Year of Important Books: A Study in Scarlet, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I’m not sure how I first stumbled across Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and began to eagerly devour the exploits of the famous private detective. Unlike the other books I have covered this year in my Year of Important Books series, this one was not a relic left behind from my older siblings’ childhood.

I must have got my first Sherlock Holmes tale from the library, whose hallowed spaces I visited once a week with my parents (the Edmonton downtown library) as well as numerous visits each week to our school library.


I bought this just after I graduated University, so that I could have all the stories in one place. Now I have them all on my Kindle as well. No such thing as too much Sherlock here!

Needless to say, I quickly fell in love with these stories, and remain an avid consumer of all things Sherlock. I can’t tell you how many Sherlock books I have read – aside from the originals, I have read very many books based on the characters, some true to the characterizations as given to us by Conan Doyle and some way out in left field. I’ve read books about Sherlock as a child, and others about what happens after he retired. I’ve read books about Sherlock and Jack the Ripper, Sherlock AS Jack the Ripper, Sherlock and vampires, werewolves or other monsters, regular Sherlock stories set in the time and place the originals were set, Sherlock in America, modern-day takes on Sherlock…..etc etc etc.* A small hint as to my obsession with all things Sherlock is evidenced during the planning of the trip my husband and I took to Europe way back when. When  he asked me what was the one place I had to see on the Continent,  I answered, “Reichenbach Falls!”**


One of the early illustrations by Sidney Paget of Holmes and Watson, found in The Strand Magazine. It was Paget who first introduced the deerstalker hat and Inverness cape to Holmes; these details were never mentioned by Doyle in the stories. Photo from Wikicommons. 

But it has been quite some time since I revisited the original stories, and so I was very happy indeed to open the first story, A Study in Scarlet, and begin to read again how Sherlock and Watson met and their first partnership in crime solving.


One of the early illustration by Sidney Paget of Holmes and Watson, from The Strand Magazine. It was Paget who first introduced the deerstalker cap and Inverness cape to Holmes, these details were never mentioned by Doyle in the stories. Photo from Wikicommons. 

A Study in Scarlet was not Doyle’s first published work. A doctor by profession, he began writing stories as he waited for patients to arrive at his first independent practice which opened in Portsmouth in 1882. He struggled to find a publisher for his story at first, but eventually  A Study in Scarlet was published by Ward Lock and Co. and appeared in the Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1886. The sequel, The Sign of the Four, was published in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890 under an arrangement with Ward Lock and Co, but Doyle grew disenchanted with this publisher and the remaining Sherlock stories were published in The Strand Magazine, in serial form.  A Study in Scarlet was only one of four novels in the original Holmes canon, the other three being The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear. The rest were short stories or novellas.

Doyle was a prolific author. Besides the Sherlock stories, of which he grew tired (he famously killed off his famous detective, only to have to resurrect him later because of public demand), he wrote many other short stories, other mystery novels,historical novels, and stage plays. He even collaborated with J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, to write the libretto of a comic opera called Jane Annie.


Arthur Conan Doyle in 1914. Doyle was one of the best paid authors of his time. Aside from his literary fame, he is best known for his work to advance the cause of  spiritualism. Photo from Wikicommons.

But it is Sherlock who endures out of all of Doyle’s works. What is it about this character and these stories which fascinates so many people? I know there are reams of words written about this, and so I won’t go into too much depth here.

But I will tell you, generally, what the appeal is to me. First off, The Study in Scarlet begins with Watson, not Holmes, and I think this is a clue to one of the reason why these stories are so popular. This friendship between the two men is the heart of the stories, and it is ultimately what makes them work. This friendship is begun in this story, and it is a rudimentary one to begin with. Here Watson is more or less a foil to Holmes – a mirror in which to showcase Holmes’ intellect and skill. But Watson still has substance, even so. We learn of his back story, that he was wounded in the war, that he was a medical doctor, and that he enjoys a good mystery himself. After he is introduced to Holmes and they make arrangements to begin living together at 221B Baker Street, Watson and Stamford (the one who introduced the two) are walking back to Watson’s hotel, and are discussing Holmes and his “peculiarities”as Stamford calls them. In response to Watson’s question of how Holmes knew Watson had been in Afghanistan, Stamford replies,

“…A good many people have wanted to know how he finds things out.”

