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Literature / A Study in Emerald

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Cover for the 2018 graphic novel adaptation from Dark Horse Comics

"A Study in Emerald" is a Hugo Award-winning short story by Neil Gaiman, essentially an Intercontinuity Crossover between Sherlock Holmes and the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Originally it was published in Shadows Over Baker Street (2003), an entire anthology of Sherlock Holmes pastiches set in the backdrop of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. Later it was republished in Gaiman's anthology, Fragile Things (2006).

Written in the style of a classic Holmes pastiche, this story (roughly following the plot of the first Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet) finds a British soldier invalided home after being injured in a war in Afghanistan. Through a mutual acquaintance he becomes flatmates with a brilliant if unorthodox consulting detective. One day they are called by Inspector Lestrade to assist with investigating the gruesome murder of a member of the Royal Family. A member who is both far more and far less than human...

Can be read here for free, in nifty newsprint format in the style of an old Victorian Penny Dreadful. Which we highly recommend you do before proceeding to the trope list, which contains spoilers.

And also just because it's awesome.

A Board Game was released in 2013 by Treefrog Games

Dark Horse Comics released a graphic novel adaptation of the story on July 10, 2018, drawn by Rafael Albuquerque.

Gaiman later wrote another, slightly more grounded Holmes pastiche, The Case of Death and Honey.

This work provides examples of:

