Welcome to Part 2 of April Classic Crime Read-Along, where we open the floor for discussion. You can find Part 1, a little background info on A Study in Scarlet, here. Please feel very invited to join in the conversation at any point along the way!
I had a lot to say about this one—hope my notes aren’t daunting. Please feel free to discuss any of these prompts that tickle your fancy, or suggest any others of your own.
Some questions I’d love to propose for discussion:
- First of all, what did everyone think? General impressions? Happy/sad? Likes/dislikes? Will you read more Sherlock Holmes now?
- Now onto the specifics. Let’s open with the elephant in the room. I can only imagine the LDS Church doesn’t love this particular Sherlock Holmes novel. Even if you want to argue it was different times, a different church, and a different public attitude toward the church (all true), you can’t really argue it’s a flattering portrayal. Did the story’s vilification of Mormons intrude on your reading experience at all? Or did you just kind of write off the lampoonish depiction as a function of the time in which the book was published? (If any Mormon read-alongers want to address this one, I’d love to hear your take.)
- This brings us to a really important question for classic crime fiction which we all just mostly ignore, because it’s too hard to hold some beloved classics accountable. A lot of forensics and investigative techniques throughout history have been based on generalizations we wouldn’t let ourselves get away with today. (Not just crime fiction—law enforcement, too; racist and/or other forms of criminal profiling have been the norm in a lot of investigative procedure since time immemorial.) What’s your opinion on un-PC “classic” literature? Where do we draw the line between forgiving (“Sure, it wouldn’t be ok to publish this today, but otherwise it’s a great novel so we’ll overlook its un-PC-ness”) and deciding a book is no longer suitable reading material? At the risk of opening a can of worms, are there any widely-lauded classics you think are no longer necessary and/or appropriate reading because of the content? Do you believe there is such thing as unethical content in fiction? (I’m asking this question now because it will continue to rear its head as we go along with the crime read-along. Might as well open the discussion!)
- I really loved the first half of the book, which was pretty relentlessly fun, whimsical, and smart. Did you like the presentation of the Holmes/Watson friendship? Did you find yourself charmed by Holmes’s genius?
- About halfway through Chapter 2, Watson is reading a newspaper article (which, it will turn out, was written by Holmes). I love this passage:
“Let [the aspiring detector], on meeting a fellow mortal, learn at a glance to distinguish the history of the man, and the trade or profession to which he belongs. Puerile as such an exercise may seem, it sharpens the faculties of observation, and teaches one where to look and what to look for. By a man’s fingernails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boots, by his trouser-knees, by the callousities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt-cuffs—by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent inquirer in any case is almost inconceivable.”
Have you ever played Holmes’s game? I confess I do this all the time. I love sitting on the subway and trying to figure as much as possible out about fellow passengers based on the information they’re giving away for free. I haven’t really had a lot of provable successes, but I’d love SOME reassurance that other people do this, too.
- Did you spot the reference to our previous Read-Along title?! (Toward the end of Chapter 2.) This really made the whole experiment for me—clearly we’re accomplishing our goal of identifying intertextual literary allusions within the genre! Has anyone read the other Holmes precursor Watson names, Gaboriau’s Lecoq? I’ve just downloaded myself a free version of Monsieur Lecoq (it’s public domain) and look forward to checking it out.
- In Chapter 4, we see the origins of the title: Holmes says to Watson, “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.” While this is a lovely sentiment of thorough commitment to his self-appointed calling, it’s also pretty creepy. Do you agree with Holmes, that without murder, life has no color? Is this maybe why we’re so entranced by murder-y TV shows and movies as well as crime novels and daily blotters?
- At the beginning of Chapter 5, Holmes explains to Watson why this murder case bothers Watson more than the bloody violence of war did: “There is a mystery about this which stimulates the imagination; where there is no imagination, there is no horror.” Do you agree? Does an element of imagination make a crime more gruesome?
- While I loved the first half of A Study in Scarlet, the second half, where the narrative changes to the third-person saga of “The Country of the Saints,” took a turn for the tragic and melodramatic. For me the voice discrepancy was a bit of a disappointment. I had previously read The Hound of the Baskervilles, and felt something similar about that novel—that the execution didn’t quite live up to the darn cleverness of the set-up. Did anyone else feel that the narrative voice of the second half didn’t quite live up to the narrative voice of the first half?
- In my opinion, Doyle dropped the ball a little bit with character motivations at the end. After carefully detailing teeny-tiny clues that let Holmes leap to genius conclusions, he offers no explanation for why Debber and Stangerson, one-time rivals, would suddenly take up traveling together. That all seemed a little flimsy to me. What did you guys think about character motivations?
- If you’ve read other Sherlock Holmes fictions, please recommend your favorites to me. I have the complete collections and want to do a little more reading. So far, my colleague Mark has recommended “The Copper Beeches,” and I’ve already read The Hound of the Baskervilles.
And of course, any other discussion questions you guys want to pose I would LOVE to hear. Thanks so much for participating!
ANNOUNCING THE MAY TITLE: The next Read-Along book is going to be THE MAN IN THE QUEUE, by Josephine Tey. Tune in on May 8th for a mid-reading check-in, and May 22nd for the next discussion!
Thanks again, guys! Happy reading!