Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros81 PrintempsMiscellanyDeduction and Geography in Conan ...


Deduction and Geography in Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet

Déduction et géographie dans A Study in Scarlet de Conan Doyle
Andréas Pichler


Cet article étudie la géographie dans A Study in Scarlet (Une étude en rouge) de Conan Doyle. Dans le premier roman de la série des Sherlock Holmes paru en 1887, Conan Doyle s’appuie sur les sciences émergentes géographiques, notamment la météorologie, la géologie, la topographie et la géographie humaine. Si la géographie décrit la réalité concrète de la terre et de ses phénomènes, le roman policier est une création fictive qui montre à quel point les connaissances du détective dans le domaine géographique sont fournies. Les descriptions géographiques ancrent alors le roman dans la réalité. En outre, la réalité géographique façonne les personnages et détermine le schéma narratologique. À la croisée de deux champs, la géographie et les études holmésiennes, cet article apporte un angle nouveau sur cette histoire en étudiant la synthèse entre fiction littéraire et géographie factuelle.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 All subsequent quotes are taken from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holme (...)

1Sherlock Holmes’s science of deduction initially appears in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s second novel The Sign of the Four (1890). The detective story sets out with a first chapter entitled ‘The Science of Deduction’, described as ‘an exact science, and [which] should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner’ (Doyle 2007, 98).1 Holmes treats the science as such when deducing the murderer’s identity from a wooden legged man’s footprints left in the grounds around Pondicherry Lodge: ‘It is the impression of a wooden stump’ (Doyle 2007, 121). The detective’s pragmatic method of deduction is equally present in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901–02), a serialised novel in which ‘[a]n investigator needs facts and not legends or rumours’ (Doyle 2007, 278). This time, Holmes deduces the presence of the butterfly-chasing Jack Stapleton on the moor’s rugged landscape because of the weather: ‘The steps grew louder, and through the fog, as through a curtain, there stepped the man whom we were awaiting’ (Doyle 2007, 290). Holmes traps the murderer as he attempts to leave the Devonshire fog.

2Sherlock Holmes applies his science of deduction for the first time, however, in A Study in Scarlet (1887), Conan Doyle’s original novella in which the detective proceeds ‘by the method of exclusion . . . for no other hypothesis would meet the facts’ (91). The facts rapidly emerge as Holmes unweaves the scarlet thread of murder due to London’s soil: ‘I had this fellow’s stride on the clay outside’ (33). In a long train of deductions, Holmes reasons backwards taking into account the indicative impressions in the clay. The footprints belong to a certain Jefferson Hope, an American pioneer, who kills two of his fellow citizens in London in what looks like acts of revenge for having killed the woman he loved. Far from limiting his analysis to London’s geology, Holmes traces the Brixton murder back to the American West, where the topographical structure of the relief emerges significant to Holmes’s deduction.

  • 2 In 1854, the United Kingdom Meteorological Office was formed; 1830 saw the publication of Charles L (...)

3In this article, we wish to reflect on what Holmes’s science of deduction actually consists in and whether the emerging geographical sciences—meteorology, geology and topography—carry a pertinent function in the disclosure of the mysteries.2 If the meteorological, geological and topographical details refer to the systematic description of the physical Earth, Holmes’s own use of geography serves a fictional purpose in explaining the whodunnit. Reading together the art of fiction and the science of geography thus becomes a critical necessity. Looking at both indeed enables us to grasp more fully how character depiction and narrative structure operate in Doyle’s detective stories.

  • 3 Julian Symons gives a biographical account of Conan Doyle’s detective fiction; Douglas Kerr opts fo (...)

4Comparatively little research has been done that locates the author’s detective stories within their renewed geographic contexts. Most publications focus either on the murderer’s footprints in the soils, the emergence of detective fiction as a literary genre, on the portrayal of imperial Britain, or, most recently, on the question of gender. Furthermore, Doyle’s stories have frequently been analysed through the lens of imaginary geography; few critics have focused on the physical geographical properties.3

  • 4 Less famous than his Sherlock Holmes fiction, Doyle’s article ‘On the Geographical Distribution of (...)

5Our contribution focuses on the overlooked geographical dimension of A Study in Scarlet and centres around what we choose to call ‘geographical deduction’. Geographical deduction engages in a dialogue between the sciences of deduction and geography. In our geo-critical analysis of A Study in Scarlet, we first look at the characters’ portrayals through natural and human geographies, in order to explain the hero’s deductive talents and elucidate his antagonists’ villainous profiles. In particular, we are going to see whether geological, meteorological and topographical facts purport to resolve the crime. Then, we examine how the whodunnit is shaped by the geography of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains and by that of London’s urban maze. Mapping the novella’s narrative structure will hopefully shed some light upon the intriguing links between the sciences of deduction and geography.4

Geography and Characterization

6The detective story, Clive Bloom argues, is ‘the only fiction that insists on dealing with facts’ (Bloom 14). As Kayman points out this type of fiction’s reliance on facts becomes particularly perceptible in Doyle’s character depiction: ‘Doyle’s success in presenting fiction as fact is apparent both in the remarkable status of Sherlock Holmes himself . . . and the extent to which Holmes’s London has established itself as a stereotypical vision of Victorian London’ (Kayman 42). While Bloom and Kayman stress Doyle’s attention to facts in character portrayal and the representation of London, they seem to overlook the geographical dimensions of these facts. In A Study in Scarlet, in particular, geography not only shapes the characters’ most original profiles, it also directs their eclectic movements around North America and Europe.