  • Continuity Nod:
    • The name Sherry Vernet is a nod to a minor line from the Holmes story "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter." In it, Holmes was said to be a distant relative of the painter Claude Vernet, and Sherringford was Holmes's first name in Arthur Conan Doyle's early drafts.
    • The Sigerson alias was also used as such by Holmes in the period between the events of "The Final Problem" and "The Adventure Of The Empty House".
    • "John (or perhaps James) Watson" is a reference to Arthur Conan Doyle's notorious failure to keep Watson's first name straight. Call it a miscontinuity nod.
    • Likewise, there's a similar nod to the text's disagreement about where on his body Watson was injured in Afghanistan. A Study in Scarlet placed it on his shoulder, later stories said his leg. In A Study In Emerald Moran, i.e., the "fake" Watson, was wounded in his shoulder, while the real Watson was wounded in his leg.
      • Moriarty refers to Watson as "The Limping Doctor" until Watson's name is revealed at the end.
    • In Holmes' letter, he refers to the book "Dynamics of an Asteroid", which was a book written by Moriarty, mentioned in "The Valley of Fear."
    • The detective muses that when a doctor turns to crime, he always ranks among both the most brilliant and the most heinous of villains. In the original canon, Sherlock Holmes makes this observation about Dr. Roylott in "The Adventure of the Speckled Band". In this universe, it's Dr. Watson.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: But of course.
  • Crack Fic: And a glorious one it is.
  • Crazy in the Head, Crazy in the Bed: Played for disturbing horror. A debauched German prince (the Humanoid Abomination spawn of a Lovecraftian cosmic entities and a human) is lured into a trap by Sherlock Holmes with the promise of raping a virgin driven to madness by his appearance.
    Having learned a little of his recreational predilections, I told him I had procured for him a girl, abducted from a convent in Cornwall where she had never seen a man, and that it would only take his touch, and the sight of his face, to tip her over into a perfect madness.
    Had she existed, he would have feasted on her madness while he took her, like a man sucking the flesh from a ripe peach leaving nothing behind but the skin and the pit. I have seen them do this. I have seen them do far worse.
  • Deadly Doctor:
    Indeed. I hate to say this, but it is my experience that when a doctor goes to the bad, he is a fouler and darker creature than the worst cut-throat.
    • Subverted, in that the average reader is quite likely to agree with the killer, Dr. Watson, that his actions were right and necessary.
    • This is also either a Continuity Nod or Mythology Gag, in that the line is originally used to describe Dr. Roylott in "The Adventure of the Speckled Band'': "When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge."
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Tentacled horrors running the place? The natural order of things. To do it otherwise would just be silly.
    • The narrator refers to the "savages" of Afghanistan (both human and Eldritch Abomination) who are unwilling to see the reasonableness of being ruled by their betters in London — or even Moscow!
  • Destroy the Evidence: The narrator is advised to burn the note sent by the murderer, as it's dangerous subversion (he secretly keeps it however). Lestrade even approves this Fiery Cover-Up, despite the note being evidence in a murder case.
  • Did We Just Have Tea with Cthulhu?: Early in the story, the protagonists are briefed by the Queen who, while oddly voiced, speaks English and talks lucidly, and is nice enough to heal the narrator's injury. She seems decent enough if you ignore the strong implication (probably certainty) that she and her relatives like to Mind Rape people every once in a while and will probably wipe out humanity pretty soon.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: Two men manage to knife to death a Bohemian prince, a sort of Old One half-breed. Using surgical scalpels.
  • Did You Just Romance Cthulhu?: Victoria is not the same species as Prince Albert in this universe.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Great Ones, naturally, including Queen Victoria, the Black One of Egypt, the Ancient Goat and the Czar Unanswerable.
  • Evil Reactionary: The detective eventually deduces that 'Rache' and his accomplice are "Restorationists", seditious anarchists who want to drive away the Old Ones and restore mankind to its "old ways". Of course, the "Evil" part is only from the perspective of the protagonists and Lestrade; the reader might be inclined to see them in a different light.
  • Expert Consultant: The detective of the story is a consulting detective, apparently the world's first and only. Except, the detective is not Holmes, but Moriarty.
  • Expy: The Great Old Ones all have different names (or possibly titles). Ancient Goat, Parent to a Thousand is Lovecraft's Shub-Niggurath, Mother of a Thousand Young. The Black One of Egypt is Nyarlathotep, the Czar Unanswerable is Hastur, and so on.
  • Face Framed in Shadow: We never get to see Prince Drago's face as it's always obscured by the shadow.
    • On the other hand, the detective had previously noted the location of the face as a distinguishing feature, so there is a chance that there isn't supposed to be anything there but shadow.
  • Fictional Accent: The narrator takes note of the human Prince Albert's distinct accent, pronouncing S sounds as Zs in imitation of the Eldritch Abominations that rule over humanity.
  • Foreign Ruling Class: Europe's Blue Blood (well, Green) are the Lovecraftian monsters that overthrew Earth in centuries past, as well as their hybrid descendants.
