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Literature / A Study in Scarlet

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"There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skin of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it."
Sherlock Holmes

A Study in Scarlet, written by Arthur Conan Doyle and published in 1887, introduced the character of Sherlock Holmes to the world.

The story begins with Dr. John Watson, a veteran of the Afghan wars who has come to London after leaving the army, looking for lodgings. He is introduced to the eccentric Holmes, who is looking for a roommate, and they secure lodgings at 221B Baker Street. Soon after, Holmes is asked to assist in a murder investigation: the victim has been found dead in a blood-spattered room, but with no marks on him. Scotland Yard is clueless, but Holmes finds the killer, and reveals a tale of love and revenge.

This page is for tropes unique to this novel. For general tropes regarding Sherlock Holmes in Conan Doyle's stories, see the Sherlock Holmes literature page.

As a Public Domain work, it can be read online here. Note, if you haven't read it, there are spoilers below.


  • The Alcoholic: Drebber, who according to the landlady of the hotel he was staying at, was hardly ever sober after twelve o’clock in the day. He also visited two liquors shops and a gin palace on the night of his murder.
  • Animal Testing: Sherlock Holmes tests what he believes to be poison by feeding it to a dog. He's right, and the dog dies. However, it's pointed out in detail that the dog is very old, is suffering, is nearly about to die of natural causes anyway, and the landlady had asked Watson the day before to put it out of its misery.
  • Anti-Villain: Jefferson Hope is a remorseless killer, but his targets were the men who murdered his loved ones. He was only after revenge, and has no grudge or harm against anyone else. When Holmes finally catches him, he merely smiles and commends Holmes's resourcefulness.
  • Artistic License – Religion:
    • The Danites really did exist as a sort of Mormon vigilante group, although there is little evidence that they were still active after the migration to Utah. And Mormon violence upon unbelievers was not unprecedented—see the Mountain Meadows Massacre. But no one in the Mormon church of the day would have been compelled to practice polygamy or surrender their daughter to a polygamous marriage. Most Mormons did not practice polygamy, although a rich landowner like John Ferrier would have been the type that did. It is also hardly likely that the Mormons would have compelled someone to join them by force or compelled them to remain in the faith by force, much less hunt down and murder anyone who left Salt Lake City. The novel reflects the status of Mormons as invokedacceptable targets, mainly due to their practice of polygamy (which was banned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints three years after the publication of A Study in Scarlet).
    • See also Doyle's portrayal of Brigham Young in Historical Villain Upgrade.
  • Asshole Victim: Both of the men Jefferson Hope kills have it coming, as they murdered Ferrier and kidnapped Lucy (and were more or less responsible for her death).
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Downplayed. Holmes captures Jefferson Hope, but he's already accomplished everything he wants to. He doesn't face a trial, since his heart problems kill him the night he's arrested.
  • Beardness Protection Program: Jefferson Hope grew his beard in order to not be recognized by Drebber and Stangerson.
  • Better Partner Assertion: In the Mormon backstory, the two young men who wish to add Lucy to their respective harems both call to try to convince her and her father to select one of them. They get into a sparring match of this sort, each pointing out why he would be the better choice. Lucy is not impressed with either of them, and intends to Take a Third Option. It ends tragically.
  • Big Bad: Jefferson Hope.
  • Break-In Threat: John Ferrier is being threatened by a Mormon cult, and wakes up one morning with a warning note pinned on his bedclothes.
  • Characterization Marches On: Some of Holmes' characteristics hardly match from the later books, such as the part where Sherlock claims to ignore everything that isn't related to his work like the fact that the earth revolves around the sun. Also, Watson is amazed at his ignorance on subjects like Politics or Philosophy while later works show him as having great knowledge of both subjects. This may actually be a case of Character Development — clearly either Watson's knowledge rubbed off on Holmes, or Holmes realized that random knowledge could actually be very useful in detective work, especially when it comes to making deductions about other peoples' personalities, motives, or professions.
  • Circling Vultures: When Ferrier and Lucy are stranded in the Great Basin of the American west without water, some buzzards begin observing them closely.
  • Clue of Few Words: The word Rache is found written on the wall at a murder scene. The police inspectors think someone was interrupted while trying to write the name Rachel, but Sherlock Holmes points out that "rache" is German for "revenge". This turns out to be a complete Red Herring. While the murder was an act of vengeance, the killer doesn't speak German and only wrote the word on the wall because he'd read about it happening in another murder case.
