Scrawled In Red

I returned to reading one of my old favorites: the adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

“A Study in Scarlet,” the novella in which Arthur Conan Doyle introduces the tall, pipe-smoking detective, was published, after many rejections, in 1887. It appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual magazine.

“A Study in Scarlet,” gracing the cover of the “Beeton’s Christmas Annual” magazine.

Dr. James Watson, an ex-army surgeon, is back in England from his war duties in the Indian subcontinent, after taking a bullet to his shoulder and suffering tropical hardships.

On a paltry income of eleven shillings and sixpence a day, he realizes, he cannot continue to put up at the pricey Strand Hotel, in London.

He has made up his mind to search for an alternate domicile, when an acquaintance introduces him to someone, who too, is looking for a fellow, who can go halves with him, in an apartment he has found.

Enter Sherlock Holmes.

Not long after the two bachelors take up residence at 221B Baker Street, the doctor is eager to puzzle out the occupation of his new housemate, when, one day, a letter from Scotland Yard, arrives, asking Holmes to help solve a homicide.

A gentleman is discovered dead, in a vacant house, his face, contorted in terrible agony.

While his body bore no sign of wound, around his contour, lay droplets of blood. On the mantelpiece that surmounted the fireplace in the empty room, there stood the stub of a red, wax candle.

Across a bare space, where the wall paper had peeled off, there was scrawled, in blood-red letters, the word “RACHE.”

As the men from the police force are patting their shoulders, snug in the conviction that they have the culprit behind bars, an associate of the victim is found with a knife struck into his heart.

The first half of the short story concludes with Holmes presenting to the two—astonished—cops, the very man they should have had in handcuffs.

The second part takes the reader, unexpectedly, off to the American Wild West, to a stark, silent, and arid region that “comprises snow-capped and lofty mountains, and dark and gloomy valleys.”

Standing on a crag, with a little girl, in a bundle, is where we find the stoic figure of a weary wayfarer, Jefferson Hope.

That Holmes should, in what is to the reader, an introduction to him, solve a murder mystery committed on foreign soil, should come as no surprise, for, by the time we meet him, he is an old hand at crime-solving, who has even invented a forensic technique, or two.

So, the farthest he travels in the interest of solving this mystery, is to the crime scene and to his local post office. From a measurement of the length of strides, ruts made in the mud, and a study of dust lining the floor, Holmes is able to nab his man.

As to the motive, he leaves it to the perpetrator to narrate it, in his own words. The twin murders are the result of a bitter and long-drawn romantic feud, in which Mormonism played a key role.

The killed men were themselves accomplices in long-ago crimes, committed on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, around the time of the California Gold Rush.

Hope is revealed to be both a hero and villain. He’s portrayed not as a common cutthroat, but as a principled man of indomitable perseverance, who had made his life’s mission to extract revenge for the deaths of his fiancée and her father.

The man he poisons is the man, who had married her by force; the other, had shot his future father-in-law.


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