    Narrator: She was called Victoria, because she had beaten us in battle, seven hundred years before, and she was called Gloriana, because she was glorious, and she was called the Queen, because the human mouth was not shaped to say her true name.
  • Foreshadowing: There are a lot of clues about the two main characters being actually Moriarty and Moran:
    • At the outset of the story, following a bit of navel-gazing Purple Prose, the narrator apologizes to the reader and comments that he's not a literary man, a line which makes sense as a "bluff man of action's" Heroic Self-Deprecation, coupled with the fact that the audience understands that this is the first story written by Watson. However, if one thinks about it, Watson is very much a literary man, since he's supposedly the author of all of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Thus, in retrospect, this line is a signal that the narrator is not Watson, especially when coupled with the fact that in the story itself, the "real Watson" is the author of the play viewed by the protagonists.
    • When they meet for the first time and both mention some things the other might find annoying, the violin not being mentioned can be a clue that the other man is not Holmes (although the violin was only mentioned since Watson had issues with strong noises, while here the narrator is the one screaming at night), and the narrator not mentioning a dog is a clue that he's not Watson..
    • The narrator remarks more than once how he used to be a good shot. Watson wasn't bad, but wasn't that good. Moran, however, was known to be an expert marksman.
    • We also see the consulting detective acting much harsher and more judgmental than in canon appearances, while the narrator doesn't. Another clue that the detective isn't Holmes, and the different attitude doesn't come merely from the darker atmosphere.
    • In the final letter, it's remarked how "Henry Camberley" was apparently a smoker, and yet had a brand-new pipe and no tobacco. While the pipe wasn't that present in canon stories, Holmes did have one, and smoked from his first story. Moriarty, on the other hand, was never associated with smoking.
    • The most outrageous, however, is while talking with Sherry Vernet, when they go by the aliases of "Henry Camberley" and "Mister Sebastian". The latter isn't a made-up name; the narrator’s name actually is Sebastian.
    • In the comic adaptation, there's a (in hindsight blatant) clue due to the medium: The Detective doesn't even look like Sherlock Holmes, as the latter is described in the books as being black-haired, clean-shaven, and pale. The Detective's different look could be artistic licence, but then Vernet shows up matching the classic Holmes look.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Queen Victoria. Not that one. She's called Victoria because she conquered Europe centuries ago.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Royalty is the product of intercourse between humans and Old Ones, producing something with green blood and a large number of limbs.
  • Hero Antagonist: The killer is the real Sherlock Holmes.
  • Hot Skitty-on-Wailord Action: Victoria's consort is quite human, while she towers over them.
  • In Spite of a Nail:
    • In the end, despite everything that's changed, Holmes and Watson are still heroes battling Moriarty and Moran to save the day. The only real difference is that Moriarty and Moran think they're the good guys.
    • Despite the fact that in this reality, the Old Ones have been ruling humanity for centuries, humanity's scientific and technological progress hasn't changed in any way. Subverted if the Detective's throwaway comments on Vernet's views on the relationship between light and matter is interpreted as a sign that Holmes is trying to develop nuclear weapons decades ahead of our scientists.
  • The Joy of X: The short story uses the pattern A Study in X when X is usually a colour or a Sherlock Holmes pun.
  • Medical Monarch: Queen Victoria is able to ease the narrator's constant pain from a wound he received from an Eldritch Abomination in Afghanistan. Of course, she's probably related to it.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: All plays on the titles of Lovecraft characters. The Czar Unanswerable (The Unnameable), the Black One of Egypt (Nyarlathotep), The Ancient Goat, Parent to a Thousand, Emperor of All China (Shub'Niggurath).
    • They manage to turn The Queen Victoria Gloriana into this by what it means. "She was called Victoria, because she had beaten us in battle, seven hundred years before, and she was called Gloriana, because she was glorious, and she was called the Queen, because the human mouth was not shaped to pronounce her true name."
  • Noble Top Enforcer: Lestrade, the detective, the narrator and Prince Albert are all decent people by their society's standard.
  • Nuke 'em: Offhand comments in the letter from Sherlock Holmes at the end indicate that he is working on the theory of relativity. Given that he's made killing Physical Gods and Eldritch Abominations his life's work, there's really only one reason why he would.
  • Obliviously Evil: The protagonists and Lestrade don't realize they are enablers to tyranny. They see it as the natural order of things.
  • Perspective Flip: Kind of. Moriarty and Moran are the "good guys" and Holmes and Watson are the antagonists. However, while the reader probably ends up seeing the latter as still being heroic, Moriarty and Moran actually are well-intentioned in this setting despite their allegiance to Eldritch Abominations.
  • Pet the Dog: The narrator's arm gets healed by Queen Victoria.
