of @ourclassicsclub, and I’m also planning to rewatch “A Study in Pink” from the BBC series, Sherlock. I’m interested to see what little bits of the canon Moffat snuck into the episode that I never noticed the first time around. (Let’s be honest, I’m also going to go find a digital version of The Great Mouse Detective!)
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Next month, we’re reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (YAY TWAIN!), so get excited and join me back here in March!