Excited about Book Club Classics yet? February’s book is “A Study in Scarlet,” the very first book that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about his famous characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. If you haven’t read it yet, it is a really fast read, and you can definitely devour it before Wednesday’s discussion!
Just like I did with last month’s author, I thought it would be nice to give you guys a little introduction to Conan Doyle and the Sherlock Holmes universe, so here we go! I did your typical Internet snooping (including Wikipedia) plus some more scholarly searching in Oxford’s Dictionary of National Biography, which is basically the best source for concise biographies of anyone from the UK. I would definitely recommend it.
Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was actually Scottish; he was born in Edinburgh in 1859. His parents were both descended from Irish Catholics, and he grew up attending Catholic schools, getting a fairly good education despite his father’s alcoholism and the occasional breaking up of the family. Something that I found interesting is that his birth surname is actually just Doyle. It seems he began using Conan Doyle when he entered medical school at Edinburgh University as a way of distinguishing himself. Interestingly, while at university, he developed a mentor relationship with one professor, Joseph Bell, whose reputation as a master of deduction led many to believe that he was the inspiration behind the character Sherlock Holmes.
Although he graduated medical school and worked as both a ship’s surgeon as well as an ophthalmologist in a private practice, Conan Doyle was most successful as a writer. He was most known for his stories about Sherlock Holmes, but he actually also wrote historical fiction set in the Napoleonic era, poetry, and medical papers. In fact, while the Oxford DNB lists Sir Walter Scott as a literary influence, it also notes that he learned how to write detective short stories from reading medical journals in university, which progressed consistently from case-statement to symptoms and diagnoses to conclusion. As a former attendee of a liberal arts college, I find it fascinating that Conan Doyle was able to use so much of his medical school education and put it toward a successful career as a writer.
Conan Doyle seemed more likely than the rest of us to become frustrated with Sherlock Holmes and his inability to play well with others. It also seems that Holmes and Watson kept him from giving attention to the other genres that he wanted to write. He wanted to just kill the character off, but instead chose to keep increasing his price per story, assuming that editors would no longer want to pay his fees. His assumptions were wrong, and Conan Doyle became one of the best paid authors to date. Even though it isn’t as well-known, Conan Doyle also gained some praise for his novel The Lost World, which I hope made up for the fact that he never seemed able to get out from the shadow of Sherlock Holmes.
This book brought up a lot of questions for me about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his influences, where Sherlock Holmes stands in the mystery story canon, and how these books paved the way for tons of different interpretations. I’ve jotted down a few of them below, and you can use these to guide your own responses to the book, or you can just read them and say “Oh how nice, Tyler.” Either way, I really don’t care!
- Do you think Conan Doyle had read The Moonstone, considered the first detective novel, which was written by female author Wilkie Collins?
- With the narration, did you feel that we were getting all Watson’s perspective or some of the author as well?
- What, if anything, surprised you about the characterization of Holmes and Watson?
- Did you also flip back to the table of contents when you got to Part II because you thought the publisher had accidentally added some James Fenimore Cooper to make sure you were paying attention?
- What was your reaction to the treatment of religion, especially Mormonism?
- Did you pick up on any ways that modern interpretations have paid tribute to Conan Doyle’s original work?
- Who was the “villain” of the story?
- Will you be reading any more stories about Sherlock Holmes?
I can’t wait to discuss this story with all of you on Wednesday. I mean it when I say that it is a fast, engaging read, and you can totally do it in two days. The more, the merrier for our discussion!
Also, if you’re a blogger planning to read along this year, I would definitely recommend checking out The Classics Club and creating a classics reading goal. You can even look through my list for a little inspiration!
Don’t forget to come back to the blog on Wednesday to link up your own Book Club Classics post and get involved in all the Sherlock discussion. Here’s to a budding literary community!