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Review: A Study in Scarlet

Katherine Dacey

In 1887, twenty-seven-year-old doctor Arthur Conan Doyle published his first novel. Called A Study in Scarlet, the ninety-five page work featured a "consulting detective" who solved cases using a mixture of science and shrewd observation. The novel was, by most measures, a flop. Doyle persisted, however, reviving the character in 1890 for The Sign of the Four, and in 1891 for "A Scandal in Bohemia,"  "The Red-Headed League," and "A Case of Identity." It was these short stories that proved enormously popular with the reading public, rescuing Sherlock Holmes from obscurity and transforming him into one of England’s most famous literary creations.

A Study in Scarlet: A Sherlock Holmes Graphic Novel
Adapted from the original novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by I.N.J. Culbard (Art) and Ian Edginton (Script)
Ages 12 and up
2010, Self-Made Hero, ISBN: 978-1-4027-7082-1
130 pp., $14.95

SIS COVER Review: A Study in ScarletReading A Study in Scarlet, it’s easy to see why Doyle’s freshman effort made little impression on the public. The story is oddly constructed, with a lengthy flashback in which the villain — captured by Holmes midway through the book — explains why he sought revenge on his victims. Odder still, that flashback takes place not in England but in Utah, where Brigham Young’s followers were waging guerilla war against the US government. Doyle was obviously fascinated by period headlines describing Mormonism, but his attempt to tart up the story with sensational details — polygamy, kidnapping — falls flat, especially when contrasted with the more engaging narrative describing how Watson came to live and work with Holmes.

Given the source material’s flaws, Ian Edginton and I.N.J. Culbard have fashioned a silk purse from a sow’s ear with their graphic adaptation of A Study in Scarlet. Their version is more judiciously paced and entertaining than Doyle’s, even while remaining faithful to the source. Edginton preserves as much as the original text as possible while breaking up the narration into digestible chunks — no mean feat, given just how many passages consist of characters telling long, digressive stories. More importantly, Edginton stays close to Doyle’s conception of who Holmes and Watson are, rather than allowing a century of stage plays, movies, and unauthorized sequels to influence the characterizations. (In other words, no one utters "Elementary, my dear Watson!" or swans around London in a fancy cape and hat.)

Culbard’s visuals bring a vigorous, masculine energy to Doyle’s story. As Culbard portrays him, Holmes is a tall, strapping man with a granite jaw and aquiline nose, the sort of person with the strength to subdue a suspect or pursue a lead across London. Watson, on the other hand, has a haunted appearance with deep circles under his eyes — a subtle touch that reflects his traumatic experiences in the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80). Culbard does a similarly fine job of bringing London to life through an imaginative use of color, light, and pattern; he captures the smoky grey of English fog and the warm, orange light of oil lamps, the dark, soot-covered exteriors of London’s brick row houses and the intricately patterned wallpapers that line their interiors, suggesting, in the process, just how dark and claustrophobic Victorian living quarters could be.

Tweens and teens whose only knowledge of Sherlock Holmes come from other media will find this skillful adaptation a great introduction to Doyle’s work, while long-time fans will enjoy seeing how Culbard and Edginton stage Holmes and Watson’s first meeting. Age-wise, the vocabulary and subject-matter are appropriate for readers twelve and up, though precocious Holmes fans will find A Study in Scarlet within their reach. One final note: sensitive readers may object to a passage in which Holmes conducts an experiment on a dog (pp. 76-78). Edginton and Culbard stage the scene quickly and tastefully, but it’s worth noting before recommending the book to an animal-loving mystery buff. That minor caveat aside, A Study in Scarlet makes a solid addition to a middle or high school library.

Review copy provided by Self-Made Hero.

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Katherine Dacey About Katherine Dacey

Katherine Dacey has been reviewing comics since 2006. From 2007 to 2008, she was the Senior Manga Editor at PopCultureShock, a site covering all aspects of the entertainment industry from comics to video games. In 2009, she launched The Manga Critic, where she focuses primarily on Japanese comics and novels in translation. Katherine lives and works in the Greater Boston area, and is a musicologist by training.

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