“Oh! A mystery is it?” I cried, rubbing my hands. “This is very piquant. I am much obliged to you for bringing us together. ‘The proper study of mankind is man,’ you know.” 

Throughout the stories we see Watson observing Holmes, trying to figure out what makes him tick. Watson, of course, stands in for all of us, and half of the enjoyment of the stories is getting a chance to do this observing along with Watson.

A Study in Scarlet is, of course, a murder mystery. Which is another reason why I and so many others enjoy these stories. People love puzzles, and these stories are full of bizarre details that make the murders impossible to figure out until Holmes throws the light on what happened. For example, in this story you have a man dead in a deserted building by mysterious means, a look of horror frozen upon his face; the word “RACHE” written in blood upon the wall; and few clues as to how this could have happened. It’s a great deal of fun to puzzle along with Watson as Holmes exposes both the incompetent nature of the Scotland Yard police force and the eventual identity of the murderer.

The story is split into two parts, both seven chapters each. The first part is the initial meeting of Holmes and Watson, the discovery of the dead man, and the eventual unmasking of the murderer. The second contains five chapters of back story, and it is an abrupt break both in time and place, as it mainly takes place in America several decades before. This is  the “why” it happened, and it is inserted into the story without explanation, which makes it a bit odd until you realize what is going on. I remember reading this the first time and being very confused as to why all of a sudden the story jumped to the tale of the exodus of the Mormons to Utah and the man and girl they rescued along the way, but Doyle’s writing is compelling enough that you soon forget all about London and Holmes and get absorbed in the story. Eventually, of course, you realize that this is all a set-up to the murder, and then in the last two chapters the novel catches up to where Holmes and Watson have captured the murderer, and it finishes up from there.

I believe, if I remember correctly, that this is the only story in which Doyle handles this telling of the “why” of the crime this way. In subsequent stories either Holmes or some other character gives the details or they are discovered naturally along the course of the investigation – Doyle relies heavily on Watson’s asking questions of Holmes in order to do this. I think he probably discovered this was an easier way to give the readers these important details, and therefore did not have to use this type of awkward story break again.


Do I love the new BBC version of Sherlock? YES. There are not enough words to describe how much I love this clever modern  take on the great detective. I especially love how the show takes the original stories and re-tells them, with all sorts of tiny details that fans of the stories would recognize. Acting and writing are superb in this series. 

Sherlock Holmes was not the first detective in literature, that honour goes to Edgar Allen Poe’s C. August Dupin ( whose adventures began in  The Murders in the Rue Morgue), and Doyle himself acknowledged his debt to Poe’s character. But Doyle certainly struck a chord of unique genius when he created Holmes. Arrogant yet approachable, analytical yet passionate, intelligent yet flawed, Holmes himself is, of course, one of the main reasons why these stories are so popular. The great detective was modelled after someone Doyle knew, Joseph Bell, a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, whom Doyle worked under as a clerk. Bell was noted as a master at the observation of minute details which led to broad conclusions not immediately apparent to anyone else.


The marvellous Hugh Laurie, the star of the TV series “House” .  The character of House was based on Holmes, and you will see many references to Holmes throughout the series, including his own “Watson” (Dr. James Wilson) and the fact that House lives at 221B Baker Street! I love that this show brought the character of Holmes full circle, back to his medical roots, so to speak. Photo by Chris HE, on flickr


Finally, the last great appeal to me of the Holmes stories is the setting. Victorian England, and in particular, London, with its gas-lit streets, pea-soup fog, opium dens, hansom cabs, squalor, and opulence, is a marvellous place to set crimes. Doyle’s details of London (as Watson describes it, “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”) bring you right into this fascinating time and place. It is a wonderful marriage of character and setting.

I loved Sherlock as a child, and I love him still! It was so much fun to rub shoulders with him again, and it’s got me itching to read the other stories again.


*We discovered that to get to Reichenbach Falls, you had to go to the Swiss town of Interlaken, which is a lovely ski-resort town. There is a funicular that takes you up to the falls, which are spectacular. The best part was the spot marked on the trail leading up to the falls which marks the spot where Holmes and Moriarty fell to their deaths (…or did they…) in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Ok, it was the spot where Jeremy Brett filmed that scene in the great 1984-1994 BBC Holmes series, but still….