7With the creation of Jefferson Hope—the alleged murderer and Holmes’s predestined antagonist—Doyle sets the tone for a geographically inspired characterization. From Missouri, where the Hope family originally came from, ‘the Jefferson Hopes of St Louis’ (64), young Jefferson moved West, where ‘he had been a pioneer in California’ (65). From the Golden State, he afterwards reached ‘the Nevada Mountains prospecting for silver, and [was] returning to Salt Lake City in the hope of raising capital enough to work some lodes which [he] had discovered’ (65). Hope’s previous personal history proves important when the pioneer emerges as a key player in the novel. Indeed, his itinerary slightly complicates when he is held up on his way back to Nevada by an incident in the Salt Lake Valley. Lucy Ferrier, adopted by a certain John Ferrier and with whom Hope eventually falls in love, must at once be rescued from the religious constraints reigning in Utah: ‘We must push for Carson City through the mountains. You had best wake Lucy’ (74). Officials from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints put pressure on John Ferrier to wed his daughter to one of their elders, Enoch Drebber or Joseph Stangerson. Desiring to become Lucy’s husband, Hope, as a non-member of the Church, is under the obligation to leave Utah with the Ferriers, or face death. He hopes to escape to Nevada’s capital, Carson City, a place he knows well from his silver mining days. It is quite interesting to note that his name alludes to the ‘hope’ of a better future there.

8Departing from the Rocky Mountains across the desert is no mean feat in Hope’s journey as he tries to lead the party over the high and arid plateaus of the Intermountain West in an effort to flee from the Mormons: ‘Jefferson Hope packed all the eatables that he could find into a small parcel . . . for he knew by experience that the mountain wells were few and far between’ (74). Nevada’s hostile topography renders the group’s planned evasion risky. The ‘marvellous though savage beauty’ (76) of the high plateaus challenges the party’s migration to Nevada. Due to the harsh environment, their provisions start to run out on the second day, and Hope decides to go hunting in the surrounding mountains. Leaving Lucy and her father behind, the hunter returns late that night to find John Ferrier murdered by Church members, and Lucy taken back as a hostage to Salt Lake City again: ‘Bewildered and stunned by this blow, Jefferson Hope felt his head spin round, and had to lean upon his rifle to save himself from falling’ (78). Recollecting his senses, the young pioneer rides back to the Mormon capital only to find that Lucy ‘was married yesterday to young Drebber’ (80). The forced marriage results in the fact that ‘poor Lucy never held up her head again, but pined away and died within a month’ (80). After his beloved’s tragic death, Jefferson Hope plots for ‘Rache’, the German word for revenge which Holmes discovers written in blood on the wall of the Brixton mansion.

9Frustrated and left alone among ‘the great snow-capped peaks’ (76), Hope then decides to track down the enemies responsible for his separation from the ‘flower of Utah’ (68). Utah’s hostile environment along the Wasatch Front defies Hope’s efforts to lay his hands on Drebber and Stangerson. The area’s topographical features and the harsh climate put a hamper on his quest for revenge. The picture below illustrates the relief’s challenging features and climatic conditions.

View from Capitol Hill towards the Salt Lake Valley and the Wasatch Mountains

View from Capitol Hill towards the Salt Lake Valley and the Wasatch Mountains

© Andreas Pichler

10Unable to capture the elders as Drebber and Stangerson have already left Utah’s capital, the pioneer sets out on a journey across the United States: ‘he travelled from town to town through the United States in quest of his enemies’ (82). When he finally reaches Ohio, he learns to his disappointment that his rivals have left the North American continent for Europe. He has no other option than to follow them to London, ‘where he at last succeeded in running them to earth’ (82). Hope’s movements through North America and Europe convincingly portray the character’s journeys embedded in existing physical environments, a detail the above picture reflects. The expression ‘run to earth’ alludes to the Earth’s tangible geography as the story becomes physically anchored in the concrete environment. The pioneer’s intricate itinerary, moreover, gives depths to character depiction in that Hope’s quest for revenge develops into a complex network of human geographical meandering.

  • 5 Jefferson Hope’s tailing certainly reminds of Alec Leamas’s defector role in le Carré’s The Spy Who (...)

