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Saturday, January 30, 2010

audio review: A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

cover art from Headline Book Publishing
Sherlock Holmes Novels #1:
A Study in Scarlet
by Arthur Conan Doyle

In this, the first Holmes mystery, the detective introduces himself to Dr. John H. Watson with the puzzling line "You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive."
And so begins Watson's, and the world's, fascination with this enigmatic character.
Doyle presents two equally perplexing mysteries for Holmes to solve: one a murder that takes place in the shadowy outskirts of London, in a locked room where the haunting word Rache is written upon the wall, the other a kidnapping set in the American West.
Quickly picking up the "scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life," Holmes does not fail at finding the truth - and making literary history.

adult fiction ; historical ; mystery { genre
PG for mild violence { rating
1887 (audio book released 2001) { first released
Alec Reid Recordings, read by John Telfer (4h20min) { review edition
free legal download { acquisition
Download Free Audio Book { purchase links

Why I Read This
I've been a fan of Hound of the Baskervilles ever since I read it as a middle-schooler, but alas I was not particularly well-versed in the concept of "series" then and had thought the book a standalone. By the time I was in high school, I had read a few more Sherlock Holmes mysteries (The Speckled Band, The Red-Headed League) but I had temporarily lost interest in reading. The most recent movie reboot, though rather different from what I remembered from the canon, had resparked my interest in the series and now I'm working my way through the entire audio book collection, read by the amazing voice of John Telfer. Oh, and did I mention all Sherlock Holmes ebooks and audio books (except Casebook in the US) are public domain, meaning they are available for legal downloads at sites like Project Gutenberg and AudioBooksForFree?

First Lines
In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.

Overall Rating

This introduction of the uniquely gifted detective Sherlock Holmes, seen through the eyes of the humble ex-army doctor John Watson, appeals as both a historical mystery, as well as a deeply entertaining portrait of the eccentric sleuth. It was fun to follow along with the easily sympathized Watson as he struggles to figure out both what Holmes has already been able to deduce from the mystery, as well as the great mystery of Holmes himself. Even though I was not particularly interested in the 5 chapters of the criminal's backstory, John Telfer did an amazing job voicing both an excitable and gentlemanly Watson, as well as a soft-spoken and thoughtful Holmes. So, if you are planning to listen to this series in audio, I highly recommend Mr. Telfer as your narrator of choice.

review posted to, goodreads, LibraryThing, Shelfari


I am a great fan of mystery novels, but Holmesian mysteries are rather a more ambiguous format. The fact that the story is told from a single point of view means that the reader rarely gets to see inside the villain's head for any clues. Furthermore, it's not even told from the perspective of the detective, but rather his (eventual) loyal sidekick. Thus, this particular mystery serves more as an introduction to the intellect and deductive powers of Holmes rather than a mystery for the readers to solve. Often Holmes observes (rather than sees) things that Watson - and by proxy the reader - won't and can't notice. The great fun really, lies in seeing Holmes' reactions to each clue, and trying to figure out what the hell he's thinking, never mind whatever the criminal's motives are. That doesn't mean that the crime isn't well-plotted however, since the key to Holmes' investigations are always the intricate details woven into each new clue.
My only quibble - apparently echoed by the sentiments of many of the original audience - was the 5 chapters of backstory for the criminal told completely in flashbacks. I'll be the first to admit I completely skipped those chapters since I am way more interested in Holmes deducing his way through a puzzle than a guy lamenting on his tragic past. Plus, I heard there was some rather discriminative depictions of Mormons that Doyle later apologized for, so all the more reason for not touching those chapters.


I love quirky geniuses. Sherlock Holmes is a quirky genius. Thus, I love Sherlock Holmes. This I think is a perfect introduction to this amazing character. From their first meeting, Watson becomes semi-obsessed with observing Holmes' every quirk, from his sitting posture (legs folded to chest, feet on ledge of chair) to the list of stuff he does and doesn't know (he actually MAKES A LIST). Even though he is contemplative and soft-spoken (I LOVE Mr. Telfer's voice for him), he gets childishly excited and hyper whenever he makes an important discovery.
Doctor Watson on the other hand seems almost the smitten fan, following Holmes around and praising him with "My God! How did you figure that out?" every other scene. He is the sympathetic expositionist who reacts as a "normal" person would to a mangled body and pointing out all the ways in which Holmes is NOT normal. He is the one who helps the reader catch up with events, something Holmes would never slow down long enough to do.
What I also love about Holmesian mysteries is that many of the criminals are quite smart themselves, and Holmes recognizes this. He encourages them to share the details that he might have missed rather than throw them into prison right away. The real mystery is as much why a criminal has resorted to such measures as it is how they committed the crime.


Now that I've started reading Mr. Doyle's works again, I can't get enough of the uniquely British, elegant and educated style of writing he uses. There is no horribly obscure vocabulary and is quite casual in its structure, yet it sounds so professional, perhaps owning to the fact that it was meant to be written by a "doctor". The dialogue is unique for each character, ranging from respected society men to street children - and of course, this is especially highlighted by Mr. Telfer's amazing voices. He can range from timid to assertive, male to female, young to old, and they all match perfectly to what I would imagine each character to sound like.


As I've mentioned before, I really could not get into the tedious chapters of the criminal explaining his own past - if Holmes were the one to deduce parts of it I may have tried though. Most of Mr. Doyle's stories end with Holmes explaining the last few details of the case in their comfy sitting room. It's almost like those "everyone sits around the table and laughs the whole event off" scenes in sitcoms, but infinitely more enjoyable because it's Holmes being smart. It's really the entire novel that keeps the audience hooked rather than each ending since there is no cliffhanger, but I just really love how Holmes is so eager to finish up every last detail of the case before he sets it aside.

Sherlock Holmes Novels
#1 A Study in Scarlet (1887)
#2 The Sign of the Four (1890)
#3 The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
#4 The Valley of Fear (1915)

Sherlock Holmes Anthologies
#1 The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
#2 The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893)
#3 The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1904)
#4 His Last Bow (1917)
#5 The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927)

Reading Challenges
A to Z Challenge 2010 → D for Doyle (author)
Audio Book Challenge 2010
TwentyTen Challenge → Older Than You
1st in a Series Challenge 2010 → Sherlock Holmes Novels
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Melissa said...

Great review...I love how you break down all the elements :)

Ryan G said...

I'm really going to have to read these some day.