**I can’t give you an exhaustive list of all the Sherlock and related books I have read (I couldn’t even if I tried, there’s been too many), but I have to recommend two which I think are the best of the lot. First up is the series by Laurie King, the first book is called The Bee Keepers Apprentice. This book introduces the intrepid Mary Russell, a teenaged girl who meets Holmes in his retirement years and pairs up with him to solve crimes. Which makes it sound much more YA-ish than it really is. Great writing, great characterizations – King gives us Holmes as we know him in the Doyle stories but with the added wisdom of some years behind him. The best non-Doyle Sherlock books ever, in my opinion. Secondly I highly recommend Arthur & George, by Julian Barnes. This is the fictionalized telling of a real-life murder case in which Arthur Conan Doyle became involved, and it not only gives you a marvellous portrait of Doyle himself, it also portrays Doyle using the same methodology as Sherlock himself to solve a crime. Loved it!

Review – Abomination, by Gary Whitta

The year is 888 AD, and Alfred the Great is the king of the last remaining English kingdom of Wessex. He has made an uneasy peace with the fierce Norsemen and Wessex has enjoyed relief from the long years of war that the Danes brought to England’s shores. But rumours are beginning that a second wave of invasions are coming, and Guthrum, the Danish King Alfred had entered a truce with, is nearing death.

So when Aethelred, Archbishop of Canterbury, tells Alfred that he has found some ancient scrolls containing incantations and rites that could create horrible monsters from ordinary animals, Alfred is intrigued. Aethelred sees this as a way to create an invincible army against the Danes, and although Alfred is troubled by the occultish nature of the rites, he agrees to let Aethelred try to use this knowledge to defeat the Danes once and for all.

But of course things rarely go as planned and soon Alfred is faced with the problem of an army of abominations led by Aethelred, who has gone mad under the influence of the dark powers he has been dabbling with. Athelred sends his most trusted warrior, Wulfric, to deal with the problem, who soon discovers that Aethelred has one last incantation up his sleeve that results in terrible consequences for Wulfric and all he loves…..

Although Abomination is his first novel, Gary Whitta is not a new writer. He is a screenwriter with several impressive credentials to his name; in particular, he was the screenwriter for The Book of Eli, the blockbuster post apocalyptic thriller starring Denzel Washington. He was a co-recipient of  a BAFTA award for his work as story consultant and writer on Telltale Games’ interactive adaptation of The Walking Dead, and has also worked with Lucasfilm on Star Wars projects for both film and television.

So, needless to say,  Whitta knows how to tell a good story, and Abomination doesn’t disappoint. It is a historical fantasy thriller that sucks you in and keeps you reading. Be warned, there is some violence, suspense and dark fantasy here, but it’s all in moderation. I was surprised, however, to find a couple of places in the book where I noticed rapid point of view switches from one paragraph to another. This was the only fault I found in an otherwise well-constructed book.

Of course, seeing as one of my favourite kings, Alfred the Great, is one of the characters, and that the book takes place in Dark Ages England, I was inclined to like it right away. The history part of it is pretty light, though, Alfred has only a minor part at the beginning and then disappears from the book, and Whitta isn’t too concerned with making his setting too heavy on historical details. But that’s ok. It was a perfect summer reading book – a story that doesn’t tax your brain too much but is a fun ride with the appropriate twists and turns to keep you guessing.

The central character, Wulfric, is a sympathetic reluctant hero, who would rather be home with his wife and newborn babe than scouring the countryside in search of Aethelred and his abominations. I liked him right away, and when the first section of the book closed with the terrible event that sets the stage for the rest of the book which continues fifteen years later, I could hardly wait to find out what had happened to him. This section of the book introduces the second main character, Indra, a young woman on a quest to fulfill the requirements of becoming a member of the Order her father founded to hunt down and kill the remaining abominations. But they are few and far between now, and her quest brings her squarely into the path of Wulfric, who is harbouring a terrible secret.

Whitta’s Book of Eli had some definite spiritual themes in it, and I was interested to see some here as well, albeit not as overt. Bishop Aethelred is responsible for the abominations, but Whitta  includes the brave priest Cuthbert who opposes him and places where Indra quotes Scripture to explain why she comes to the rescue of the down-and-out Wulfric. The fact that I noticed this shows you just how rare it is to see Christianity depicted in anything but a negative fashion in most contemporary fiction.

All in all, I enjoyed this book and am looking forward to what else Gary Whitta might have next!