11Jefferson Hope’s sinuous searches come to a temporary halt in the British metropolis. In tailing Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson, the two ex-Mormons from Salt Lake City ‘who had left Utah and become Gentiles’ (81), Hope discovers London’s challenging layout: ‘The hardest job was to learn my way about, for I reckon that of all the mazes that ever were contrived, this city is the most confusing’ (84). Doyle intertwines physical and human geographies here to depict different qualities of characterization: Hope moves through London with topographical precision: ‘It was some time before I found out where my two gentlemen were living . . . . They were at a boarding-house at Camberwell, over on the other side of the river’ (85). Thus, the American travels through the metropolis with a clear human ambition: to find the villains’ hiding places. Hope’s success depends on his knowledge of the urban labyrinth of the British capital. With the capital’s street layout far from being as organized as Salt Lake City’s grid system, Doyle equips Hope with a cartographical device: ‘I had a map beside me though, and when once I had spotted the principal hotels and stations, I got on pretty well’ (84). The Nevada pioneer learns his topography fast and practically turns into a private-eye when spying on the gentiles in London.5 Hope does not simply skim the capital’s surface; he gains true topographical expertise by navigating the urban surroundings. As a result, Holmes’s antagonist emerges as a character whose originality rests upon the synthesis of physical and human geographies, with London’s concrete realities impacting the outcome of his deadly vengeance.

12Similarly, geography plays a central role in the detective’s description. According to E. M. Forster, ‘[T]he test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat’ (Forster 55). In A Study in Scarlet, the most surprising of all characters is, as one might expect, Sherlock Holmes. Holmes’s authority is also abundantly clear when the detective follows the scarlet thread of the Brixton murder. The novella’s hero further gains in authority when applying the latest geographical innovations, notably in meteorology.

13Meteorology is the scientific study of the atmosphere, a science John B. Whittow describes as ‘usually confined to a study of the tropospheric and stratospheric processes only, for these are the layers in which surface weather is generated’ (Whittow 333). The study of weather patterns appeared as part of meteorology in the second half of the nineteenth century. In his Treatise of Meteorology (1868), Elias Loomis anticipated modern weather maps in that he ‘drew lines of equal deviations in barometric pressure and equal oscillations in temperature, and assigned colors to areas of clear sky, clouds, rain, snow, and even fog’.6 Moreover, the meteorologist produced the first precipitation map in 1871 showing mean annual rainfall over the globe. While Doyle does not have his detective consult Loomis’s map of Great Britain in A Study in Scarlet, he nonetheless accommodates the protagonist with up-to-date meteorological skills and methodology. Observing London’s precipitation upon the soil in front of the crime site in London, Holmes builds on this data to deduce the time of the murderer’s arrival on the crime site:

Now, up to last night, we have had no rain for a week, so that those wheels which left such a deep impression must have been there during the night. There were the marks of the horse’s hoofs, too, the outline of one of which was far more clearly cut than that of the other three, showing that that was a new shoe. Since the cab was there after the rain began, and was not there at any time during the morning . . . it follows that it must have been there during the night, and, therefore, that it brought those two individuals to the house. (33)

14In Meteorographica, or Methods of Mapping the Weather (1863) Galton writes: ‘Meteorography. I mean by that phrase, 1st, the art and practice of tabulating observations which have been made simultaneously at numerous stations, each record being inscribed in the geographical position of the place where it was made’ (Galton 3). Likewise, Holmes’s meteorological knowledge consists in observing methodologically London’s weather patterns: he analyses the relative humidity of the soils, extracts the time of the precipitation and understands the precipitation in the form of rain, not snow. Holmes then simultaneously observes the factual evidence of precipitation at No. 221B Baker Street, his residence, and at No. 3 Lauriston Gardens, the location of the murder during the night of the murder. The protagonist works, in effect, like a meteorologist in registering the evidence of precipitation processes in two existing geographical loci. He then compares the results in order to deduce meaning from the weather. Holmes’s observations—the exact time lapse between precipitations, the soil’s relative humidity, the time of the precipitation—prove to be correct: the rain did fall during the night as later confirmed by Jefferson Hope’s testimonial in front of the magistrates: ‘It was nearer one than twelve, and a wild, bleak night, blowing hard and raining in torrents’ (87). The sleuth comes across as competent in meteorology because he studies the tropospheric conditions of the atmosphere, analyses the soil’s humidity and locates the time of the precipitation in Brixton.

  • 7 For more information on the history of the British Geological Survey (BGS), consult http://www.bgs. (...)

15The detective-hero distinguishes himself further by a profound savoir faire in geology. Geology is ‘the study of the origin, structure, composition and history of the Earth’ (Whittow 212). The discipline became prolific in Britain during the second part of the nineteenth century with the foundation of the British Geological Survey in 1835 and the creation of geology as a science in the Geological Survey Act of 1853.7 The detective’s mastery of geology is by far restricted to the exclusive knowledge of soils as the following example shows:

Having finished his scrutiny, he proceeded slowly down the path, or rather down the fringe of grass which flanked the path, keeping his eyes riveted upon the ground. Twice he stopped, and once I saw him smile, and heard him utter an exclamation of satisfaction. There were many marks of footsteps upon the wet clayey soil. (27)

  • 8 The name of the geologic formation comes from the Bagshot Heath in Surrey, where these formations f (...)

