Sherlock Holmes and the City. From "A Study in Scarlet" to "A Study in Pink"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

19 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. London in A Study in Scarlet vs. London in "A Study in Pink"
2.1. The Introduction of London
2.2. London as a City of Crime and Justice

3. Mastering the City
3.1. The Theory of Boundary Crossing
3.2. Mastering the City on the Geographical Level
3.2.1. The Closed Space vs. The Open Space
3.2.2. "It is a hobby of mine to have an exact knowledge of London"
3.2.3. Boundary Crossing in Reverse
3.3. Mastering the City on the Social Level
3.4. Mastering the City on the Mental Level
3.5. Limitations

4. Holmes' Relationship to the City

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

The Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have continued to fascinate generation after generation since they were written between 1887 and 1927. This has led to the production of many adaptations in different types of media. Books and movies as well as various series have brought the detective to life time and again. A recent popular adaptation is the BBC series Sherlock which has become a phenomenon in and of itself. It draws on the original stories in many ways, but converts the Victorian detective Holmes into the modem detective Sherlock by placing him in contemporary London and surrounding him with the newest technologies. So far, three seasons have been released. The pilot episode entitled “A Study in Pink” was broadcast on 25 July 2010 and is based on Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet, which was written in 1887.

It is difficult to imagine the master detective Holmes in a city other than London, a place that is much more than just a background setting. Many cases that are described in the stories and eventually solved are specifically tailored for this city and could not have happened anywhere else. London's streets are where the fictional crimes are committed as well as solved, where criminals are cornered and caught, and where the genius Holmes actually finds something he considers to be worthwhile. The city of London and the character Sherlock Holmes are interwoven in a way that makes it impossible for the reader or viewer to think of London as merely an exchangeable background setting for interesting adventures.

This paper intends to discuss the importance of London in relation to the stories, including possible similarities and changes between the way Doyle described his London and the way it is now depicted in the series Sherlock. For this purpose, the following chapter compares the first stories of both the canon by Doyle and the BBC series, namely A Study in Scarlet and “A Study in Pink”. The comparison will focus on the introduction of London and its further characterization as a city of crime and justice.

Victorian London was and today's London is a city that, in reality, is nearly impossible to know by heart. Yet, Sherlock Holmes manages to do so in both the original stories and the new BBC series. Therefore, this paper will also examine the ways in which the city is mastered. The mastery of the city does include the geographical knowledge Holmes possesses, but it is not limited to this aspect. As will be considered in more detail, Holmes' domination of London also includes a thorough insight concerning the different social classes as well as a certain flexibility of the mind. These three aspects shall be discussed through the appliance of a theory by Jurij Lotman. This theory will be referred to as the “Theory of Boundary Crossing” because it concerns itself with the crossing of seemingly impenetrable boundaries by the protagonists of texts with plot. I intend to examine the importance of boundary crossing as a means to master the city as well as the different levels of boundaries that are penetrated by Holmes. An account of the limitations of Holmes' omniscience will be provided as well.

As already indicated, London and the detective have a connection that is unusual in many ways. Thus, I will attempt to define the relationship the detective has with his city by discussing the extent in which London and Sherlock Holmes need each other as well as benefit from each other. All these aspects are meant to define the status of London as more than just a setting and to provide a close look at how this status may have changed.

The mere fact that this paper includes a comparison between a Sherlock Holmes story written in 1887 and an episode broadcast more than a hundred and twenty years later shows that Sherlock Holmes is a character that is still of importance to a contemporary audience. However, it is not only the genius detective himself who continues to fascinate. His companion John Watson and their friendship is most certainly one aspect; his relationship to London, including his mastery of and his affection for this city, another.