Interview: Graeme Young of The Bamburgh Research Project

As I began researching 7th century Britain for my trilogy, The Traveller’s Path, I quickly came across a fascinating blog all about current archaeological digs going on at Bamburgh Castle, and through that  blog discovered the Bamburgh Resarch Project. I have always wanted to talk to the directors of the project to check out some of the details in my book to ask them if I had this or that detail right in my depictions of 7th century Northumbria but I was always a bit intimidated….I mean, I figured they had better things to do than to answer questions from a unpublished author. But when I started thinking about who I would like to interview in my blog they were definitely near the top of the list. I finally got in touch with them and discovered that Graeme Young, one of the founders of the project, was a gracious man who was willing to take time during their busy excavation season to answer my questions. 
So with out further ado, I present the Bamburgh Research Project! Enjoy! 

1. First of all, can you give us a brief history of the archeological digs that have gone on at Bamburgh previous to the BRP? 

 Despite the importance of Bamburgh as a focal place for Northumberland there have been only a handful of investigations preceding us. An antiquarian called Cadwallader Bates studied the medieval ruins at the time of the reconstruction of the castle by Lord Armstrong (1894 to 1903). He drew up a detailed plan of medieval fabric and foundations, many of which where later covered over, which means the Bates plan is sometimes our only lead in understanding the medieval castle. We also have some reports of the investigation of the Bowl Hole early medieval cemetery prior to our work there. These are rather scant though, indicating some excavation in the 1890s and again in the 1930s. Sadly so far we have failed to track down any records or skeletal material from this time. 

By far the most important excavation at Bamburgh preceding our work was undertaken by Dr Brian Hope-Taylor, the excavator of the important and related Yeavering early medieval site. Brian excavated at Bamburgh between 1960 and 1962 and again between 1970 and 1974. Sadly he was never able to publish the site due to illness in later life. It was the tantalizing knowledge that exciting finds had been made but not really knowing what they were that prompted the founding of the Bamburgh Research Project.


Aerial view of Bamburgh Castle, from the south


2. What prompted the creation of the Bamburgh Research Project? 

 It is all rather linked to why I became an archaeologist. Having an aunt from Seahouses, the village close to the castle, I knew Bamburgh from an early age and visiting this amazing site during school holidays is probably one of the main reasons I ended up as an archaeologist. As a result I think it was rather inevitable that once an archaeologist I would want to excavate here. It also helped that a friend and colleague, also from the region, and just as fascinated by the site, was equally as keen. So we wrote to the late Lady Armstrong and she was very supportive and happy to have archaeologists back at the castle. Luckily her son Francis is of the same opinion so we have the great privilege to work at this amazing site. 

3. Was there something specific you were looking for? 

We were particularly interested in early medieval Northumbria so the period during which the fortress was one of the principal palace sites of the Northumbrian royal house was definitely the time period that most intrigued us. Gaining a deeper understanding of the material culture, structures and fortifications that defended the site was at the heart of our original project design. Early medieval royal sites in England seem to rarely have physical defence as part of their architecture, but there was a tradition of promontory forts in the northern and western parts of the British Isles. How Bamburgh within an English kingdom fits into this tradition and how, as a result it compared to other un-defended sites such as Yeavering or Cheddar should be fascinating. 

4. Give us an idea of some of your important finds. What discovery have you been most excited about? 

We have a number of fascinating finds from the excavation. I know many people are particularly excited by the gold finds. Each is tiny but intricately worked and decorated and speaks to a sophisticated culture at Bamburgh. Although found by Brian Hope-Taylor in 1960 rather than ourselves the two pattern welded swords, on display at the castle, also fascinate. As an archaeologist its often what might seem more mundane that particularly excites us. Discovering a surface with high densities of hammerscale and fire waste may seem dull but when along with some crude timber structures and a concentration of iron and copper-based finds, it leads you to realise that you have an industrial area that is likely to have been a centre of production for arms and armour for the early medieval royal cour. It really does help to bring the past to life. Here we have evidence for one of the institutions that bound together aristocratic society at that time. The production of military equipment given out by a king to his followers in his royal hall, binding them to him and his fate. Straight out of the pages of Beowulf!  

BRP Excavations at the castle

5. As my trilogy begins in the year 642 AD, I am most interested in 7th century Bamburgh. What has the BRP found that relates specifically to that time period?

