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Frankly Scarlet

Just finished reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet.”  It is a short novel and, as many will tell you, it is the first Sherlock Holmes story.  As far as I can tell, I have never read it before.  It is probably unread by many people.

You see, most of the Holmes stories are short stories, because most of them were written for the magazines of the time, and most of the Holmes books are anthologies of those short stories.  Most of the Jeremy Brett television series was also taken from the short stories.

Most of the Holmes movies through the years have been remakes of “Hound of the Baskervilles.”  (I, of course, do not count the recent Robert Downey Jr. movies, which are sort of Holmes as if played by Jason Statham.)  The reason for this is simple: the short stories are too short to be made into movies and there were only ever four novels and, apparently, Hound is the easiest to make into a movie.  Scarlet would be very difficult to make into a movie, for reasons I will get to in a moment.

“A Study in Scarlet” is, like most Holmes stories, a first person narrative written from the point of view of Dr. John Watson.  The first chapter or so is taken up with his story: medical doctor without connections, joins the army, goes off to war, is severely injured, is returned to England, no family, needs cheap lodgings.  An acquaintance introduces him to Sherlock Holmes, who is also looking for cheap lodgings and, as fate would have it, has found the perfect place if only he could find a roommate.

After introducing us to both characters, the story starts reading like any other Holmes story: dark, foggy London streets, a couple of locked-door murders, red herrings, mis-directions, and Holmes never quite letting Watson (or us) in on his thoughts and plans.  So, I was digging all this, getting into the story, making a few deductions of my own, when, about halfway through, Holmes leaps up, places handcuffs on a man we have never seen before, and announces to all that this man is the murderer.

Huh?  Half a book to go, you understand.

Here is where it gets weird.  Going from Watson narrating a first-person story in 1881, the next chapter is in third-person omniscient form, telling the tale of an old man wandering in the desert.  With a young girl.  In 1847.  In Utah.

Chapter after chapter goes on, telling how these two survivors come to be found by the Mormon migration, come to live with them, and prosper.  It is some time before the character of the murderer actually shows up and, yes, all of this is his backstory and we do come to find out why he would eventually kill the men that he did.  Precious few pages remain when we are finally returned to the present (!) and Watson takes up the story again, pretty much the killers full, complete, and very detailed confession, followed by Holmes detailing how he had come to his conclusions.

Well, you can see why this would never make a movie – at least, not a low-budget British movie.  Utah?  Thanks to Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, I have seen every stone quarry in England and, I promise you, not one of them would pass for Utah or any other desert.  To make this portion of the story work – and it would be too much of the story to just leave out or gloss over – they would actually have to fly a crew to Utah – or, at least, Morocco – and they just do not have that kind of money.

There was a 1933 version, but it had nothing to do with Utah or Mormons – in fact, it has a character from “The Red-headed League,” so maybe that is what it is.  Meanwhile, “Hound of the Baskervilles” takes place in the English countryside, with hills and mores.  That they can do, no problem.  So, the TV/movie-watching public has never seen this Sherlock Holmes origin story.  Hope someone tries it, one day.


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