Tuesday, November 01, 2011

A Study in Scarlet

With Halloween behind us, I need to catch up on some Holmes.

A Study in Scarlet isn’t a typical Sherlock Holmes story. For one thing, it’s longer, though Arthur Conan Doyle would try a couple of novels before switching to the short story format that served Holmes so well. Of course he’d also return to the longer format on occasion, but Scarlet has an extremely different narrative structure even from the other novels like Sign of Four and Hound of the Baskervilles.

As the first in the series, it takes a chapter or two to get to the actual plot, needing first to introduce Watson and Holmes to readers and each other. The mystery itself – a corpse with no visible wounds lying in a bloody room in an empty house – isn’t that complicated. In fact, stripped of the origin story and a long flashback sequence, there’s nothing more to it than you find in the short stories.

It’s the flashback though that’s most memorable and why I like the book. Holmes catches his man pretty quickly, but we don’t understand the killer’s motives until the narrative moves back in time and to North America where it becomes a Western, complete with a Clint Eastwood-like tough guy; his pretty, adopted daughter, and the nefarious cult that they find themselves living amongst. Doyle identifies the cult as Mormans, but later admitted that he based his portrayal of them on second-hand stories he’d been told. I’m not going to excuse that, but not being Morman myself, I’m able to overlook it. The villains could be any generic cult that uses fear to keep its members in submission.

In the middle of all that, there’s a romance and a thrilling escape. It’s a cool short story all on its own; made cooler by tying in to a Holmes mystery. My only criticism of it is that the English Doyle doesn’t have an ear for Western dialogue, so those characters sound a lot more stilted than I’m used to from cowboys.

Another hallmark of the novel is the way Doyle relates events that happen off camera. Since the story is told first person from Watson’s perspective, Doyle has other characters describe scenes that Watson wasn’t present for. He does that in a way that’s both problematic, but also pretty great. The trouble is that no one tells stories in as much detail (including exact dialogue) as Doyle’s characters do. But once you get past that, it’s a cool, vivid way to flashback.

Any difficulties I had with Doyle’s story though are resolved in Ian Edginton and INJ Culbard’s graphic novel adaptation; one is a series of Holmes adaptations from Sterling Publishing. One the advantages that comics have over prose is the ability to use pictures to convey vital information and Edginton and Culbard take advantage of that in an extremely effective way, allowing the drawings to flash back to old events while the narrator just tells his story – without dialogue – the way normal people do. Doyle’s unrealistic way is the more exciting way for prose, but comics can have it both ways; letting the narration sound genuine while the pictures keep the reader’s attention. And since there’s no dialogue in the flashbacks, there’s no weirdness in the way the Western characters talk.

A potential drawback for comics is that the art can be less wonderful than the pictures readers create in their heads while reading prose, but that’s not a problem here. Culbard’s done a lot of research and gets the period details right. His character designs are all interesting and accurate interpretations of Doyle’s descriptions. Lestrade and Gregson are often interchangeable in a lot of visual adaptations of Holmes, but they have very distinct looks here. Watson is middle-aged, but thin and has intelligent eyes. Holmes’ chin is a much larger and more square than I’m used to, but it’s consistent with Doyle’s description of its having “the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.” The famous hawk nose is also there, of course.

Beyond just getting the Holmesian details right, Culbard’s also got a fantastic eye for composition and how much detail to put into a panel without cluttering it up. The color palettes he uses are muted and simple, but beautiful. I especially love how he changes palettes from scene to scene: blues and grays for roaming London’s streets, a haunted green for the darkened murder-room; oranges and yellows for discussing the case by the fire. Seriously, the Sterling adaptation is as perfect as comics get and I can’t recommend it enough.

Scans all lifted from Good OK Bad's review because I'm too impatient to wait and scan the book myself.


snell said...

True story: My first exposure to Holmes, and A Study In Scarlet, was in my elementary school library and a Holmes collection there. It was intended for younger readers, though, so when they got to the flashback section, there was an editor's note that said this looong digression would be "too tedious for children," so they just gave a couple of paragraphs of synopsis.

Young me, I assumed "tedious" must have meant dirty or something. Color me disappointed when I finally got my hands on the full original...

Michael May said...

Ha! That's an awesome story. Sad...but awesome.


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