16The humid clayey soil corresponds to the geologic phenomenon of the so-called Bagshot Beds and the London Clay, a series of sands and clays belonging to the Eocene period.8 These sediments are responsible for the plastic properties of the soil (the gravel helps bind the clayey matter). The London Clay is said to be extremely rich in phyllosilicates due to its marine formation and subsequent fossilisation, a geological detail described by Horace B. Woodward (1848–1914) in his Geology of England and Wales. Even though the novella does not mention the geologist’s recent discoveries, Holmes’s geology is sound and up-to-date. The London Clay he inspects in front of the mansion consists ‘apparently of a mixture of clay and of gravel’ (27). The conglomeration of clay and gravel results from the geologic cycle of sedimentation during the Eocene when clay was deposited by sea waters, then uplifted and intersected with sand and gravel formations. The distribution of the London Clay in the soils is, therefore, uneven because the later Pleistocene gravel deposits have altered the clay’s homogeneous composition. Alerted by the plasticity of the London Clay’s phyllosilicate composition, the detective naturally deduces meaning from these soils:

This was the first point gained. I [Holmes] then walked slowly down the garden path, which happened to be composed of a clay soil, peculiarly suitable for taking impressions. No doubt it appeared to you [Watson] to be a mere trampled line of slush, but to my trained eyes every mark upon its surface had a meaning. There is no branch of detective science which is so important and so much neglected as the art of tracing footsteps. Happily, I have always laid great stress upon it, and much practice has made it second nature to me. I saw the heavy footmarks of the constables, but I saw also the track of the two men who had first passed through the garden. It was easy to tell that they had been before the others, because in places their marks had been entirely obliterated by the others coming upon the top of them. In this way my second link was formed, which told me that the nocturnal visitors were two in number, one remarkable for his height (as I calculated from the length of his stride), and the other fashionably dressed, to judge from the small and elegant impression left by his boots. (91)

17The nature of the London Clay reveals to Holmes various identities thanks to the plastic imprint of the footmarks and their length and manner of steps. The Eocene formation, additionally, allows the detective to identify the type of Hansom parked in front of the crime site the previous night: ‘I saw clearly the marks of a cab, which, I ascertained by inquiry, must have been there during the night. I satisfied myself that it was a cab and not a private carriage by the narrow gauge of the wheels’ (91). The wheels’ impressions on the clay help uncover the presence of the murderer’s cab. Indeed, Jefferson Hope arrived in the saturated clays the night before. On that ground, it is not surprising that Holmes’s skilfulness leads to the unravelling of the mystery as the protagonist’s careful examination of the scientific data reveals the murderer’s presence during the night of the crime. The detective’s geologic knowledge bewilders Watson—‘“I confess,” said I, “that I do not quite follow you”’ (90), and astounds Scotland Yard specialists Gregson and Lestrade, who are completely ignorant of London’s geology: ‘The two detectives stared at him in amazement’ (51).

  • 9 The London area has been frequently analysed by contemporary critics. See for instance Owen Dudley (...)

18Geology and meteorology are not the only two subjects of physical geography in which Holmes excels. The detective’s topographical familiarity with London is equally remarkable. Topography is the scientific study of the Earth’s surface, including ‘all the features created in the landscape by human endeavour’ (Whittow 539). The science surveys the features of a place and provides the detailed description of an area, such as London.9 Holmes’s systematic surveying of the capital’s topography shows not only the connections between factual London and fictive deductions, but exemplifies the detective’s examination of the city’s physical features.

  • 10 Much has been written on the topographical address of 221B Baker Street, where Holmes and Watson se (...)
  • 11 In reality, the ring belonged to Lucy Ferrier from Salt Lake City, and Jefferson Hope took the wedd (...)

19Discovering a plain gold wedding ring outside Brixton Road during his investigation, Holmes decides to place an advertisement in the found column of several newspapers the next morning in an attempt to attract the suspect. The suspect is invited to present her- or himself at 221B Baker Street in order to collect the trinket.10 To Watson’s and Holmes’s surprise, a ‘very old and wrinkled woman hobbled into the apartment’ (40). Mrs Sawyer—who, the reader later learns, was sent by Jefferson Hope—arrives to pick up her presumed daughter’s ring.11 Holmes, keeping the original and handing Mrs Sawyer over a fake one, asks Watson to ask for the lady’s address:

‘It belongs to my girl Sally, . . . she went to the circus last night along with-’
‘Is that her ring?’ I [Watson] asked.
‘The Lord be thanked!’ cried the woman. ‘Sally will be a glad woman this night. That’s the ring.’
‘And what may your address be?’ I inquired, taking up a pencil.
‘13, Duncan Street, Houndsditch. A weary way from here.’
‘The Brixton Road does not lie between any circus and Houndsditch,’ said Sherlock Holmes sharply. (40)

  • 12 The word ‘circus’ is also employed here in the sense of popular entertainment in the central London (...)

