A Study in Scarlet is an 1887 detective novel written by Arthur Conan Doyle. The story marks the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, who would become the most famous detective duo in literature. The book’s title derives from a speech given by Holmes, a consulting detective, to his friend and chronicler Watson on the nature of his work, in which he describes the story’s murder investigation as his “study in scarlet”: “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.”
The story, and its main characters, attracted little public interest when it first appeared. Only 11 complete copies of the magazine in which the story first appeared, Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, are known to exist now and they have considerable value. Although Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories featuring Holmes, A Study in Scarlet is one of only four full-length novels in the original canon. The novel was followed by The Sign of the Four, published in 1890. A Study in Scarlet was the first work of detective fiction to incorporate the magnifying glass as an investigative tool.
Part I: The Reminiscences of WatsonEdit
In 1881, Doctor John Watson has returned to London after serving in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. He is looking for a place to live, and an old friend tells him that Sherlock Holmes is looking for someone to split the rent at a flat at 221B Baker Street but cautions Watson about Holmes’s eccentricities. Holmes and Watson meet, and after assessing each other and the rooms, they move in. Holmes reveals that he is a “consulting detective” and that his frequent guests are clients. After a demonstration of Holmes’s deductive skills, Watson’s disbelief turns into astonishment.
Original illustration of Holmes with magnifying glass, by David Henry Friston. Left to right: Watson, Holmes, Lestrade, Gregson
A telegram requests a consultation in a murder case. Watson accompanies Holmes to the crime scene, an abandoned house on Brixton Road. Inspectors Gregson and Lestrade are already on the scene. The victim is identified as Enoch Drebber, and documents found on his person reveal that he has a secretary, Joseph Stangerson. On one wall, written in red, is “RACHE” (German for “revenge”), which Holmes dismisses as a ploy to fool the police. He deduces that the victim died from poison and supplies a description of the murderer. Upon moving Drebber’s body, they discover a woman’s gold wedding ring.
Holmes places notices in several newspapers about the ring and buys a facsimile of it, hoping to draw the murderer – who has apparently already tried to retrieve the ring – out of hiding. An old woman answers the advertisement, claiming that the ring belongs to her daughter. Holmes gives her the duplicate and follows her, but she evades him. This leads Holmes to believe that she was an accomplice, or perhaps the actual murderer in disguise.
A day later, Gregson visits Holmes and Watson, telling them that he has arrested a suspect. He had gone to Madame Charpentier’s Boarding House where Drebber and Stangerson had stayed before the murder. He learned from her that Drebber, a drunk, had attempted to kiss Mrs. Charpentier’s daughter, Alice, which caused their immediate eviction. Drebber, however, came back later that night and attempted to grab Alice, prompting her older brother to attack him. He attempted to chase Drebber with a cudgel but claimed to have lost sight of him. Gregson has him in custody on this circumstantial evidence.
Lestrade then arrives and reveals that Stangerson has been murdered. His body was found near his hotel window, stabbed through the heart; above it was written “RACHE”. The only things Stangerson had with him were a novel, a pipe, a telegram saying “J.H. is in Europe”, and a small box containing two pills. Holmes tests the pills on an old and sickly Scottish terrier in residence at Baker Street. The first pill produces no evident effect, but the second kills the terrier. Holmes deduces that one was harmless and the other poison.
Just at that moment, a very young street urchin named Wiggins arrives. He is the leader of the Baker Street Irregulars, a group of street children Holmes employs to help him occasionally. Wiggins states that he’s summoned the cab Holmes wanted. Holmes sends him down to fetch the cabby, claiming to need help with his luggage. When the cabby comes upstairs and bends for the trunk, Holmes handcuffs and restrains him. He then announces the captive cabby as Jefferson Hope, the murderer of Drebber and Stangerson.
Part II: “The Country of the Saints”
The story flashes back to the Salt Lake Valley in Utah in 1847, where John Ferrier and a little girl named Lucy, the only survivors of a small party of pioneers, are rescued from death by a large party of Latter-day Saints led by Brigham Young, but only on the condition that they adopt and live under the Mormon faith. Years later, a now-grown Lucy befriends and falls in love with a man named Jefferson Hope. However, Young forbids her from marrying outside the faith, and demands that she marry either Joseph Stangerson or Enoch Drebber, both sons of members of the church’s Council of Four. Ferrier, who has adopted Lucy and sworn to never marry his daughter to a Mormon, immediately sends word to Hope.