We know that metalworking activity is being undertaken to at least the mid/late 9th century and from test pits we know that it extends back in time a number of phases. This makes it pretty certain that it was being undertaken in the 8th century and perhaps as far back as the 7th. It would certainly fit into the culture of that time. In Trench 1, at St Oswald’s Gate, we have been investigating the early medieval entrance to the fortress and its defences. We now have at least two phases of timber rampart defences (probably box rampart) and its hard not to imagine at least one phase as being contemporary with Bede’s story of Penda trying to burn his way into the fortress. 

 The Bowl Hole cemetery dates from the 7th to 9th centuries and gives us a picture of an aristocratic culture with far reaching ties across the BritishIsles and even to the European continent. One individual in particular may be a close link to St Oswald. His radiocarbon date and the knife he was buried with is consistent with the right period and he has an isotope signature placing his childhood in Western Scotland. A possible warrior who cast his lot in with Oswald in his attempt to reclaim his ancestral crown. 

5. Wow. That is so fascinating! What are you working on this summer? And maybe you could explain a bit about the involvement of summer interns?  

This year we are trying to prove that our timber rampart defences, identified at St Oswald’s Gate, extend around the perimeter of the rock. The gate defences are clearly well built and intended to look impressive. Elsewhere it may have been more utilitarian and therefore harder to identify with certainty. This involves the excavation of a trench through re-deposited boulder clay to find a construction surface and, hopefully, evidence of posts or timbers. Hard work for our students volunteers and staff. In Trench 3 we are beneath the latest phase of metalworking evidence and looking to identify structures associated with the preceding phase of activity. Added to this we are getting close to reaching the same level of excavation that Hope-Taylor reached at the north end of his 1974 excavation. Lots of complex stratigraphy to identify and interpret and all key to understanding how the two periods of excavation can be linked together. At the same time our finds department is processing finds on a daily basis, floating soil samples and catalogues and assessing everything from previous seasons to make sure our records are up to date as we begin the slow process of interpretation and publication. I like to think that all who take part in the work leave with a better understanding of how archaeology works and for some inspiration for their own research.  

We do not really do official interns but we do have a tier of junior staff that perhaps fall into this category. Its a little nepotistic but we do like to encourage students who have been on the training excavation for a season or two and who showed a particular aptitude or dedication to return as junior staff. They then work closely with the finds supervisors; learning their trade and helping out with student training. It seems to work well and a number of our longer serving staff came to us through this arrangement.

We do not have the public dig at the castle as the site is not well suited to this but our parallel excavation at Bradford Kaims has open days every week when the public are welcome to take part in excavation and little experimental archaeology projects. We are hoping to do something similar with skills workshops at the castle next year.


The team at work in Trench 3 on the last day of the season. L-R Harry Francis, Trench 3 Assistant Supervisor), Graham Dixon (Trench 3 Supervisor), Constance Durgeat (Trench 1 Supervisor), and Isabelle Ryan (Trench 3 Assistant Supervisor).


6. I’ve heard a bit about an Anglo-Saxon sword found at Bamburgh. Can you fill us in on that? 
There were in fact two Anglo-Saxon swords found at Bamburgh by Brian Hope-Taylor in 1960. He recovered these in his first ever trial trench at the castle. They were found in his apartment at the time of his death in 2001 and when they were returned to the castle we worked with the Royal Armouries to investigate them. On x-ray they were revealed to be pattern welded and one was a rare example of a six strand core. We now know their find location from Hope-Taylor’s records and they are likely to fit in with a metal-working horizon of 8th to 9th century date.

7. I would love to see those!  I have about a million questions I could ask, but I guess we need to wrap it up. Is there anything else that you would like us to know about the Bamburgh Research Project?

 Running a research project on what always seems to be limited resources we are always on the look out for that millionaire who might want to sponsor us! More seriously all of us who run the project were inspired at some point to want to learn about the past and now work with a belief that it is really important to communicate our love of the past and what our work can tell us about the generations long ago who lived and worked her. We have a website (, blog ( and other social media accounts and are always glad to hear from people who follow our work. 

Here’s Graham, trading in the wet and wild environment of Bamburgh with the wet and wild environment of San Francisco!

Thank you so much, Graeme, for sharing with us on the blog today. I will continue to follow your work with interest, and I wish you much  success as you continue to discover the historical facts about this fascinating place

All photos (except feature photo) courtesy of Graeme Young. Aerial phot of Bamburgh courtesy of