  • Clueless Mystery: As was standard practice in Sherlock Holmes stories (and most detective fiction of the day). The murderer does not appear until the moment he is captured, and after a long flashback telling his story, Holmes explains how he caught him. However the fact that the murderer is the cabbie is deducible early on with a fair amount of certainty. Who the hell he is is the greater mystery.
  • Corrupt Church: Mormonism is portrayed this way in-story, with Mormon characters using violence and threats to force a young girl into an unwilling polygamous marriage.
  • Couldn't Find a Pen: The detectives find the word "RACHE" written in blood.
  • Cowboy Episode: The second half of the novel is a tale of love and revenge on the American frontier, narrated to Holmes by the murderer.
  • Death by Despair: Apparently Lucy's fate after she is forced into a Mormon polygamous marriage.
  • Determinator: Hope takes almost thirty years to exact his vengeance, following his targets from Salt Lake City to St. Petersburg (that's Russia, not Florida), Paris, Copenhagen and finally London.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness:
    • See Characterization Marches On. The second part also cut away to an omniscient narrator rather than staying in Watson's POV.
    • Tobias Gregson's role as The Lestrade would be replaced by...uh, Lestrade.
    • Its length; after this and The Sign of the Four, Conan Doyle would make the almost permanent move onto short stories.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Stangerson may be a murderer, but even he has issue with Drebber's constant harassment of Alice Charpentier.
  • Fake Ultimate Hero: After the killer is caught, the press gives all the credit to Gregson and Lestrade, with Holmes getting a casual mention of being physically present at the arrest without having much to do with cracking the case, when the truth was the exact opposite.
  • First-Episode Twist: For the first two chapters, the profession of Sherlock Holmes is treated like a great mystery. Watson spends a lot of time trying to figure out what his flatmate's secretive occupation could possibly be. Eventually he learns the startling truth— Sherlock Holmes is a detective!
  • Foil: Inspectors Lestrade and Gregson are written as physical opposites. Lestrade is a smaller, dark-haired man with narrow features like a rat while Gregson is blond and powerfully built, with large hands.
  • Genre Shift: The first half is a bona fide mystery story. The bits set in Utah, on the other hand, are much more like a western.
  • Go Out with a Smile: When the killer is finally caught, he's found dead in his cell the next morning due to his heart aneurysm. He's smiling, and Watson speculates that he was proud of his life and a job well done.
  • Happily Adopted: Lucy Ferrier by John Ferrier.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Brigham Young is a mild case. He doesn't serve as an antagonist for Holmes, but he's portrayed as a crazed religious zealot with zero sympathy for anyone outside of his devoted group of followers, and he turns out to be directly responsible for the events motivating the sympathetic vigilante who commits the murders in the book.
  • Hollywood Heart Attack: The killer has a serious heart condition due to living rough in the American mountains. It kills him the night Holmes finally catches him, but by that point he's satisfied with everything he's done.
  • Inspector Lestrade: This novel has two, the Trope Namer as well as his fellow detective and rival, Inspector Gregson. Gregson mostly disappeared from later installments while Lestrade became the long-running and much more well-known character.
  • I Should Write a Book About This: At the end, after the newspapers give all the credit to the police, Watson declares that he's going publish his own account of the case so that Holmes can get the recognition he deserves.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • The killer's accomplice sends Holmes on the wrong path, and disposes of evidence, and his identity is never even revealed. Later scholars have had lots of fun planting Epileptic Trees about whether he (or she?) was one of Moriarty's people.
    • The killer himself is an arguable version, since he dies before he can go to trial.
  • Kick the Dog: Subverted when Sherlock Holmes casually kills a dog to test whether one of Hope's pills is poisonous. While this action seems amoral and brutal, the dog was actually Mrs. Hudson's pet and she'd already asked Watson to put it down because of how sick it was. Holmes merely takes Watson's place in doing the deed.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Watson compares Holmes to Edgar Allan Poe's character C. Auguste Dupin and says "I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories."
  • Motive Rant: Downplayed. Jefferson Hope calmly and concisely explains his motives to Holmes, Watson and the police. He doesn't even tell them the whole story, simply saying that he killed Drebber and Stangerson because they wronged his loved ones. The only reason he gives any kind of statement is because he doesn't want to be remembered as a murderous cutthroat.
  • Playing Drunk: The killer plays drunk to allay suspicion after returning to the scene of the crime.
