In which the woman and author change the game.
Though we often think of Sherlock Holmes as a character of short stories, it wasn’t until his third outing that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle moved into the medium. The author would write a further 55 stories alongside 4 novels – beginning with A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four.
Other than the masterful The Hound of the Baskervilles, I have always preferred Holmes in shorter fiction. I find that reading through a single mystery before sleep is the perfect way to wrap a day – allowing the setup, deductions and resolution to clear my mind of the day.
It’s no surprise to me that in these odd times we live in, with the shops opening for the first time in three months today, vital anti-racism protests ongoing while racists are seemingly flushed from the gutter onto the streets of our cities, I have retreated into these stories again. They have given me comfort for two decades – allowing me to believe that right and wrong can be separated by good people, that right will win out and that intelligence can be directed to the most virtuous causes.
It’s interesting then, that A Scandal in Bohemia fails in reassuring any of these concerns in the reader. The client, a European royal, has an indiscretion to cover up, Holmes does not succeed in his mission and the greater intelligence prevails in escaping with the evidence.
In the story, Holmes is tasked with recovering an embarrassing photograph of a Bohemian King who’s set to marry but is being blackmailed by his former lover Irene Adler. The detective must locate the evidence and secure it in just a few days or the marriage will end before it begins.
Conan Doyle doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the bold choices he makes, as most praise rightly falls on his iconic characters of Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, Moriarty and the perfectly rendered London they populate. Yet here, just like in The Hound of the Baskervilles where Watson takes centre stage, he does the unexpected. In Holmes’ return to the page and debut short story, he fails.
He’s defeated – and only by a few hours, I must add – by Irene Adler. In later adaptions, Adler and Holmes are often pitched as would-be lovers but there’s not a hint of that here. His admiration for her is down to her cunning and wit, perhaps too her acceptance that while she bested Holmes for a moment, all she could do to escape him for good was leave the country. In keeping her photograph as payment, the great detective earns a reminder that he is not perfect and that there are parts of the human experience that he may never know.
Present for the first time in A Scandal in Bohemia is the artwork of Sidney Paget, whose depictions of Holmes in The Strand magazine are as influential as Conan Doyle’s writing. It’s from Paget’s hand that we get the iconic silhouette of Holmes, the devious face of Moriarty and their famous grapple above the Reichenbach Falls.
It’s a wonderful introduction to the type of Holmes story that made him the enduring character he became. Thanks to Conan Doyle’s brave choices and a story that raises the great detective’s profile as it pulls him down to Earth, A Scandal in Bohemia was the beginning of a magnificent literary legacy.
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