Lucy is given one month to choose between her suitors. Hope finally arrives on the eve of the last day and they all escape under cover of darkness. The Mormons intercept the escapees while Hope is away hunting, as their food had run out. Ferrier is killed while Lucy is forcibly married to Drebber and dies a month later from a broken heart. Hope breaks into Drebber’s house the night before Lucy’s funeral to kiss her body and remove her wedding ring. He swears vengeance on Drebber and Stangerson, but he begins to suffer from an aortic aneurysm, causing him to leave the mountains to earn money and recuperate. When he returns several years later, he learns that Drebber and Stangerson have fled Salt Lake City after a schism between the Mormons. Hope pursues them, eventually tracking them to Cleveland, then to Europe.
In London, Hope becomes a cabby and eventually finds Drebber and Stangerson. After the altercation with Madame Charpentier’s son, Drebber gets into Hope’s cab and spends several hours drinking. Eventually, Hope takes him to the house on Brixton Road, where Hope forces Drebber to recognize him and to choose between two pills, one of which is harmless and the other poison. Drebber takes the poisoned pill, and as he dies, Hope shows him Lucy’s wedding ring. The excitement coupled with his aneurysm causes his nose to bleed; he uses the blood to write “RACHE” on the wall above Drebber to confound the investigators. Stangerson, on learning of Drebber’s murder, refuses to leave his hotel room. Hope climbs in through the window and gives Stangerson the same choice of pills, but he is attacked and nearly strangled by Stangerson and forced to stab him in the heart.
Hope dies from his aneurysm the night before he is to appear in court. Holmes reveals to Watson how he had deduced the identity of the murderer, then shows Watson the newspaper; Lestrade and Gregson are given full credit. Outraged, Watson states that Holmes should record the adventure and publish it. Upon Holmes’s refusal, Watson decides to do it himself.
Conan Doyle wrote the novel at the age of 27 in less than three weeks. As a general practice doctor in Southsea, Hampshire, he had already published short stories in several magazines of the day, such as the periodical London Society. The story was originally titled A Tangled Skein, and was eventually published by Ward Lock & Co. in Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1887, after many rejections. Conan Doyle had pressed for royalty but instead received £25 in return for the full rights (equivalent to £3,371.95 considering inflation). It was illustrated by David Henry Friston.
The novel was first published as a book in July 1888 by Ward, Lock & Co., and featured drawings by the author’s father, Charles Doyle. In 1890, J. B. Lippincott & Co. released the first American version. Another edition published in 1891 by Ward, Lock & Bowden Limited (formerly Ward, Lock & Co.) was illustrated by George Hutchinson. A German edition of the novel published in 1902 was illustrated by Richard Gutschmidt. Numerous further editions, translations and dramatisations have appeared since.
As the first Sherlock Holmes story published, A Study in Scarlet was among the first to be adapted to the screen. In 1914, Conan Doyle authorised a British silent film be produced by G. B. Samuelson. In the film, titled A Study in Scarlet, Holmes was played by James Bragington, an accountant who worked as an actor for the only time of his life. He was hired for his resemblance to Holmes, as presented in the sketches originally published with the story. As early silent films were made with film that itself was made with poor materials, and film archiving was then rare, it is now a lost film. The film was successful enough for Samuelson to produce the 1916 film The Valley of Fear.
A two-reel short film, also titled A Study in Scarlet, was released in the United States in 1914, a day after the British film with the same title was released. The American film starred Francis Ford as Holmes and was not authorised by Doyle. It is also a lost film.
The 1933 film titled A Study in Scarlet, starring Reginald Owen as Sherlock Holmes and Anna May Wong as Mrs Pyke, bears no plot relation to the novel. Aside from Holmes, Watson, Mrs. Hudson, and Inspector Lestrade, the only connections to the Holmes canon are a few lifts of character names (Jabez Wilson, etc.). The plot contains an element of striking resemblance to one used several years later in Agatha Christie‘s novel And Then There Were None.
Edith Meiser adapted A Study in Scarlet into a four-part serial for the radio series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The episodes aired in November and December 1931, with Richard Gordon as Sherlock Holmes and Leigh Lovell as Dr. Watson.