  • Poisoned Chalice Switcheroo: An interesting invocation of the trope. The killer brings two identical pills, only one of which has the poison... and when he uses them, even he doesn't know which is which. He then bids the victim choose one, while he takes the other. It's an odd way to take revenge, but the killer wanted his victims to at least have a chance at choosing their ultimate fate, while at the same time believing wholeheartedly that with God's will, the wicked will invariably choose the poisoned one (as the first victim indeed did).
  • Police Are Useless: Lestrade and Gregson couldn't catch a cold, much less a criminal. The rest of the force is no better, as Holmes mentions Gregson is the smartest officer at Scotland Yard. Taken up to eleven with John Rance, who actually could have arrested Hope but was fooled by him Playing Drunk. Holmes vents his frustration with Rance to Watson by calling Rance a "blundering fool".
  • Red Herring: The "RACHE" written on the wall. Holmes even pegs it as a false clue from the beginning because it was written with a Germanic "a", rather than the Latin "a" an actual German would have used.
  • Rescue Romance: Jefferson falls in love with Lucy after he saved her from being trampled by a herd of bulls.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Jefferson Hope never reveals the name of his accomplice, and dies before he can be questioned by police.
  • Sherlock Scan: The very first of Holmes, scanning Watson and deducing that he is a doctor, formerly in the Army, wounded in Afghanistan. He also deduces that a messenger is a former Sergeant in the Royal Marines just by the man's appearance, posture, and a nautical tattoo. It has nothing at all to do with the case, just Holmes showing off.
  • Suspect Existence Failure: Lestrade is prepared to arrest his suspect, only to find that he's already been murdered.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: The murderer is delivering frontier justice for the death of an old man and the forced marriage, (implied) debauchery and eventual Death by Despair of the old man's daughter.
  • Take That!: Holmes takes jabs at two famous literary detectives:
    • He gives some grudging credit to Edgar Allan Poe's character C. Auguste Dupin: "He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine."
    • Holmes angrily tears into Emile Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq:
      "Lecoq was a miserable bungler," he said, in an angry voice; "he had only one thing to recommend him, and that was his energy. That book made me positively ill. The question was how to identify an unknown prisoner. I could have done it in twenty-four hours. Lecoq took six months or so. It might be a textbook for detectives to teach them what to avoid."
    • Sincerest Form of Flattery: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle invoked explains in the introduction that, although his character isn't fond of the literary detectives in question, the author doesn't share that opinion and they were big inspirations for him.
  • Terminally-Ill Criminal: Jefferson Hope reveals at the end that his heart might give out at any moment, and he was determined to kill the murderers of his beloved Lucy before that happened. He dies shortly after confessing, "as though he had been able in his dying moments to look back upon a useful life, and on work well done".
  • Title Drop: On the very last page, as Holmes sums up what cracking the case has accomplished for him personally:
    “That’s the result of all our Study in Scarlet: to get them a testimonial!”
  • Tragic Keepsake: Lucy Ferrier's wedding ring, for Jefferson Hope. The ring is from her forced marriage to Enoch Drebber (which ultimately ended with Lucy dying of despair), but it's the only thing Hope has to remember her by. Hope holds it in front of Drebber's eyes as the latter is dying, so that Drebber's final thoughts would be of his crimes against Lucy.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Or dog, as the case may be - when first discussing roommate terms with Holmes, Watson lists "a bull pup" among his vices. To this day, debates rage over whether this was the dog Holmes tested the poison pills on (objections pointing out that that dog was more likely Mrs. Hudson's). Some hold that the "bull pup" in question was never a literal dog, but instead a nickname for Watson's service revolver; and others believe it's simply a metaphor, "keeping a bull pup" being an idiom among Afghan campaign veterans, meaning "having a short temper".
  • Whole Episode Flashback: Most of Part II leaves Holmes behind completely in order to tell the backstory of Jefferson Hope and Lucy in the American west.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Jefferson Hope, who enacts some vigilante justice after his friend is murdered and his girlfriend is trapped in a Mormon marriage (and soon dies).
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Once Hope is captured he willingly tells his story, because he's got an aortic aneurysm that is due to blow and kill him at any moment.
    • Also, John and Lucy Ferrier are given a day-by-day countdown towards the time Lucy must be surrendered, in to form of stealth entry into their house at night and planting the countdown number in different places where they will surely be discovered