Places: A Study in Scarlet

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1887

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Detective and mystery

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Afghanistan

*Afghanistan. Study in Scarlet, ASouthwest Asian country over whose control Great Britain and Russia clashed in the nineteenth century and in which the novel’s narrator, Dr. John Watson, served as a British army physician in the late 1870’s, before the period in which his narrative proper begins. Only a few pages of his narrative discuss Afghanistan directly; however, these passages indicate how powerfully place shapes men. Watson’s time in Afghanistan transformed him. After he was shot, he contracted enteric fever and returned to London almost an invalid, forever marked by his military service.

The first thing Sherlock Holmes says to Watson when they meet is, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” Able to recognize all types of soil at a glance, Holmes can instantly deduce where people have recently been. He can also recognize other signs of regional origin such as tattoos, spices, or dialects. Doyle based Holmes’s ability to make such judgments on the ability of one of his medical school professors, Dr. Joseph Bell, who made similar observations about his medical patients. This ability also shows Doyle’s uneasiness with Britain’s role as an imperial power, and his belief that Britain’s time in foreign lands would change all those who went, and would return to threaten Britain itself.


*London. Capital of the British Empire. The London in which Holmes and Watson live is a microcosm of the empire. It contains a population of British citizens who have lived in London their entire lives, peoples whose residential addresses immediately reveal their class origins. However, because of the strict class hierarchy in British society during the period in which the novel is set, London is also a place of separate and distinct cultures, where the poor are largely invisible to the rich. Holmes’s London is also a cosmopolitan place in which exotic foreigners may suddenly intrude, bringing violence and strange practices as does the American Jefferson Hope, who brings new poisons and vengeance from home to kill fellow Americans Drebber and Stangerson.

When Watson first returns to London from Afghanistan, he finds it a “great wilderness,” rather than the familiar place he expects. Part of Holmes’s genius is his ability to communicate with members of all social classes, as he does with the beggar boys who spy for him. Another part of his genius is his ability to read foreign threats correctly. However, Holmes’s greatest gift is his ability to restore to London the order that most of its denizens wish for it.

*Baker Street

*Baker Street. London street on which Holmes and Watson share a flat. They live at the imaginary address of 221B, which consists of two bedrooms and a large shared sitting room. Their landlady (Mrs. Hudson) is not given a name until a later story. The Baker Street flat becomes a haven from the threatening confusion of London. Many later Sherlock Holmes stories begin in the sitting room, where police officers, government officials, and private citizens bring their problems to Holmes, who listens to them and then emerges from the flat to solve their problems in the larger world.

*American West

*American West. Mainly frontier region of the United States that stretches from Nebraska to the Rocky Mountains and beyond. In this story, the West serves the role that India serves in such later Sherlock Holmes stories as “The Speckled Band” as a place of wild danger and mystery. However, this land, described as “an arid and repulsive desert,” differs in being completely untamed; it tests the character of those like John Ferrier who pass through it. Doyle focuses on the harshness of the land, its dryness and wide open spaces. A major part of the narrative follows the story of Jefferson Hope in the West; he has the ideal character to deal with such a place: brave, physically powerful, and passionate.


*Utah. Territory of the United States that is dominated by the authoritarian Mormon Church, whose people settled the territory in the late 1840’s, when they were fleeing religious persecution in the East and the Midwest. Doyle’s descriptions of Utah and Mormon culture highlight the difficult contradictions that the state offers to Anglo-American culture. Doyle praises the rocky beauty of the area and the industry of Mormon communities, but dwarfing these positive attributes is the threat of Mormonism itself. The mysterious authority of Brigham Young, combined with practices such as polygamy, makes Utah seem as alien and dangerous as India.

BibliographyCarr, John Dickson. The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. New York: Harper, 1949. Considered the definitive biography of Doyle because it is based on a thorough study of Doyle’s private papers by one of the masters of the mystery novel.Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes. Edited by William S. Baring-Gould. 2 vols. 2d ed. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1967. A store of valuable information on Victorian England compiled by one of the leading Holmes scholars. The bibliography includes references to a number of articles from The Baker Street Journal, the official publication of the Baker Street Irregulars, an organization dedicated to the study of the cases of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.Doyle, Arthur Conan. Memories and Adventures. Boston: Little, Brown, 1924. Leaves many matters untouched and questions unanswered but provides valuable insights into the life of the author toward the end of his career.Jaffe, Jacqueline A. Arthur Conan Doyle. Boston: Twayne, 1987. Part of Twayne’s English Authors Series, this is an excellent brief introduction to Doyle’s life and in particular to his works. Two chapters, “The Beginnings of a Modern Hero: Sherlock Holmes” and “The Return of Holmes,” deal with Doyle’s detective fiction. Includes a short but useful bibliography.
Categories: Places