A Study in Scarlet

How Sherlock Holmes first met Dr Watson

No 221B Baker Street, nowadays
home to the Sherlock Holmes Museum
I’ve been an avid reader of detective fiction for many years, but have read the books by my favourite authors in no particular order. I have enjoyed many of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but because I didn’t start with the first book, I often wondered how Holmes, the brilliant detective, came to be sharing rented rooms at No. 221B Baker Street, with the narrator of the tales, the more modest and less gifted Dr Watson.

The solution to the mystery of how they first met has been hiding in plain sight all the while, as books usually do, in a slim volume entitled A Study in Scarlet, which I recently found on the shelves of the library where I work.

Written by Arthur Conan Doyle, the story was first published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887 and introduced the eccentric, amateur detective Holmes and his friend and flatmate, Watson, who always seems to be a couple of steps behind the detective during investigations. They were, of course, destined to become the most famous detective duo ever to appear in fiction.

Watson, in his role of narrator, tells the story of how he first met Holmes. He had been  serving as an army doctor in India, but in 1878  he received a bullet in the shoulder at the battle of Maiwand. While recovering from his wound in hospital he contracted enteric fever, from which he almost died.

Watson was sent back to England to convalesce and stays at a small hotel in London. He finds his army pension only just meets his living costs and has just resolved to look for lodgings at a more reasonable price when he encounters an old medical colleague. His former colleague tells him he knows someone in the same situation, who is also looking for modestly priced accommodation to rent in London.. His old colleague then introduces him to Sherlock Holmes, a young man who has been carrying out experiments in the laboratory at the hospital where he works.

A Study in Scarlet, which explains how Holmes and Watson met
A Study in Scarlet, which explains
how Holmes and Watson met
Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson go to visit some lodgings at No. 221B Baker Street together and inspect what Watson describes as ‘a couple of comfortable bedrooms and a large airy sitting room.’ These lodgings are going to be the backdrop for the many adventures they are going to have together, which Watson will write up for the benefit of millions of future readers.

The title, A Study in Scarlet, is taken  from a speech made by Holmes to Watson in which he describes the murder he is currently investigating as his ‘study in scarlet.’ Holmes says: ‘There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.’

Holmes, in his capacity as a consulting detective, has been called in by the police to assist with an investigation into the death of a wealthy American, whose body has been found in an empty house.

He takes Dr Watson with him to view the crime scene and, drawing upon his observations, solves the crime and finds the murderer in three days. When Scotland Yard are given all the credit in the newspapers, Watson offers to write up the investigation from the notes in his journal so that the public can learn the truth. He continues to put on record his flatmate's triumphs for subsequent cases, introducing an exciting new genre to English literature.

A Study in Scarlet is believed to be the first work of detective fiction to incorporate the magnifying glass as an investigative tool.

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