20The OED defines ‘circus’ as ‘a rounded open space in a town or city where several streets converge.’12 Sally could not have encountered a circular square on her way from Brixton Road (SW9) to Houndsditch (EC3) as the most likely road passes through Oval, Elephant & Castle, London Bridge and Monument. Oxford and Piccadilly Circus, where Sally could have gone out, lie in a different part of London. Mrs Sawyer’s slippery topography forewarns Holmes since the old lady obviously tries to cover up Jefferson Hope’s whereabouts: ‘“The gentleman asked me for my address,” she said. “Sally lives in lodgings at 3 Mayfield Place, Peckham.”’ (40). The incident confirms Holmes’s topographical knowledge of London’s street layouts. Rather than sidetracking the detective, Mrs Sawyer’s inaccuracy only leads him ‘to the heart of the mystery’ (41). It is quite remarkable how Doyle employs factual places here to further enhance the protagonist’s topographical proficiency. The detective knows the precise locations of Duncan Street, Brixton Road and Houndsditch. In addition, he is capable of analysing the structured entity of London, showing the relations among its topographical components. As a result, topography turns into an intertwined geography network, a fact from which Holmes deduces the veritable whereabouts of the ring.

21To conclude on characterization, let us emphasize Watson’s role in strengthening Holmes’s authority. In his journal, the good doctor consigns the facts of Holmes’s case faithfully and meticulously—’I could not tamper with the facts’ (98)—and he consolidates the detective’s superior geographic expertise:

There were many marks of footsteps upon the wet clayey soil, but since the police had been coming and going over it, I [Watson] was unable to see how my companion could hope to learn anything from it. Still I had had such extraordinary evidence of the quickness of his perceptive faculties, that I had no doubt that he could see a great deal which was hidden from me. (27–8)

22Negative representation of Watson serves Doyle in constructing Holmes’s monumental status. Even though the author provides the doctor with medical proficiency at the end of the novella, when he diagnoses Jefferson Hope’s aneurysm, Watson’s geographical skills are quasi non-existent and his ignorance raises the detective’s status.

23As we have seen, the different aspects of scientific geography greatly contribute to characterization in A Study in Scarlet. But Doyle also draws on geography in the plotting of the story, as the rest of this essay will show.

Geography and Narrative

24From a narrative point of view, Doyle’s first novella is most remarkable: narratological types constantly shift throughout the story’s framework. Commencing with Watson’s first-person narration, the story proceeds with an omniscient narrator in the second part, before returning to the doctor’s voice at the end. The first distinction that is made, following Gérard Genette (1980, 244–245), is between a narrator who is also a character in the story (homodiegetic), and a narrator who is absent as a character (heterodiegetic). Few contemporary researchers have focused on the heterodiegetic narrator of the novel. Stephen Knight simply mentions how ‘Doyle plays enough variation on the pattern to keep it constantly fresh’ (Knight 75), while Kayman adds that ‘[T]he problem-setting and solving structure provides fundamental narrative satisfaction’ (Kayman 48). Yet looking at the heterodiegetic voice confirms the crucial role played by geography in the novel. This becomes particularly evident with the shift from first- to third-person narrator at the beginning of the second part, for this is the point when the story takes the reader from London to Utah.

  • 13 Conan Doyle’s geographical descriptions of this part of Utah are correct except for one detail: Eag (...)

25Utah’s exceptional geography provides an alternative to London’s grey fogs and turns out to be significant in A Study in Scarlet, unfolding its physical and human particularities. The Beehive State’s tangible features shape the narrative pattern while, at the same time, providing an insightful account of the region around the Great Salt Lake Desert.13 The area’s geography deserves our attention not just because Doyle dedicates an important part of chapter eight, entitled ‘On the Great Alkali Plain’, to Utah, but also because the author relies on the voice of the heterodiegetic narrator in the following five chapters to construct the narrative around the North American West. The Great Salt Lake Basin’s physical features, in particular, are quite extraordinary with its relative high elevation (average 1280 meters) and its salinity percentage occasioning alkali dust storms all year round. The intensive solar evaporation generates salts and brine at the edges of the Lake taking on various shades of deep purple-red. The title of the novel, apart from the blood threads found in the Brixton mansion, refers to the Lake’s scarlet-coloured shores which stand in sharp contrast to the snow-capped mountains surrounding the Great Salt Lake. A most particular climate rules in the area creating extreme weather contrasts between the relatively lush Wasatch Mountains and the arid environment of the Great Salt Lake Desert.

26In addition to Utah’s unique meteorology, the region’s fauna is, likewise, noteworthy, the narrator remarks: ‘The coyote skulks among the scrub, the buzzard flaps heavily through the air, and the clumsy grizzly bear lumbers through the dark ravines, and picks up such sustenance as it can amongst the rocks. These are the sole dwellers in the wilderness’ (55). The local fauna adds to the austere dimension of the region’s wilderness. Utah’s topography and climate are presented through the eyes of a heterodiegetic third-person with the result of creating an ostensibly neutral description of the region’s geography, which is quite different from Watson’s first-person discourse and resembles geographers’ accounts of the Intermountain West.

