There has recently been a resurgence of interest in Sherlock Holmes caused by the Guy Ritchie/ Robert Downey Jr movie. If you are one of those people who saw the movie and resolved to read the books by Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet is the place to start.
As far as crime fiction goes it doesn’t get much more old school than this. One can trace the narrative structure to Edgar Allen Poe (Murder in the Rue Morgue) and the tangential and digressive nature of the Victorian novel.
In the opening chapters, we are introduced to Watson who has just returned to England after been wounded in Afghanistan (in 1880) Down on his financial luck, Watson is introduced to Holmes by a mutual friend as a potential room mate. The pair subsequently lease 221B Baker Street. Watson quickly finds that Holmes is just too smart for his own good and aside from his bizarre and dilettantish expertise in a number of arcane subjects he discovers that Holmes is a key advisor to the bumbling and ruddy faced coppers who are desperately trying to make sense of the dark and murderous crimes of Victorian London.
Suddenly the novel twists the reader of balance, with a very long and puzzling digression. A tragic story of family upheaval and murder set in Salt Lake City Utah. Although key to the ultimate outcome of the story, this is an aside that no present day publisher would tolerate and one that seems bizarre to the modern reader. Naturally the conclusion is fashioned masterfully as Conan Doyle has Holmes tie up the seemingly nonsensical clues with characteristic style and panache.
As an introduction to the principal characters involved in the Sherlock Holmes saga, this novel is indispensable. From a historical perspective the language and charm of the writing are of as much interest as the attitudes of the long departed age they describe. Vitally however this is the book that upped the ante of mystery writing to the highest level. And the new covers by Penguin are cool too!