A Study in Scarlet – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)

The first story in a long line featuring the English private detective, Sherlock Holmes, along with his friend Dr. Watson, this volume introduces both the characters as they meet for the first time and work on a case (although it’s more that Watson tags along whilst Holmes solves).  Apparently Conan Doyle wrote 46 short stories and four full novels about this duo, and this was the first one to appear.

Since I finished it yesterday, I have been contemplating why the novel was called “A Study in Scarlet”, and then the answer came (via Wiki):  Holmes gives a speech to Watson about his work, and mentions “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it”… Ah-ha!

As usual, this is a murder mystery presented (for the most part) from the POV of Watson who is looking for affordable housing in London upon his return, weak and recovering from illness, after having served the English Army in Afghanistan. The two meet (through a mutual friend) and after making a list of characteristics, they think they will make good flatmates. So off they go to 221B Baker Street.

As always, this is a well written story that truly sucked me in, but the book (unbeknownst to me) consists of two parts and it seemed as though they were two very different stories without any connection. For the first book, we are based in London and some of the southern coast of England, and then the story seems to pause for a bit. Book Two starts and suddenly, for no apparent reason, the reader is in the barren plains of Nebraska with a dying old man and a young girl who have run out of water. The story continues (with no mention whatsoever of London or its environs) when the couple are rescued by the early Mormons traveling west to search for their Promised Land with their slightly nutjob leaders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Hold on a second. What on earth do the Mormons have to do with a murder mystery in London?

Perplexed but enjoying the story about the Mormons’ travel (helped tremendously by my learning all about Mormons from my trip to Salt Lake City), the US-based story continues. It’s a good one, but holy cow – I was so lost for most of it. What was the link with London? Was this a completely separate story and “Study in Scarlet” was over with some kind of PoMo ending that I didn’t get?

It wasn’t until toward the end of Book Two that it all came together, but really, there was no clue that the two stories were related until then. Sherlock Holmes and Mormons? London and Nebraska? Murder in the City and rebellion in the Mormon camp?  *Completely lost* for a while.

There has been some criticism in how Conan Doyle has presented the Mormons in this story, but when you look at the surrounding history that had just occurred, he really can’t be blamed for taking a negative tack. The Mountain Meadow Massacre had just occurred (1857) within recent memory, and to be honest, the early Mormons were a pretty violent group.

However, once you are filled in and given the rest of the story, it actually all hangs together and makes good sense, but holy guacamole, there is no clue before then. It’s really clever how it all fits together, but it really threw me off at first.

A good mystery story, and one of the first to ever mention using a magnifying glass to help solve a crime. I am not a huge reader of murder mystery type stories, but Sherlock Holmes is an ongoing fav right now.

Consequences – E. M. Delafield (1919)

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A heart-felt book set in later Victorian times with a young girl, Alex Clare, growing up in a somewhat wealthy family with what would seem to be lots of choices for her to make over the years. However, Alex never seems to fit in anywhere – she always seems to be making mistakes and getting into trouble, even when older, and so she learns to see herself as a problem and the Black Sheep of the family.

Her only method of feeling happy was to have vivid close attachments to her friends, all women and none of it reciprocated. Poor Alex. She does her best to win the affections of Queenie in school, but goes a bit overboard and Queenie moves on, not returning the level of friendship. The same thing happens after Alex has turned down a quite suitable engagement (although it was lacking in love) and ends up entering a convent as a nun. Her parents are horrified that she has turned down the engagement as there were not a lot of other offers coming in, but are understanding (but a bit lost) at her decision.  She is also quite clever, but that wasn’t encouraged either, to wit:

“Don’t go and get a reputation for being clever, whatever you do. People do dislike that sort of thing so much in a girl.” (Mother of girl in question.)

As the years go and Alex’s younger siblings grow up and enter society, Alex feels she has been left behind and it’s her fault. Her self esteem is shattered and only by attaching herself in another deeply-felt (but unrequited) friendship with her Superior Nun, can she go on and takes vows for a religious order in Belgium. (This is similar to what Delafield did as well in real life just a few years before this was published…) However, when the Superior Nun leaves for another convent, Alex is lost. (She sounds like she is primed for therapy to me.)

Finally realizing that she was never meant to have taken her lifetime religious vows, Alex requests to be set free (which she is after a long tedious process), but although she is free, she is never allowed to marry anyone. (Note: How can this be? If you are not a nun any more, then wouldn’t you be free to go what you want? How would this get monitored? Was it an honor system? What happened if you did get married? Did monks have the same set up?…)

However, Alex has been in the convent so long now, that all her family have gone on and developed lives without her, thinking as they were thinking that she would remain in the religious convent for the rest of her days. So – when she leaves, everyone is a little confused as to what, exactly, they are to do with her.