27At this point, the narration’s temporality changes with the story’s chronology seriously being disrupted by a narrative flashback to the fourth of May 1847. Absolute silence reigns on that particular day in Utah: ‘In this great stretch of country there is no sign of life, nor of anything appertaining to life. There is no bird in the steel-blue heaven, no movement upon the dull, grey earth–above all, there is absolute silence’ (55). Then all of a sudden, the heterodiegetic voice brings the Great Salt Lake Basin back to life by alluding to a gaunt and ghastly-looking wanderer stranded at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains: ‘His appearance was such that he might have been the very genius or demon of the region. An observer would have found it difficult to say whether he was nearer to forty or to sixty’ (56). John Ferrier, the only survivor of a party of twenty-one pioneers who were attempting to travel West, arrives at the Wasatch Front because of geographic misfortunes: ‘But there was somethin’ wrong; compasses, or map, or somethin’, and it didn’t turn up. Water ran out’ (57). Toiling down a ravine, the wanderer searches for water when ‘the great salt plain stretched before his eyes to the distant belt of savage mountains’ (56). Ferrier sits down on a boulder and unwraps a grey shawl in which he has been carrying ‘a pretty young girl of about five years of age’ (56). Saving the child from dehydration, the escapee has brought Lucy with him. Strained from the restless travels, they both find some rest and ‘slept the same deep and dreamless slumber’ (56). The effect created here is that the third-person heterodiegetic narrative enhances the sense of objectivity: Ferrier’s survival appears solely to depend upon Utah’s relief and climate.

  • 14 On a visit to the Mormon Tabernacle in 1923, Doyle ‘was aware of the discomfort created by his visi (...)
  • 15 Joseph Smith was the first prophet and president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (...)
  • 16 Today, a monument named after Young’s famous statement honours the church members’ settlement in a (...)

28Objectivity is also created when portraying Utah’s religious history in the very same year of 1847. The heterodiegetic narrator’s neutrality simply reports the Mormons’ settlement in the Salt Lake Valley.14 When describing the historic migration, the third-person voice creates the necessary distance between author and story. Juxtaposing the Mormons’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley with John Ferrier’s fictitious fight for survival, Doyle has human and physical geographies dialogue in the narrator’s voice. The narrator’s absence in the story produces the effect of a more universal tone when combing fact and fiction. The heterodiegetic narrator comments objectively the succession of events taking place at the mouth of Emigration Canyon. When one of the Mormons’ elders on their way to settle in the valley is ‘ascending the precipitous slope’ (59), the Ferriers wake up; their bewilderment is complete: ‘This is what they call delirium’ (60). Escorted down the hillside by the Church members, the two survivors are then presented before the Prophet called Brigham Young: ‘He shall say what is to be done with you’ (61).15 Young is ready to save the small party on condition that they also become Church members. Ferrier must accept these terms as the austere environment barely leaves him with a real alternative. There, Brigham Young declared in 1847: ‘This is the place.’16 The narrator deliberately refrains from commenting on the Mormons’ search for religious independence with a play on words: ‘This is not the place’ implicitly refers to the prophet’s notorious proclamation: ‘This is not the place to commemorate the trials and privations endured by the immigrant Mormons before they came to their final haven’ (62). However, by negating the legendary phrase, the third-person steps even further back from commenting on the actual history of events as the site becomes the fictitious place where John Ferrier successfully settles among the industrious believers. Ferrier’s prosperity and fortune gradually cause jealousy in the Beehive State: ‘From the great inland sea to the distant Wasatch Mountains there was no name better known than that of John Ferrier’ (63). The fictional Ferrier surpasses the Mormons’ industriousness in rendering the arid Salt Lake Valley inhabitable. The narrator achieves a synthesis of fiction and facts in that the third-person integrates Ferrier’s story into the physical and human realities of Utah. The result is a plausible, innovative geographically embedded heterodiegetic voice.

29The second remarkable narrative element is the novella’s anachronism with the story flashing back thirty-four years. According to Gérard Genette, ‘[A]n anachrony can reach into the past or the future, either more or less far from the “present” moment: this temporal distance we will name the anachrony’s reach’ (Genette 1980, 48). The anachrony’s reach in A Study of Scarlet is double: first, the story flashes back to 1847, then it returns to the year 1881, covering a relatively long period. Four decades separate the two narrative parts. In addition, the flashback appears to fill a gap in the narration, a detail Genette refers to as ‘completing analepses, or “returns”’ (Genette 1980, 51). The returns in A Study in Scarlet explain Hope’s motives for revenge. At the same time, they represent breaks in the temporal continuity.

30Geography, on the other hand, provides narratological continuity. The narrative builds on the sequence of geographical deductions because Holmes deduces meaning from the physical sites. From the discovery of the crime site in Brixton to the American Intermountain West and back to the British capital, the detective creates a map of authentic places. The sketch below maps the various locations.

