Makes the anti-Mormon propaganda go down. Also: putting the sleuth of Baker Street in his place on completely neutral terms unrelated to century-old tribal grudges.
A Study in Scarlet is the original Sherlock Holmes story. The first seven chapters and the last two are all Holmes and Watson. Brilliant and trenchant. Earnestly scientistic. Quaint and mannered. The five chapters sandwiched in the middle are a hackneyed, recklessly-slanderous anti-Mormon screed.
Mormons in A Study in Scarlet are rich, debased, blood-thirsty zombies. The accompanying illustration comes from an early edition. It depicts Brigham Young in the home of one John Ferrier. Our American Moses has just threatened Mr. Ferrier with murder-by-Danite if he doesn’t produce his spunky adopted daughter (ingredients: one part Little Orphan Annie; one part Annie Oakley) for immediate enslavement in an arranged polygamous marriage.
This quotation (forgive the length) is a dandy:
[Ferrier] had always determined, deep down in his resolute heart, that nothing would ever induce him to allow his daughter to wed a Mormon. Such a marriage he regarded as no marriage at all, but as a shame and a disgrace. Whatever he might think of the Mormon doctrines, upon that one point he was inflexible. He had to seal his mouth on the subject, however, for to express an unorthodox opinion was a dangerous matter in those days in the Land of the Saints.
Yes, a dangerous matter–so dangerous that even the most saintly dared only whisper their religious opinions with bated breath, lest something which fell from their lips might be misconstrued, and bring down a swift retribution upon them. The victims of persecution had now turned persecutors on their own account, and persecutors of the most terrible description. Not the Inquisition of Seville, nor the German Vehm-gericht, nor the Secret Societies of Italy, were ever able to put a more formidable machinery in motion than that which cast a cloud over the State of Utah.
Its invisibility, and the mystery which was attached to it, made this organization doubly terrible. It appeared to be omniscient and omnipotent, and yet was neither seen nor heard. The man who held out against the Church vanished away, and none knew whither he had gone or what had befallen him. His wife and his children awaited him at home, but no father ever returned to tell them how he had fared at the hands of his secret judges. A rash word or a hasty act was followed by annihilation, and yet none knew what the nature might be of this terrible power which was suspended over them. No wonder that men went about in fear and trembling, and that even in the heart of the wilderness they dared not whisper the doubts which oppressed them.
At first this vague and terrible power was exercised only upon the recalcitrants who, having embraced the Mormon faith, wished afterwards to pervert or to abandon it. Soon, however, it took a wider range. The supply of adult women was running short, and polygamy without a female population on which to draw was a barren doctrine indeed. Strange rumours began to be bandied about — rumours of murdered immigrants and rifled camps in regions where Indians had never been seen. Fresh women appeared in the harems of the Elders — women who pined and wept, and bore upon their faces the traces of an unextinguishable horror. Belated wanderers upon the mountains spoke of gangs of armed men, masked, stealthy, and noiseless, who flitted by them in the darkness. These tales and rumours took substance and shape, and were corroborated and re-corroborated, until they resolved themselves into a definite name. To this day, in the lonely ranches of the West, the name of the Danite Band, or the Avenging Angels, is a sinister and an ill-omened one.
Fuller knowledge of the organization which produced such terrible results served to increase rather than to lessen the horror which it inspired in the minds of men. None knew who belonged to this ruthless society. The names of the participators in the deeds of blood and violence done under the name of religion were kept profoundly secret. The very friend to whom you communicated your misgivings as to the Prophet and his mission, might be one of those who would come forth at night with fire and sword to exact a terrible reparation. Hence every man feared his neighbour, and none spoke of the things which were nearest his heart.
I don’t mind getting stuck at the checkout stand long enough to read the headlines on the National Enquirer. Just don’t expect me to read the articles! That is how deep Doyle apparently went in researching his Mormons. It’s not just the big things (murder and such). He also bungles small details. One Mormon character proclaims to an outsider: “We are “¦ the chosen of the Angel Moroni.” I can imagine an alternative universe in which this is an authentic Mormon expression. Yet A Study in Scarlet is set in our universe. Mormon characters also repeatedly refer to the “Holy Four.” What is the “Holy Four?” I have no idea, and neither did Doyle.
How iconic is Sherlock Holmes? Insert an embarrassing superlative here. That’s all that was left after I deleted various breathless stabs at describing his icon status. Certainly Holmes belongs among a handful of archetypal characters that seem to exist outside of the stories in which they appear. Others might include: Ebenezer Scrooge, Captain Ahab, Hamlet, and Hannah Montana. Holmes got so big that Doyle came to resent his power to overshadow everything else he did. Eventually Doyle killed him off. Yet Holmes was too big to stay dead. Doyle resurrected him under the influence of protests, mountains of hate mail, earnest pleas from his own mother, and extremely lucrative enticements.
A Study in Scarlet gives us Holmes’ origins, and it is full of memorable bits. Consider, for example, Holmes and Watson on knowledge:
My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.
“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”
“To forget it!”
“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”
“But the Solar System!” I protested.
“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”
Notice the contrast in tone between the Holmes chapters (narrated by the terminally acute and adoring Watson) and the anti-Mormon chapters (voiced by a comically sanctimonious omniscient narrator).
Doyle visited Utah in May 1923. He was even given access to the tabernacle where he addressed a packed house on the subject of spiritualism. Doyle was introduced by Levi Edgar Young, a descendant of Joseph Young (Brigham Young’s brother) and a member of the presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy. On the same trip, Doyle dined at the Alta Club with Young, John A Widtsoe, and other Utah highbrows. Doyle was apparently grateful for this warm reception, and he spoke kindly of Utah.
Still, when given a chance to specifically renounce his treatment of Mormons in A Study in Scarlet, Doyle responded: “all I said about the Danite Band and the murders is historical so I cannot withdraw that tho it is likely that in a work of fiction it is stated more luridly than in a work of history. It’s best to let the matter rest.”
Much later, in a 1991 meeting with Salt Lake City Holmes-fan Michael Homer, Doyle’s daughter Dame Jean Conan Doyle claimed that: “You know father would be the first to admit that his first Sherlock Holmes novel was full of errors about the Mormons” and that Doyle had “relied on anti-Mormon works by former Mormons because he believed these accounts to be factual.”
I am inclined to forgive Doyle for the sake of his children, literary and biological. All of us should have at least one offspring who successfully rewrites us into better human beings. Doyle had two.
Dashiel Hammett wrote the following about his own iconic detective Sam Spade in an introduction to The Maltese Falcon:
Spade “¦ is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and what quite a few of them in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not–or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague–want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander, or client.
Likewise, Raymond Chandler offered this faint praise: “Sherlock Holmes after all is mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.” This criticism is more devastating than it seems. (But don’t pity Doyle or Holmes. They were hard on their precursors too. In the second chapter of A Study in Scarlet, Doyle has Holmes call Poe’s C. August Dupin “a very inferior fellow” and Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq “a miserable bungler.”)
Chandler got it right in his essay The Simple Art of Murder when he waxed rhapsodic about the possibilities of detective fiction. Chandler gives an account of what realism in detective fiction looks like:
The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge. “¦ It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in[.]
Then Chandler declares:
In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. “¦ But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; “¦ if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.
If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.
Holmes was far too wooden to realize Chandler’s redemptive vision. And Sam Spade was gritty but too heartless. Phillip Marlow has them both beat.