In my last post I proposed an exercise in editing/revision: edit the first chapter of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes book, “A Study in Scarlet”. I’ve now read through the chapter a couple times, and here’s my thinking about it. (I’ll post under the cut for those who are thinking of doing this, but don’t want to be influenced by my comments…)
The story starts off with an infodump and a focus on Watson that isn’t really continued later on. The first chapter is Watson’s story of becoming a doctor, going off to war, and coming home badly damaged. He kicks around London at loose ends until he’s spent himself dry and needs to look for cheaper lodgings. He chances upon an old acquaintance who happens to know a fairly odd person looking for a roommate, and he is introduced to an odd duck by the name of Sherlock Holmes who has just invented a test for hemoglobin that will tell for sure whether blood is present.
Now, I’m trying to put myself in the frame of mind where I can forget that this may be one of the most famous pieces of detective fiction of all time and is cherished by millions, so that I can assess its flaws. Many of these flaws are from a modern perspective: tastes and styles have changed in the last century. And of course, many tastes are personal, and I’m going to be imposing mine on this piece semi-ruthlessly.
Given all that, here’s my take on it (focusing on the first chapter, but mindful of the rest): It’s structured well and some of the dialogue and descriptions are great. Much of the dialogue is clunky, though, to these modern ears, and some of the blocking is distracting. But my big problem with this chapter is that it makes a promise in the beginning that the novel is about Watson: the frame story for A Study in Scarlet is set up as Watson finally recovering from his war wound and moving on with his life.  The info dump in the beginning drags quite a lot, and contains a great deal of information that doesn’t really bear on the rest of the story.
As far as the intro goes, then, I have some choices to make that affect the rest of the story. I’m drawing here both on my own thoughts and on what I’ve read and picked up over the years from people talking about this book (admittedly, a resource I wouldn’t have when revising my own work, but maybe not THAT different from beta-readers?) Here are the basic options as I see them:
- Reduce the info dump greatly, and then go to the final chapter and find some way to add closure; but otherwise reduce it to bookends. This is the “leave it alone” option, where the story is pretty much equally about Holmes and about the crime at the heart of the book.
- Increase the info dump to a chapter in its own right. This makes the book FAR more about Watson than it otherwise is, which means that the first chapter would need some great foreshadowing about crime and detection, and that the structure of the rest of the book would need to change. Since I’m uncomfortable with the book’s depiction of LDS, this would be a wonderful opportunity to change the story of Jefferson Hope to more explicitly mirror Watson’s experiences in Afghanistan.
- Reframe the story to be more about Holmes. This would almost certainly entail reducing or even removing the Hope story. For the first chapter, that probably means moving the meeting up to the beginning of the chapter, and letting the info dump come out as backstory — such as when Holmes explains his deduction that Watson had been in Afghanistan. In this case, I think the story would be about how Holmes’s laziness and anti-social tendencies are blunted and his intellect focused on detection.
If I were revising the whole book, I think I’d pick option 2. In that case, the first chapter would start in Kandahar, and I’d probably try to throw in some kind of crime or other police issue. (Maybe Holmes would solve that crime from afar in Chapter 3?) This would set up a strong character-centric arc that would need to be resolved in the last chapter, and the adventure with Holmes would be (as in Gatiss and Moffat’s interpretation of the story in A Study in Pink) a large part of the cure. The rest of the book could revolve around solving the case, but the story would be about Watson’s healing process. Watson thinks he wants a life of quiet dissolution to fritter away his pension in luxury, but he needs to feel like he’s doing something worthwhile with his life (why he became a surgeon and entered the army in the first place!) Sherlock Holmes is there to force this decision and show him the glories in a life of having adventures and solving crimes. The problem with this is that Sherlock Holmes steals the show: he’s the more vivid and interesting character, and would probably need to be tamed a bit.
That plan entails a lot of rewriting, though. For this exercise, I think I’m going to go with option 1: forgoing a full content edit, I think I’m going to stick with the structure more or less as-is, slimming it down to improve the pace, massaging the dialogue, and keeping notes about what promises I think are being made that need to be fulfilled later. This approach is more appropriate for the exercise anyway.
So that’s the plan right now. I’m going to go try it out and then later I’ll post the results and you can all laugh at me!
 Conan Doyle is in good company here, since no less an author than Shakespeare forgot his frame story in The Taming of the Shrew.
4 thoughts on “A Study in A Study in Scarlet, 2”
Just put yourself through one of the recent Sherlock Holmes movies and you’ll feel much better about the books.
Hah! I’ve so far managed to avoid having to do that, actually… 🙂
I must say, though, I’ve been impressed with the BBC versions. I feel like they’ve done a lot of this thinking, and while they may not have come to the same conclusions I have, they’ve shown respect for the source material that not even all of the straight-up dramatisations have.
Thanks for stopping by!