Following its revamp, courtesy of the BBC and Guy Ritchie (though it’s always going to be the BBC for me personally), Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are now both at the fore of detective literature once more. With Robert Downey Jnr and Benedict Cumberbatch bringing two very different and (if you’re a purist) controversial portrayals of Baker Street’s resident detective to the table, it’s perfectly understandable as to why people have been drawn in – the new, modern Sherlock Holmes adventures involve fast-paced action and witty dialogue that often goes so fast you have to rewind and listen through it twice before you get all the jokes (yes, Mark Gatiss, I’m looking at you). So, should you read A Study in Scarlet – the first book in the Conan Doyle series, in which Watson and Holmes meet for the first time and solve their first case?
Now, I am coming at this from a slightly shamed perspective; I think that no one, as my friends can vouch after my long, excited rants on the subject, is more of a fan of both popular forms of Sherlock Holmes than I. And I have always been a strong advocate of book before dramatisation; the disastrous consequences of novels which have been mangled in their trip to the screen is well known and examples can be given in A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Lovely Bones (for me anyway), Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and even Twilight (which, it has to be said, was made ten times the worse by Miss Stewart’s wooden acting and some dodgy, low-budget effects). So I came to A Study in Scarlet, buoyed on a wave of Sherlock series one mania, with great expectations. My exact thoughts: “If I like the TV show, I’m going to love the book.”
This is not, however, how it has panned out – at least not in the case of Conan Doyle’s début novel. I personally found it… lacking. I can identify a number of reasons for this, if I am honest with myself: I had very high expectations, which were bound to be disappointed; perhaps this is one of Conan Doyle’s weaker books; and, as the first Sherlock episode, A Study in Pink, had already identified the culprit for me, there was no real mystery. I was waiting for it to reach a conclusion, rather than wondering who the murderer was, which took the punch out of the novel somewhat.
But I think perhaps – and this is certainly a controversial view – the reason I found it less exhilarating and interesting than I expected is because, in comparison with Moffat’s new dramatisation (as I said, I’m a fan), it’s just not as good. Bear in mind this is coming from a definite non-purist, who went from television to book rather than the other (proper) way round. For me, Sherlock is associated with the slick, can-barely-keep-up style of the BBC show, where Holmes is more of an insomniac-bordering-on-sociopath and Irene Adler a dominatrix. While I know he never actually owned one, I like Sherlock Holmes more when he has an iPad.
The thing is, Sherlock Holmes has evolved so much that I feel like he’s almost left the books behind. Guy Ritchie’s Holmes is more about escaping explosions and gun fights than solving cases in the dingy annex of 221B (in some cases, you may forget there is a mystery to be solved). And, while Moffat builds on famous Conan Doyle stories, he twists them in ways which shake of the Victorian setting of the books, and with it the quiet style of prose writing. I went to A Study in Scarlet expecting the modern thriller attitude I’d experienced on the screen, but the book is of a whole other century. You need to remember that, and not expect to find either the new film or TV show in print – they did, after all, use the books only as a base, and were not always true to their subject material.
Another thing you have to remember, of course, is that it is only the beginning of the story. You can’t expect Holmes and Watson to be bordering on near bromance (not in a gay way, but I love their rapport) when it is only the first book. All the staples you are looking forward to – Mycroft and Moriarty, etc – are yet to come. You have to be patient and remember that the mystery is only one of many.
So, should you read A Study in Scarlet? Despite being disappointed myself, I would say yes. As a rule, you should always read the books if you like the dramatisation – they’re usually better. And the book did come a good one hundred and twenty years before the Sherlock Holmes obsession that’s currently gripping the country (and me); after lasting this long and giving birth to so many adaptations, it deserves to be read. Just remember that it’s not going to be the same as watching Cumberbatch ruthlessly rip a crime scene to shreds while offending many people in the process, or seeing Robert Downey Jnr escape an explosion by the skin of his teeth. It won’t be all singing, all dancing – but who knows? That might come later.