Parts of the story were combined with “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” for the script of “Dr Watson Meets Mr Sherlock Holmes”, one of multiple radio adaptations featuring John Gielgud as Sherlock Holmes and Ralph Richardson as Dr. Watson. The episode first aired on the BBC Light Programme on 5 October 1954, and also aired on NBC radio on 2 January 1955.
Another British radio version of the story adapted by Hardwick aired on 25 December 1974, with Robert Powell as Sherlock Holmes and Dinsdale Landon as Watson. The cast also included Frederick Treves as Inspector Gregson, John Hollis as Inspector Lestrade, and Don Fellows as Jefferson Hope.
A Study in Scarlet was adapted as the first two episodes of the BBC’s complete Sherlock Holmes 1989–1998 radio series. The two-part adaptation aired on Radio 4 in 1989, dramatised by Bert Coules and starring Clive Merrison as Holmes, Michael Williams as Watson, Donald Gee as Inspector Lestrade, and John Moffatt as Inspector Gregson.
It was adapted as a 2007 episode of the American radio series The Classic Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, with John Patrick Lowrie as Holmes, Lawrence Albert as Watson, Rick May as Lestrade, and John Murray as Gregson.
The 1954–1955 television series (with Ronald Howard as Holmes and H. Marion Crawford as Watson) used only the first section of the book as the basis for the episode “The Case of the Cunningham Heritage”.
The book was adapted into an episode broadcast on 23 September 1968 in the second season of the BBC television series Sherlock Holmes, with Peter Cushing in the lead role and Nigel Stock as Dr. Watson.
It was adapted as the second episode of the 1979 Soviet television film, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (the first episode combines the story of their meeting with “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”; the second episode adapts the actual Jefferson Hope case).
A 1983 animated television film adaptation was produced by Burbank Films Australia, with Peter O’Toole voicing Holmes. In both the 1968 television adaptation featuring Peter Cushing and the 1983 animated version featuring Peter O’Toole, the story is changed so that Holmes and Watson already know each other and have been living at 221B Baker Street for some time.
A Study in Scarlet is one of the stories missing from the adaptations made starring Jeremy Brett between 1984 and 1994.
Steven Moffat loosely adapted A Study in Scarlet into “A Study in Pink” as the first episode of the 2010 BBC television series Sherlock featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as a 21st-century Sherlock Holmes, and Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson. The adaptation retains many individual elements from the story, such as the scribbled “RACHE” and the two pills, and the killer’s potentially fatal aneurysm (although it is located in his brain rather than his aorta). However, the entire backstory set in America is omitted, and the motivation of the killer is completely different. It also features Moriarty‘s presence. Also, the meeting of Holmes and Watson is adapted in the Victorian setting in the special “The Abominable Bride”.
“The Deductionist”, an episode of Elementary, contains many elements of Hope’s case, including the motivation of revenge. The story was more closely adapted in the season 4 episode, “A Study in Charlotte.”
“The First Adventure”, the first episode of the 2014 NHK puppetry series Sherlock Holmes, is loosely based on A Study in Scarlet and “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons“. In it, Holmes, Watson and Lestrade are pupils at a fictional boarding school called Beeton School. They find out that a pupil called Jefferson Hope has taken revenge on Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson for stealing his watch. “Scarlet Story”, the series’ opening theme tune, is named after the novel and the name of “Beeton School” is partially inspired by Beeton’s Christmas Annual.
A Study in Scarlet was illustrated by Seymour Moskowitz for Classics Illustrated comics in 1953. It was also adapted to graphic novel form by Innovation Publishing in 1969 (adapted by James Stenstrum and illustrated by Noly Panaligan) by Sterling Publishing in 2010 (adapted by Ian Edginton and illustrated by I. N. J. Culbard) and by Hakon Holm Publishing in 2013 (illustrated by Nis Jessen).
In 2014, A Study in Scarlet was adapted again for the stage by Greg Freeman, Lila Whelan and Annabelle Brown for Tacit Theatre. The production premiered at Southwark Playhouse in London in March 2014.
In February 2019, a new adaptation of “A Study in Scarlet“ was staged at DM Performance Works at the Factory in Nuremberg, PA. It was adapted by Bill Amos under the title “Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Avenger“.