Audiobook: A Study in Scarlet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Read by Derek Jacobi

Series: Sherlock Holmes #1
Publisher:
BBC Audio
Time:
4 hours 41 minutes (unabridged)
Format: Audible Download

Story:
Narration:

A Study in Scarlet introduced the great scientific detective, Sherlock Holmes, and Dr Watson, his friend and chronicler, to the reading public. This novel, a cornerstone in the annals of crime fiction, tells of their first meeting and how they set up in rooms together in baker Street. It is not long before the charismatic sleuth and his faithful companion are plunged into a dramatic mystery which starts with the discovery of a corpse in a deserted house and the letters RACHE scrawled on the wall in blood.

From the Collector’s Library Edition

Originally named A Tangled Skein, this is the first Sherlock Holmes story. The real strength and the unique quality of the novel lies in the introduction of Holmes and Watson to each other – and those dark early scenes when a corpse is discovered in a derelict house in southeast London. The ultimate crusader against crime and criminals, Holmes’ genius is revealed here for the very first time.

Audible product description

Story:

Well, the blurb puts it a lot better and a much more concisely than I was going to; praising the truly brilliant parts of the novel while tacitly admitting that the rest of the story, once it moves away from the Holmes/Watson relationship, simply isn’t very good.

The mystery itself is fine, perfectly serviceable in fact. The solving of it and Holmesian explanation of how all the small, overlooked factors all fit together to give an almost complete picture to those with the deductive reasoning to work it out is very well done. It’s not at all hard to see why Holmes is still regarded as the greatest literary detective ever. No, the problem is that once the mystery is solved – at around the halfway point – there’s a narrative shift into a third person account of the murderer’s backstory explaining his motives and relationship with his victims.

It’s a jarring change and not really a very welcome one. After spending the first half of the book invested in the relationship between Holmes and Watson and being fascinated by the correct conclusions Holmes could leap to based on almost nothing, I didn’t particularly care to get invested in this second set of characters. The most explanation of motive I needed was a quick monologue from the murderer summarising the key points – not a multi-chapter epic of lost love. But a multi chapter story-within-a-story was what I got, and it didn’t quite work. The third person narrative seemed awkward and ill-fitting with the rest of the book – a personal account told through the eyes of Dr Watson. If the Holmes canon is meant to be written by Dr Watson, then this section doesn’t quite fit – the information is a bit too detailed for someone who wasn’t there, even if they have received a second-hand account, and the tone is completely different from Watson’s bluff style of writing. I kept asking myself where this omnipotent narrator had come from and wondering when we could get back to Holmes and Watson.

It didn’t help that none of the characters in this story-within-the-story were very interesting. There was a typical older mentor figure, his adopted daughter Lucy, and a rough handsome young hunter, all felt rather sketched in and none of the other characters were fleshed out even enough to be worth mentioning.The father was fatherly, the daughter was one of those annoying perky orphan kids who say things like ‘Oh! but why didn’t you tell me we were going to die? We can join mother then’ but eventually grows up into the most beautiful woman ever whilst still preserving her childish innocence and ‘charm’, and the hunter was rough, young and handsome and well…you can totally see where that story is going, right? Insta-love! That’s right! Don’t you just love that trope? It’s all very disappointing and predictable, especially as the reader already knows what has to happen and already knows that Doyle is a much, much, better writer than this who can actually write fully developed characters because we’ve just cut away from them to read this second-rate part.

I’ll be fair on Doyle though. This was his first Sherlock Holmes book and it didn’t actually receive any real attention until his short stories were already a hit. When it’s good it’s very good, and he does learn from this mistake in future books. Dodgy flashbacks and probably inaccurate portrayals of Mormonism aside, it’s worth reading for Sherlock Holmes alone – the mystery is just icing on the cake. He’s a wonderfully real character, even as he manages almost inhuman feats of observation and deduction. He has his flaws – a rather superior attitude being the major one and very patchy knowledge on anything that doesn’t pertain to his own narrow interests in solving crime for another. He’s not ‘perfect’, he’s as occasionally frustrating and annoying as someone with superior skills really is but he is amazingly charismatic. Now that many of his methods have been adopted both by the police and fictional detectives, you might think he would have lost some of his unique appeal – but I don’t think he has. The style of detective fiction may have shifted to ‘show the reader all the clues and see if they can work it out’, but Sherlock’s cold, calculated analysis of clues the reader (and Watson) weren’t even aware of until he mentions them, are still a joy to read.

So despite the low rating I really do think this is a worthwhile read. Just remember though; they do get better!

Narration:

I actually liked Derek Jacobi’s narration. Again, if not for the Utah flashback, he would have received a solid four stars. Holmes and Watson don’t sound quite as I imagined them myself – Jacobi’s Watson sounds a bit like he’s talking through a thick moustache – but there is nothing wrong with them either. Jacobi does a very good job of reading the actions as well as the dialogue too – if the text says a character was yawning or laughing as they said something than Jacobi will have the character yawning or laughing as they say it. It’s a nice, high quality narration, if one that will take me a little while to get used to because of my own preconceived notions. But then…Utah Flashback time! Again I’m not familiar with the many regional American accents so I can’t be much of a judge there, and he managed admirably at making all the characters sound like different people while sharing the same general accent but…to be honest, it wasn’t an accent I particularly liked.

All would be ok though, were it not for little orphan Lucy. She’s played as the same giggly, annoying, perky little child she is in the books and, though it wound me up and made me detest her more strongly than I did when I was reading the book, there wasn’t much Jacobi could do to improve her. It’s when she grew up that I thought the narration could do more, she’s a very flat character on the page but there’s some potential in an audiobook to at least make her sound as wild and carefree as the odd passage hints at – just a little something to help explain why so many men think she’s worth trying to marry. Instead she sounds almost exactly like she did as a child.  I would like to have believed that she rode her horse into a load of cattle because she was completely confident that she could get through, not because she was too stupid to realise there might be a danger. With Jacobi’s narration of the scene there’s no doubt at all that she’s just really dumb. I realise it’s hard for a man to play a teenage girl but just a few small things – an actual laugh rather than a childish titter, and a bit of carelessness and unintentional flirtation in her voice would have gone a long way towards convincing me that she was both ignorant of her own beauty and sexy in the first place.

Apart from Lucy though – where really the text is just as poor – a solid performance. Not how I imagined many of the characters but equally not bad either, just different.

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