2. London in A Study in Scarlet vs. London in MA study in PinkM

2.1. The Introduction of London

The first character introduced in A Study in Scarlet is Doctor John Watson, who narrates the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is he who then introduces the reader to the London of his time as well as to the genius detective. Before talking about Holmes and the way he feels about the city, Watson first tells the reader how he himself perceives it. Having returned wounded from Afghanistan and without any relations1, Watson states that he “naturally gravitated to London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”2. His choice of words does not paint a very flattering picture of London. Instead, it is described as a cesspit or sump, which immediately evokes associations such as bad smell and dirt. According to him, this cesspool works like a magnet, drawing in inactive people without ambition and possibly occupation - not only slouches from the British Isles, but from all corners of the British Empire. Despite the bad opinion Watson has of London - or maybe even because of this opinion, which also provides a certain fascination - he does not want to leave the city, even if that means changing his entire lifestyle due to money issues.3 Watson's love for London is essentially what introduces him to Sherlock Holmes. It is at Criterion Bar where the common acquaintance of Holmes and Watson, called Stamford, runs into Watson4 and later initiates a meeting between both of them. Watson describes “[t]he sight of a friendly face in the great wilderness of London [as] a pleasant thing indeed to a lonely man”5. Here, Watson assigns the attribute of “wilderness”, usually associated with untamed nature, to the city, implying that London is just as confusing. He also refers to the loneliness that the anonymity of a big city might evoke by referring to himself as a “lonely man”.

As any other series or movie, the series Sherlock has different means than the written story when it comes to introducing the theme and setting before the plot begins to unfold: the opening credits. To this particular way of introducing the city of London through music and images, there is no equivalent in the written form. Before the opening credits of “A Study in Pink”, the character John Watson is introduced through two scenes. In the first, he has a nightmare about the war in Afghanistan; in the second, he visits his therapist. While this is a necessity in A Study in Scarlet as Watson is the narrator, here it is a choice. The opening credits then begin with a bird's eye view of Piccadilly Circus at night.6 The movement of objects such as the traffic and the electronic advertisements are sped up to capture the busy atmosphere of London and the fast speed of modem life. It also gives the viewer a first impression of how difficult it is to keep track of all the things happening, even in such a confined space as Piccadilly Circus. After three seconds, this image is followed by a day shot of the City of Westminster7, including the London Eye, Big Ben, and part of the Thames. On the top of the frame, right next to the London Eye, black capital letters appear, spelling SHERLOCK. The letters fit nicely into the empty space of this image of famous London sights and the tip of Big Ben points directly towards them. This leads to the association that Sherlock / Sherlock - both the series and the character - belong to London just as much as those sights do. They also embody the hope that at least Sherlock Holmes has the ability to see everything that goes on in this city. At 2:13, the described image fades away into yet another shot of buildings in the bird's eye view. Sherlock Holmes' image superimposes this shot. The image of mostly his head fills two thirds of the screen and is therefore much bigger than London's sights, suggesting strongly that his mind is able to control the city. In this sequence, Sherlock looks through a magnifying glass and the viewer gets a glimpse of his piercing blue eye. Through the clever superimposition, it actually looks as if the detective was looking down on the buildings and the street that, in reality, belong to a complete different shot. The many combinations and blends within the opening credits, just like this one, mainly serve the purpose of introducing the detective in relation to his city. They already suggest that this relationship is one of Sherlock watching over London. Interestingly though, images which refer to violence are only presented to the viewer removed from the context of the city. At 2:18 the viewer is presented a gun, at 2:20 a part of a possibly dead body, and at 2:33 a drop of blood - but all these images of crime are shown in front of a black background, not in the midst of London.

After the opening credits and the introduction of the case, the meeting of John Watson and Mike Stamford takes place at a park at 7:14. Here, Watson's love for London is communicated through a dialogue with Stamford. John tells him that he “can't afford London on an Army pension”8 to which Stamford replies: “Ah, you couldn't bear to be anywhere else”9 before suggesting a flat share.

A trait both introductions of London share is the order in which the characters and the setting are introduced. In both stories, John Watson is the first character presented, followed by the city of London as the setting. Only when the companion and the setting are introduced, the character of Sherlock Holmes appears. This stresses the importance of John Watson and the city. It also implies that these conditions have to be fulfilled for the detective himself to be present.