 As Father Farrell notes, “A maiden aunt isn’t so very much thought of, in the best of circumstances, let me tell ye”… and that is it in a nutshell. If you are a Victorian era woman and don’t marry, what on earth are you supposed to do? The options just weren’t there for you. Well, they were in some ways but you would have been completely bucking the trend with little support if you did. And imagine the shame of the family name!

This is quite a tough read for me, as it’s painfully obvious how chafing the restrictions of society with regard to gender roles could be. Her younger brother inherits the house and most of the money so he doesn’t really have to worry about anything. Her youngest sister is a Society Deb and a hit in the social circles, and her middle sister is now a widow, poor but not too badly off. With the rules as they were, there was no choice for a middle-aged ex-nun. She had no money saved (since she’d been in the convent for years) so she was completely reliant on other people (mainly her family). She had no marketable skills – her convent years had not set her up for the future as an ex-nun – and she didn’t really have any idea of how the world really worked as her family had provided throughout her childhood and then the convent had acted in a very similar fashion.

Life seems to happen to Alex who drifts along like a branch in a stream. She is very passive about her choices, understandable but no less irritating, and she feels very detached about everything. Her whole life has been handled by someone else (her parents and the nanny, and then the convent) so she is not used to making decisions herself, and feels very childlike in comparison to her siblings, all of whom seemed to have got on ok.  There were times when I really wanted to shake Alex into taking some responsibility for her life… But she was Victorian to the core.

It’s quite interesting to compare this 1919 novel with “The L-Shaped Room” written 40 years later: there were more choices for women, that’s true, but society frowned upon unmarried women then as well, especially pregnant ones. So both Alex and the protagonist of that later novel face a similar lack of options: if you are not married (and especially if you are pregnant and unmarried), where do you fit in? Where do you go? … And even now in the twentieth first century, there are still remnants of this – nothing as bad as it was, but the threads of it remain.

Delafield obviously felt very strongly about feminism, and this is obvious throughout the novel which can be argued to be one of the earlier examples of feminist writing. This was a completely different read from the “Diaries of a Provincial Lady” – this was one of her earlier works and is a much more serious look at the roles of gender in Victorian society.

The ending is sad, but not surprising.

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith – Job Krakauer

A lengthy but interesting book about the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) and how it relates to a double murder committed “in the name of God”. The two brothers who committed the murder of their sister-in-law and young niece are interviewed throughout the two strands of this book, and I thought it was very interesting to see how people can twist and turn religious belief into something that justifies a horrendous crime.

As any reasonably smart human will recognize, there are always a few zealots in each religion that give that belief system a bad name through purposely misinterpreting sacred text for crime. But to hear the two brothers explain why they did what they did and to see that they felt absolutely no remorse about it was mind-boggling.

Krakauer is well known for his investigative journalism (Into Thin Air, Into the Wild, Eiger Dreams), but I think this book was probably the most complicated for him as it required him to juggle a lot of information from a lot of different sources and then organize it into a coherent logical whole. He does this well, although it was a bit confusing for the first third as there were so many names and who was related to who.

What I found to be most interesting was the history and evolution of the Mormon Church.  Joseph Smith, the founder, was a charlatan with a criminal record who invented this whole religion from scratch. Reading how he laid out his beliefs at the beginning, I find it incredible that people would actually believe this sort of thing. I think that perhaps Smith tapped into a need for absolute answers about large philosophical questions when they needed it. But how people *still* believe this today is beyond me. (And this argument could be extended to almost any other religion if one wanted to be argumentative.)

I understand the need for some people to have “something more” in their lives, to have the Big Questions answered, but honestly, when you read the writings of Smith, it is obvious he was making stuff up. (Jesus came to America? Really? And Eden is in Missouri? Hmm. And people of color are all Evil? Nope. Not buying it.) And again, in a more argumentative mode, this idea of Faith vs Fact (which it all boils down to really) fits most religions throughout the world.

With the trial of Warren Jeffs ongoing in Texas, this is has been an interesting read. The splinter group of Fundamentalists that the two brothers belong to believe in polygamy (or, as they term it, “Celestial marriage”) which stinks for the wives and their children. However, this group believe that the more wives you have, the better your chance of getting into Heaven. Hmm.  Seems a pretty one-sided benefit to me.

Although I do not profess belief in any organized religion, I respect the need that some people have to join a large belief network. However, when their belief system is used to demean and abuse others, then there I have to draw the line.

Please note: I am not slamming the mainline Mormon religion in any way (although it has been somewhat tardy in addressing some of its ills throughout the years). Yes, people have the right to believe whatever they want. However, it’s a matter of degree and to what extent it ruins other people’s lives (who have no recourse to escape it).

A thought-provoking read.