31With the hero’s final act, the plot is, however, still unfinished. If as E. M. Forster argued, ‘plot’ can be defined as ‘a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality’ which carries ‘a mystery in it, a form capable of high development’ (Forster 61), then the climactic point of A Study in Scarlet is not the unveiling of the murderer by Holmes at 221B Baker Street, but coincides with another geographical phenomenon: Utah’s harsh geography causes the assassin’s aortic aneurism—‘I [Jefferson Hope] got it [aortic aneurism] from over-exposure and under-feeding among the Salt Lake Mountains’ (83). Hope’s natural death though causes much surprise in the Scotland Yard detectives, Watson and the reader because it occurs when no one suspects it. According to Forster, the ‘element of surprise or mystery–the detective element as it is sometimes rather emptily called–is of great importance in a plot’ (Forster 61). More, it is something ‘[t]he plot-maker expects us to remember’ (Forster 62). An aesthetically compact plot, A Study in Scarlet therefore, builds the action of the entire narrative towards a final climax, which is intricately linked to Utah’s geography. Doyle’s lengthy descriptions of the Great Salt Lake Basin’s geography serve the purpose of elucidating the closing episode. Even if the whodunnit is solved thanks to Holmes’s deductions, the pioneer’s ‘over-exposure’ along the Wasatch Front would remain a mystery without an understanding of Utah’s geography. The final twist brings the story to a close by elevating geography into the realm of deductions.


  • 17 Chris Routledge, for instance, writes: ‘Holmes first appeared in print in 1887, in Arthur Conan Doy (...)

32A Study in Scarlet has been frequently criticized for its supposed lack of coherence.17 Yet it differs from Doyle’s other detective stories in that the geographical deduction firmly structures both story and characterizations. Geographical deduction should not be restricted to Holmes’s skills. Indeed while the concept certainly explains the detective’s deductions, it also serves as a basis for the murder’s errings, and underpins the story’s narrative framework. Most importantly, geographical deduction establishes a form of communication between the characters at the intra-textual level of fictional mediation, and between author and reader at the extra-diegetic level. The reader’s active participation is required in deducing geographic realities—a participation which is vital to the full uncovering of the coherent scarlet thread running through the novel, and which takes us from the blood stains in Brixton to the red brine shores of the Great Salt Lake. Geographical deduction stands for this dialectical relationship between geographical fact and fictitious deduction, which later inspired crime literature, notably authors from the Golden Age of detective fiction between the two World Wars such as Agatha Christie.

Haut de page


Bloom, Clive. Nineteenth Century Suspense from Poe to Conan Doyle. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. ‘On the Geographical Distribution of British Intellect’ Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review 24.138 (August 1888): 184–195.

——. The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes (1887–1929). London: Wordsworth, 2007.

Duncan, Alistair. Close to Holmes: a Look at the Connections between Historical London, Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. London: MX Publishing, 2009.

Edwards, Owen Dudley. The Quest for Sherlock Holmes: A Biographical Study of Arthur Conan Doyle. Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1983.

Forster, Edward Morgan. Aspects of the Novel. 1927. London: Penguin, 2000.

Galton, Francis. Meteorographica, or Methods of Mapping the Weather. London: Macmillan, 1863.

Genette, Gérard. ‘Discours du récit.’ Figures III. Paris: Seuil, 1972.

——. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. J. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.

Hegglund, Jon. ‘Writing the Urban Jungle: Reading Empire in London from Doyle to Eliot.’ The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 101.2 (April 2002): 279–281.

Kayman, Martin A. ‘The Short Story from Poe to Chesteron’. Ed. Martin Priestman. The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. 41–58.

Kestner, Joseph A. Sherlock’s Men: Masculinity, Conan Doyle, and Cultural History. Aldershot: Ashgate, 1997.

Knight, Stephen. Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1980.

Lecourt, Sebastian. ‘The Mormons, the Victorians, and the Idea of Greater Britain’. Victorian Studies 56.1 (Autumn 2013): 85–111.

Lewis, Samuel. A Topographical Dictionary of England. London: S. Lewis & Company, 1845.

Loomis, Elias. Treatise of Meteorology. New York: Harper, 1868.

Lyell, Charles. Principles of Geology. 1830. London: Penguin, 1997.

McLaughlin, Joseph. Writing the Urban Jungle: Reading Empire in London from Doyle to Eliot. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2000.

Marcus, Laura. ‘Detective and Literary Fiction’. Ed. Martin Priestman. The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. 245–267.

Mellier, Denis. Sherlock Holmes et le signe de la fiction. Paris: Diffusion, 1999.

Rahn, B. J. The Real World of Sherlock. Stroud: Amberley, 2014.

Ravenel, Loïc. Les aventures géographiques de Sherlock Holmes. Paris: Découvrir, 1994.

Routledge, Christopher. ‘A Study in Scarlet’ The Reader 29 (April 2008). Web. 20 March 2015.

Symons, Julian. Portrait of an Artist: Conan Doyle. London: Whizzard Press, 1979.

Viney, Charles. The Authentic World of Sherlock Holmes: An Evocative Tour of Conan Doyle’s Victorian London. Godalming: Bramey, 1999.

Whittow, John B. The Penguin Dictionary of Physical Geography. London: Penguin, 2000.

Woodward, Horace B. Geology of England and Wales. 1887. London: George Philip, 1910. Web. 20 March 2015.

Haut de page


1 All subsequent quotes are taken from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes. London: Wordsworth Books, 2007.

2 In 1854, the United Kingdom Meteorological Office was formed; 1830 saw the publication of Charles Lyell’s first volume of Principles of Geology; and in 1845, Samuel Lewis published A Topographical Dictionary of England.

