46 pages 1 hour read

Arthur Conan Doyle

A Study in Scarlet

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1887

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Summary and Study Guide


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (1887) is a detective novel about a mysterious murder in a vacant house, one man’s lifelong hunt for justice, and the powers of deduction and reason. It marks the introduction of the famed detective character Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick John Watson, along with several other characters and locations that would become important to the 56 short stories and three other novels about Holmes that followed. The novel was originally serialized in Beeton’s Christmas Annual magazine in 1887, and then in novel form in 1888, but interest was muted until the eventual rise in popularity of the Sherlock Holmes series. Since then, A Study in Scarlet has been adapted for radio, television, and film.

The novel is broken up into two parts, each containing seven chapters. The first part takes place in London and details Holmes and Watson investigating the murders of two American men. The second part, set in Utah, explains how the men ended up in America and why they were killed. This second part of the text contains a harsh depiction of the Christian sect formerly known as Mormonism that, while containing some historical accuracy, was also informed by era-specific prejudice against members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

This guide refers to the 2003 Modern Library Paperback Edition of the text.

Plot Summary

John Watson is in London recuperating after being discharged from the army during the Second Anglo-Afghan War, in which he served as a surgeon. Finding it difficult to live on his salary, he moves in with a roommate: an eccentric man named Sherlock Holmes. Watson becomes fascinated by Holmes, a consulting detective with great abilities in deduction who helps people—including the police—with cases they can’t solve.

Inspector Gregson of Scotland Yard asks Holmes for assistance on a mysterious murder case. Holmes can’t resist the case’s strange details, and brings Watson with him. When they arrive at the vacant home on Brixton Road where the body was found, Holmes carefully and methodically observes outside the house before going in to see the scene of the crime. Inside, Inspectors Lestrade and Gregson explain the case: An American man named Enoch Drebber was found dead in the middle of the night with no apparent wound. Despite this, there is blood on the floor and the word “RACHE” written on the wall in blood. Drebber was traveling with a secretary named Stangerson, who has not yet been located.

Holmes examines the room with the same care as outside. When the body is finally moved, a woman’s wedding ring falls to the ground. Before leaving, Holmes claims he knows what happened but refuses to tell Lestrade and Gregson his full theory. Instead, he gives them a couple of hints: a physical description of the murderer and the fact that the victim was killed with poison.

Gregson suspects the brother of a young woman that Drebber had drunkenly harassed. However, he is proved wrong when Stangerson is found stabbed through the heart, with the word “RACHE” written in blood above his body as well. There are two pills near the window—one of which is poison and the other safe—along with a letter claiming that JH is in Europe. While Holmes still refuses to divulge his theory, he assures Watson and the inspectors that all is as he suspected.

Holmes has employed a young street kid named Wiggins to track down the cab the murderer used to get to Brixton Road the night he killed Drebber. Wiggins claims to have found the cab. Holmes asks the driver to help with his luggage; once the driver is in the apartment, Holmes handcuffs him and introduces him to Lestrade and Gregson as the murderer, Jefferson Hope.

Decades earlier in America, John Ferrier and a girl named Lucy are the only surviving members of a group of pioneers traveling west. They are on the brink of dying of starvation and dehydration when they are rescued by a large group of Mormons fleeing persecution. Their leader, Brigham Young, agrees to take them in on the condition they convert. They agree, and John adopts Lucy.

The group settles in Utah and founds Salt Lake City. Ferrier prospers and remains devout; however, he never marries, which causes others to doubt his commitment. Lucy grows into a beautiful young woman and falls in love with a non-Mormon man named Jefferson Hope. To prevent her from marrying an outsider, and as punishment to Ferrier for never marrying, Young forbids the marriage. Instead, he demands she marry Joseph Stangerson or Enoch Drebber, sons of prominent members of the church’s council.

Not wanting his daughter to marry a Mormon, Ferrier sends word to Hope; together, the three sneak out of Salt Lake City and into the mountains under cover of darkness. While Hope goes to look for food, Young’s followers find the escapees. Ferrier is killed and Lucy is taken back to Utah, where she is forced to marry Drebber and dies of a broken heart a month later.

Before her funeral, Hope sneaks into Salt Lake City, kisses Lucy’s forehead, and steals her wedding ring. He swears revenge and spends the next several months living in the mountains and stalking the city. However, after some time, his poor health forces him back to civilization. After he returns to Salt Lake City, he discovers that there has been a sectarian schism, and Stangerson and Drebber have left. For more than 20 years, Hope pursues them, until he finds them in London.

Hope begins working as a cabby and waits for his opportunity to strike. It comes after Drebber is chased out of his lodgings for harassing the matron’s daughter. Hope invites a drunken Drebber into his cab, takes him to the vacant home on Brixton Road, reveals his true identity, and forces Drebber to pick between two pills—one harmless, one poison. Hope then takes the pill himself. As Drebber dies, Hope’s nose bleeds from excitement and the aortic aneurysm he developed during his time in the wilderness. He uses the blood to write the word “RACHE” (German for “revenge”) on the wall to throw off any investigators. He then turns his attention to Stangerson, who refuses to leave his hotel upon learning of Drebber’s fate. Not to be deterred, Hope uses a ladder to climb through his window. Stangerson attacks, but Hope stabs Stangerson in the heart, killing him.

After explaining his story, Hope is sent to prison, where his aneurysm finally kills him days before his trial date. The newspapers give credit to Lestrade and Gregson for solving the case, which prompts Watson to write and release the story of what actually happened.

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