The main differences of the two introductions of London can be divided into two parts. One aspect is the difference in medium, e.g. the opening credits of Sherlock, as already discussed in detail. The second aspect is the difference on the content level. While Watson openly describes London as a “cesspool” in A Study in Scarlet, “A Study in Pink” does everything it can to show London in a positive light. The viewer sees images of all the typical tourist sights he probably recognizes from other media or from traveling to London himself. Most of these images are also very bright, only the shot of Piccadilly Circus at night might suggest some darkness, but even this darkness seems natural and not mysterious. Also, except for a short sequence at 2:24 when a woman walks down a street alone, there are no images of empty streets, run-down houses, or dark alleys to be seen in the opening credits. As already mentioned, the opening credits do include images of crime, but these images are entirely detached from London and only shown in front of a black background. This different approach to the introduction of London can be explained due to the fact that London had more of a scandalous reputation and a high crime rate in Victorian times, but is seen as a nice city that everyone wants to visit today. The use of sights like Piccadilly Circus and the London Eye also has the effect that the viewer immediately knows which city the series is set in and feels like he is familiar with the setting. Not showing unknown comers at this point just yet manages to make the city accessible.

2.2. London as a City of Crime and Justice

When the producers of BBC's Sherlock adapted Doyle's story A Study in Scarlet and created “A Study in Pink” they kept many plot elements, but simplified the plot by giving the criminal Jefferson Hope a different motive for murder. This change does not only affect the story line as such, but also the characterization of London.

In A Study in Scarlet, Hope is an American who comes to London in pursuit of two Mormons from Utah who wronged his fiancée in the past, leading to her death. Once the reader has read Hope's background story, he is bound to sympathize with him and might even agree that it was right to kill the two Mormons. Hope does not simply murder them though, but gives them the choice between two identical-looking pills, one poisonous and the other harmless, taking whichever one is left himself. As Steven Moffat points out, “it's terrible people that are being killed, really awful people, but because he is such a religious and sort of moral man, he gives them all a chance. He is sort of allowing God to decide which of them should die.”10 Jefferson Hope is a murderer, but his motive for murder is revenge for a terrible wrong-doing on the side of the Mormons and by using the pills he leaves it up to a higher power to decide who will die or survive.11 Also, after Hope is caught by Sherlock Holmes and tells him the entire story, he dies a natural death caused by an aneurism which prevents him from being tried legally and having to carry out a sentence in prison.12 With the Mormons and Jefferson finding their way to Victorian London, it is “not only the imperial city that opens out on the wider world, but is also still the center that draws the world back in.”13 A Study in Scarlet also presents two opposite images of London during the development of the plot. As already mentioned, Watson describes it as a “cesspool” and a “great wilderness”. It is presented as a dark, chaotic, and even dangerous place. At first sight, the crimes that happen during the story seem to confirm this image, but while it “may be the City of Damnation [...] it is also, by the end, the Heavenly City, the place where Hope finds peace.”14 It is the city where Hope is finally able to carry out his revenge and where “the Mormons, Drebber and Strangerson, meet with what the novel implies is the fate they deserve, even as Holmes catches and convicts the murderer.”15 The London of A Study in Scarlet is therefore a London where justice is served. It is implied that the city itself is actually able to influence the outcome of the case by making itself legible to the people doing the right


1 See Doyle, A Study in Scarlet in A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, 3

2 Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, 3

3 See Doyle, 3

4 See Doyle, 3/4

5 Doyle, 4

6 See A Study in Pink, 2:07 - 2:10

7 See A Study in Pink, 2:10 - 2:13

8 A Study in Pink, 7:58

9 A Study in Pink, 8:00

10 A Study in Pink Audiokommentar, 01:03:18 - 01:03:25

11 "Let the high God judge between us”, Doyle, A Study in Scarlet, 204

12 See Doyle, 210

13 Agathocleous, Urban Realism and the Cosmopolitan Imagination in the Nineteenth Century, 129

14 Agathocleous, 129

15 Agathocleous, 129

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Sherlock Holmes and the City. From "A Study in Scarlet" to "A Study in Pink"
University of Constance
Hauptseminar: British Literature and Culture
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock, BBC, Arthur Conan Doyle, Doyle, Crime Stories, Crime Literature, TV Series, London, Jurij Lotman, Space
Quote paper
Silvia Schilling (Author), 2015, Sherlock Holmes and the City. From "A Study in Scarlet" to "A Study in Pink", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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