3 Julian Symons gives a biographical account of Conan Doyle’s detective fiction; Douglas Kerr opts for a culturally inspired biography; Joseph Kestner looks at gender in Sherlock’s Men; Loïc Ravenel, for instance, analyses imaginary geographies in Les aventures géographiques de Sherlock Holmes focusing on the organisation of Holmes’s spaces. For more on the historical and religious aspects see Lecourt; Hegglund provides an insightful account of the Empire and Doyle’s fiction; Marcus traces detective fiction in post modernity, and Knight scrutinizes detective fiction as a literary format.

4 Less famous than his Sherlock Holmes fiction, Doyle’s article ‘On the Geographical Distribution of British Intellect’ (1888) studies the various portions of Great Britain concerning the production of intellectual celebrities and comes to the conclusion ‘that agricultural districts are usually richer in great men than manufacturing or mining parts’ (Doyle 1888, 195).

5 Jefferson Hope’s tailing certainly reminds of Alec Leamas’s defector role in le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), Oedipa Mass’s hallucinatory Californian erring in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and Daniel Quinn’s private investigations among the glass-reflecting New-Yorker skyscrapers in Auster’s City of Glass (1987). Except that the pioneer’s meandering is depicted almost a century earlier.

6 (20 March 2015).

7 For more information on the history of the British Geological Survey (BGS), consult Web. 20 March 2015.

8 The name of the geologic formation comes from the Bagshot Heath in Surrey, where these formations frequently occur during the Eocene period. The Eocene belongs to the Cerozoic time (-55 to -35 million years ago) situated between the older Phanerozoic and the younger Quarterrary. During this age, silicate minerals were deposited in what belongs today to southeastern England.

9 The London area has been frequently analysed by contemporary critics. See for instance Owen Dudley Edwards, Charles Viney, Alistair Duncan and B. J. Rahn.

10 Much has been written on the topographical address of 221B Baker Street, where Holmes and Watson set up home at the beginning of The Study in Scarlet. For further information see (20 March 2015).

11 In reality, the ring belonged to Lucy Ferrier from Salt Lake City, and Jefferson Hope took the wedding symbol from her dead body when he left Utah.

12 The word ‘circus’ is also employed here in the sense of popular entertainment in the central London squares, where performances were frequently organized.

13 Conan Doyle’s geographical descriptions of this part of Utah are correct except for one detail: Eagle Canyon does not link the Salt Lake Valley to the Nevada desert, but is rather situated in the South of the state towards the Escalante and Canyonlands National Parks.

14 On a visit to the Mormon Tabernacle in 1923, Doyle ‘was aware of the discomfort created by his visit–certain elders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints had openly denounced him–and at a lunch the following day he reportedly expressed gratitude for the warmth of his welcome and admitted that, in hindsight, A Study had been “rather sensational and overcoloured”. Nevertheless, Doyle refused to apologize for the novel, arguing that it had been based upon the best information available to him at the time’ (Lecourt 85).

15 Joseph Smith was the first prophet and president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Brigham Young followed him as his successor. For more information look at (20 March 2015).

16 Today, a monument named after Young’s famous statement honours the church members’ settlement in a Heritage Park above the University of Utah campus, (20 March 2015)

17 Chris Routledge, for instance, writes: ‘Holmes first appeared in print in 1887, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s short novel A Study in Scarlet. In practical terms this first Holmes story is structurally weak, broken-backed, stylistically uneven, and derivative.’ (20 March 2015).

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

Titre View from Capitol Hill towards the Salt Lake Valley and the Wasatch Mountains
Crédits © Andreas Pichler
Fichier image/jpeg, 3,0M
Fichier image/jpeg, 173k
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Andréas Pichler, « Deduction and Geography in Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 81 Printemps | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2015, consulté le 20 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Andréas Pichler

Andreas Pichler lectures in the English and Applied Languages Departments at Aix-Marseille University, France. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from the English Department at the University of Utah, USA (2002) entitled ‘The Fogging of Spaces’. His research focuses on the intersections between geography and literature. His recent work includes ‘Bloomsbury, A Geography of Heritage’ (2013) in Geographies of Displacement Online Journal (<>), ‘The Image of Fog in The Picture of Dorian Gray’ in The Oscholars 4.1 (January 2007), ‘Juxtaposing Meteorological Conditions in E. M. Forster’s Edwardian Short Stories’ (2015 SFEVE conference), and De la météorologie dans ‘Maurice’ d’E.M. Forster (forthcoming in E-rea online journal).

Andréas Pichler, géologue de formation et docteur en littérature, enseigne la géographie et la culture victorienne et édouardienne à l’université Aix-Marseille. Son travail porte principalement sur les aspects géographiques dans les œuvres de Conan Doyle et d’E.M. Forster. Publications récentes : « Geography and Literature : The Bloomsbury Group » (2013), « De la météorologie dans “Maurice” d’E.M. Forster » (2015). Il rédige actuellement une monographie sur la géographie de l’ère édouardienne.

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée
  • Logo ERIH +
  • DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search