Friday, April 9, 2010

A Study in Scarlet

Day 59 of the “What are you reading, and why?” project.

Tim is reading volume one of a paperback edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. He is reading the stories because he liked the new (2009) Sherlock Holmes film with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, directed by Guy Ritchie. (This, I hear, is the edgy, cynical, martial arts version of Sherlock Holmes, and great fun.)

Tim read “The Hound of the Baskervilles” in high school and didn’t like it so much. At that age, he preferred Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. But he is loving reading the Conan Doyle stories now, starting at the beginning with A Study in Scarlet, which first appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, a popular magazine, in 1887. Not too many copies of this very, very valuable issue remain. (Hmm, a mystery plot has popped into my head, involving the theft and attempted sale of one of the remaining copies!)

Tim was surprised to recall that we meet Holmes through Dr. Watson, who has been in Afghanistan during the British military occupation and returns “thin as a lath and brown as a nut.” What a coincidence, said Tim, to find Afghanistan in this novel as well as the news, but, indeed, history repeats itself, with variations. (Wait till Tim gets to the part about Mormons in Utah; that may seem surreal.)

Like Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle first published in the magazines. Some of the Sherlock Holmes stories are truly short stories, and some are full novels, published serially. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was first published in The Strand Magazine, August, 1901 through April, 1902. The Strand went out of publication in 1950—the usual budgetary woes—but, delightfully, as of 1998, is back! How many of you mystery fans read it?

I’m struck by a sentence from A Study in Scarlet, related to its title: “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.”

This is intriguing in several ways:

A working title for A Study in Scarlet was A Tangled Skein.

The skein is “colourless” without the thread of murder, as if life is boring without the threat of its loss at the hands of another, or the thrill of this happening to someone else…which may help account for the avid reading of murder mysteries if not, perhaps, the persistence of murder itself…which seems to have other sources & motives than relief from boredom or the need for a shudder while safe in an armchair.

The duty to unravel and expose the scarlet thread was Conan Doyle’s own passion, as he exposed injustice in some real life cases as well as his fictions. This, too--a longing for justice--helps explains why many people prefer murder mysteries, where the killer is usually caught and justice can prevail, to true crime, or the news, where the truth does not always come out, and injustice sometimes goes unpunished. Not all murder mysteries tie up neatly and let goodness prevail...but "cozy" ones do. (More on that another time.)

I return to “the colourless skein of life” and imagine as well an invisible strand of melancholy in Conan Doyle, saddened by the loss of various loved ones and interested in spiritualism as well as justice and detective fiction.

More on true crime, In Cold Blood (previous entry), and categories of murder mystery…to come.


Anonymous said...

You mention that not too many copies still exist of Beeton's. In fact, there are only 31 confirmed copies of Beeton's Christmas Annual 1887, and most of those are missing some part of the original magazine. It's been called the most expensive magazine in the world, and you can see more details at the above checklist.

Your plot idea about the theft of one sounds interesting - sadly in real life something similar has happened with the theft of a signed title page from one copy.


Kathleen said...

Sigh...when the value system is money, that's what happens, alas.

There are other ways to value things of this world, but people find it hard to realize and do that!