  • Public Domain Canon Welding: This would be a fanfic if the components weren't Public Domain...
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Queen Victoria is this by the standard of the setting; she heals Moran's arm without expecting anything in return, and thanks the pair for finding the prince's murderer even if said murderer is still on the loose. But by the reader's standards she is still an Old One who will probably wipe out humanity, and she also seems to have no issue with the prince's hobby of raping, torturing and murdering young human women.
  • Refuge in Audacity: The graphic novel adaptation has Holmes and Watson casually walking in London while Lestrade and his men rush past them. Holmes gets bonus points for wearing his deerstalker and inverness cape.
  • Religion of Evil: The Old Ones effectively force humanity to worship them and are violently hateful of any religion not dedicated to them.
  • Right Under Their Noses: The letter at the end declares that the killer and his accomplice are going on the run, causing Inspector Lestrade and his men to start stopping all trains and boats leaving the country. The detective, for his part, suspects that the two are actually going to hide in a notorious crime-ridden slum — the Rookery of St. Giles merely a mile away where the police don't dare go except by the dozen. Because, if the roles were reversed, that's what he'd do.
  • Royally Screwed Up: Played for kind of dark humor in that the Queen's relatives seem to be the usual debauched and reckless sort that the human Victoria had (and probably many/most monarchs have), but it's taken up to eleven, given what they are.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: This is why Holmes murdered the prince; this kind of tyranny they cannot abide.
  • Serial Numbers Filed Off (In-Universe): The plays they see concerning the mistaken identity between identical twins and the girl who sells violets are, respectively, Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors (with a bit of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest mixed in) and The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen with a few details changed.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: The narrator mentions that he often has flashbacks to his military service in Afghanistan and that he frequently screams in his sleep. Given that his tour of duty ended with an encounter with an Eldritch Abomination, it's not hard to figure out why.
  • Sherlock Scan: Mostly played straight with the Great Detective, but subverted/parodied in the scene where he recognizes that the murder victim is a member of the German royal family... by the number of his limbs and the green shade of his blood.
    • And in that case, while he's being snarky to Lestrade, he can recognize that the hybrid features are specifically from whatever eldritch horrors rule Germany.
    • When the protagonists go undercover to investigate their suspect, they find themselves on the receiving end. Unsurprisingly as he's the Trope Namer.
  • Shout-Out: With the exception of the first one, which introduces a theater troupe that will feature in the plot, each of the advertisements between chapters.
  • Spell My Name with a Blank: The story is signed S_______ M____ Major (Ret'd). Plus, the narrator says he's from the "____th Regiment" of the army.
  • Staring Down Cthulhu: The consulting detective doesn't seem at all intimidated when he meets Victoria.
  • That's What I Would Do: The detective tells the narrator that he figured out how the murderers got away based on the fact that he would have done the same thing. An early moment of foreshadowing that, in an Alternate Universe, he is the villain.
  • Title Drop: In the description of the crime scene.
  • Tomato Surprise: The narrator is not Dr. Watson, and the Great Detective is not Sherlock Holmes. They are actually Moran and Moriarty.
  • Twice-Told Tale: The ending can be hard to follow unless you're relatively familiar with the Sherlock Holmes canon. (The story doesn't require a similarly close knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos, but it doesn't hurt.)
  • Villain World: A parody version. An alternate 19-century Earth ruled by the Great Old Ones; it is implied that all sorts of Victorian horrors and abominations coexist peacefully with humans: Spring-Heeled Jack owns a shoe store, Dr. Jekyll sells a medicine which allows to "release the inner you", etc.
  • The Watson: Well, it's a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, after all.
  • Weird Moon: It's bright red thanks to the Old Ones.
  • We Will Meet Again: The narrator predicts that his friend has not given up his search for the murderer, even though he's no longer on the case, and it will eventually lead to a fatal confrontation between them.
  • Worthy Opponent: The Great Detective and his equally clever antagonist take this attitude toward each other.
  • Writing Around Trademarks: The narrator refers to the detective as "my friend". This sort of thing was common in professionally published pastiches, as the legal status of the Holmes characters was turbulent. It's actually because the narrator and his friend are NOT Watson and Holmes.
  • Written by the Winners: If the play is any indication, the Old Ones make it clear they are the noble figures of history despite having conquered humanity.
  • You Don't Look Like You: In the comic, Albuquerque created unusual designs for the Baker Street duo. It's a significant clue that this trope is being subverted, as Albuquerque actually uses much more faithful looks for the real Holmes and Watson; it's clear from the concept art that he put some thought into creating suitably ambiguous designs for Moriarty and Moran.