There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.
—A Study in Scarlet
In A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes scrutinizes a bizarre message scrawled in blood above a corpse with no visible wounds or other cause of death—RACHE—then brusquely dismisses the theory of Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard. Lestrade believes that the word must most certainly be the work of the victim, an interrupted rendition of the name Rachel, doubtless some femme fatale at the heart of the matter. In one flippant sentence, Holmes introduces both Lestrade and the reader to his remarkable powers of perception, thereby unearthing the overarching theme of the book that introduced Holmes to the world. That theme, as rendered in dripping German, is revenge.
As Francis Bacon said in his 1625 essay on the topic, “a man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.” Various types of obsessive revenge plots, particularly the murderous kind, were common to the arts and letters of which Arthur Conan Doyle was familiar, including novels like The Count of Monte Cristo or short stories like Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” While staying true to this tradition, A Study in Scarlet also contains elements that seem more in keeping with Conan Doyle’s later preoccupations, including historical writing and rugged adventure tales, than the typical drawing room deductions of Holmes. It was in this latter instance that Conan Doyle found himself quite controversially ahead of his time, linking revenge to religious fundamentalism in a exhaustingly detailed flashback that consumes nearly half of the novel, shifting the action from Victorian London to the Western United States of some thirty years earlier.
Beyond its historical or literary excesses, Conan Doyle’s picture of revenge is much more complex. First, the novel does not shrink from placing revenge in a context of ideas about faith and justice. Second, what initially appeared as a long historical diversion is paid in full when the novel returns to Holmes and Watson for a jarring conclusion. When the revenge plot is finally revealed by the great detective, the motivations for the crimes are neither readily dismissed nor exactly punished. The reader is left with much to contemplate, and there are no easy answers. What is certain is that, in A Study in Scarlet, revenge itself is revealed to be the most efficient—and deadliest—of weapons.