Craft Study: Clues and Sherlock Holmes

The Complete Sherlock Holmes, purchased from Barnes and Noble
The Complete Sherlock Holmes, purchased from Barnes and Noble

Title: A Study in Scarlet
Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Genre: Mystery
Part of a Series: Yes

Also included in the review: BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary

*I purchased a complete collection of Sherlock Holmes and used that volume for this review

There are times when what I am reading turns on a lightbulb to illuminate my writing, and there is time when my writing sends me searching for a specific type of book in order to help me strengthen a weak point I am struggling with in my current work in progress. Due to the fact that my current work in progress is relying heavily on the world of crime and detectives, I decided it would be a good time to dig out Sherlock Holmes and see how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did things. While reading the books, I also kept in mind all of the movies and television shows I have seen that featured Sherlock Holmes. I paid particular attention to how clues were dealt with:  how often the clues are revealed, who notices them, how much each individual clue reveals to the characters, etc.

The first thing I realized was that it isn’t as complicated as it seems. When I really started digging into A Study in Scarlet, the first of the Sherlock Holmes novels, I saw that it was all about details. It seems silly not to have realized it before, but a clue isn’t a mystical thing, it is simply a telling detail that the protagonist or detective sees after other characters have missed it. Yes, there is an element of “magic” to the amount of knowledge the crime solver has, but really it boils down to the fact that he or she just pays better attention than the average person.

For example, in “A Study in Scarlet,” one of the first clues that Sherlock Holmes notices is a set of tracks from a hansom cab. He knows the last time it rained and that the tracks had to come after the rain. He asks whether or not the cops have seen or used a cab themselves (which they hadn’t) and is then able to put together the detail that only he saw with the knowledge he previously had and the knowledge he gained through asking questions to determine that a cab driver was involved in the murder in question.

I went on to compare this with a couple of the other takes on Sherlock Holmes: the BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary.

In the BBC’s version of Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, details are highlighted almost as soon as Sherlock and Watson meet. Holmes is explaining that he is the world’s only consulting detective; Watson shrugs it off because the police wouldn’t consult with amateurs. To prove that he is anything but an amateur, Holmes explains how he knew so much about Watson so quickly when they met for the first time the day before. This is shown by a sort of flashback where the cameras focus on the details that Sherlock is rattling off and using to explain his deductive reasoning.

The BBC version of Sherlock Holmes also uses text on the frame to let us catch glimpses of Holmes’ thought process, as well as showing Holmes using a magnifying glass (a small square one, not the stereotypical round piece with a handle) to focus in on details that might not be readily visible. On a side note, Holmes using the small square magnifying glass reminds me of another of my favorite detectives–Monk–who also focuses using a “frame” (made of his own hands) to partition areas of a crime scene and focus on the details. As with Holmes, Monk is able to solve crimes others are struggling with because of the simple fact that he looks at all the details.

In Elementary, with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, the importance of details becomes abundantly clear when Holmes begins to teach Watson how to be an investigator by teaching her to look at the little things. He leaves her to her own devices in regards to expanding her knowledge base (through reading books), but takes time to specifically point out what he is seeing and what it means to him, as well as quizzing her in regards to what she sees. Yes, it’s very important that Holmes knows things like the identifying features of the ashes of 152 different tobacco brands (a fact that I’m fairly certain comes up at one point or another in each version of Holmes that I have studied), but it is more important–for the crime solving–that he takes the time to look for the details at the crime scene.

I am not very far into the clue-seeking portion of my current novel, but I am at the point where clue’s have begun showing up. Because of these Holmes stories and shows, I feel I have a much better grasp of what is required of me as a writer doling out breadcrumbs for my characters and readers. My first clue has turned out to be a small detail–a symbol/emblem seen at two different locations, which therefore links the two different crimes–and which was inspired by the clues used by Holmes to solve his cases. Despite the fact that I don’t know exactly when or where my characters will come across more clues–or what they will be–I am confident that both I and my characters will be able to figure them out. After all, it’s just a matter of details.

The Nitty Gritty:
“A Study in Scarlet” is a wonderfully fantastic tale, just as one would expect of a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Despite the fact that  I learned a great deal from reading it, however, I do not believe this is a story for just anyone to read. First, and most importantly, it was written in 1887. In the 128 years since then, the English language has changed and evolved into a very different beast. There is a difference in rhythm, spelling, word usage, etc. Add to that the fact that Sherlock Holmes (and even Watson, really), are odd and unusual representations of this culture, and that can make it a difficult read. However, if you like this era of writing or are willing to work at reading, this could be a very educational (from the standpoint of writing craft) and fun (from the standpoint of how awesome Sherlock Holmes is) read.

As for “A Study in Scarlet” in regards to other Sherlock Holmes pieces I have read, I have to say that it is not my favorite. I like the section where Holmes and Watson meet, and I like the ending where Holmes explains how he solves the crime, but there is a great chunk in the middle that, quite frankly, bores me. And–more telling, to my mind–I have a very hard time remembering what I have read when it comes to the middle section of this story. Considering that I can remember large amounts of books I read ten and twenty years ago, being unable to remember details of “A Study in Scarlet” after a half-dozen times of reading it is a negative sign. Later writings–when the characters and relationships are deeper–are definitely more my taste.

My rating: 3 stars (for “A Study in Scarlet”) [5 Stars for Sherlock Holmes as a character; Sherlock Holmes rocks!]

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