Mar 042016


On this date in 1881 according to A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ( ), Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes began their first adventure. Doyle wrote A Study in Scarlet in 1886, and the story marks the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. For verisimilitude Doyle gave some exact dates in the story, 4th March 1881, being one of them. The book’s title derives from a speech given by Holmes, to his friend and chronicler Watson on the nature of his work, in which he describes the story’s murder investigation as his “study in scarlet” — “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”

The story, and its main characters, attracted little public interest when it first appeared. Only 11 complete copies of the magazine in which the story first appeared, Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, are known to exist now and they have considerable value. Although Doyle wrote 56 short stories featuring Holmes, A Study in Scarlet is one of only four full-length novels in the original canon. The novel was followed by The Sign of the Four, published in 1890. A Study in Scarlet was the first work of detective fiction to incorporate the magnifying glass as an investigative tool.

I came to A Study in Scarlet in my mid teens, after I had read a number of the Holmes short stories. I won’t talk about the plot itself. You’ve either read it, in which case you know it, or you haven’t, in which case I won’t spoil it for you. When I first read it I was mystified by it for several reasons. For one, Holmes is initially described by Watson as a queer duck with very odd ideas. For example, he does not know anything about the motion of the earth and does not care to know:


My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.

When I first read this I was dumbfounded for all manner of reasons, and still find it ludicrous. Yes, Doyle wants us to see Holmes as brilliant but quirky. However, this description of him makes no sense. You can’t forget things at will; the brain is not like an expandable storage unit that can be filled; and you cannot guess ahead of time what information might be useful to you even though your profession is highly specialized. Incredibly intelligent and creative scientists, for example, have been known to take inspiration from all manner of seemingly unrelated spheres such as art and foreign travel.


Second, I was perplexed when the story broke off from the main narrative of capturing a murderer and shifted, without warning, to Mormons in Utah. In fact I stopped reading at this point because I thought this was a new story, and only picked up the book again some time later because I was out of reading material at the time, and discovered that this digression was, in fact, essential to the plot even though at first it seemed irrelevant. Doyle did the same thing in The Valley of Fear, but by then I was prepared, and soldiered on even though I find these “digressions” tedious and pointless. They disrupt the flow of the narrative for me. They also show a lack of understanding of the United States in the 19th century and are rather preposterous. I don’t like narratives that need a lengthy back story for explanation. Admittedly the one in The Valley of Fear is more engaging than the one in A Study in Scarlet, but it is still very farfetched.


Finding a recipe for Holmes is a challenge because his eating habits are largely absent from the books. If Holmes is true to form, eating is of no interest to him. Doyle certainly shows little interest in describing food in any of his writings. So I have to invent something. As I mentioned in my post on Doyle, the Beeton in Beeton’s Christmas Annual where A Study in Scarlet first appeared, was cookbook author, Isabella Beeton’s, husband. So a Beeton recipe is suitable. I have chosen boiled chicken with oysters simply because it is suitably Victorian. There are many cookbooks available now masquerading as the Sherlock Holmes Cookbook, but they are no more than collections of period recipes with no connexion to the Holmes stories, so I’ll follow suit. Oysters were popular in sauces and dishes in the Victorian period, in part because they were cheap and readily available. The combination of poultry and oysters is delectable. I first came across this combination when I was living and working on the coast of North Carolina where they routinely cooked turkey with an oyster stuffing for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Delightful.


Here’s Isabella Beeton’s recipe including some ever-charming notes. The twist here is that the bird is stuffed with fresh oysters, then stuffed into a large glass jar, which is immersed in boiling water to cook. In this way the bird does not come in contact with the water, and the cooking juices are preserved. Nowadays I would use a sealable boiling bag for the same effect.

SPACE FOR FOWLS.—We are no advocates for converting the domestic fowl into a cage-bird. We have known amateur fowl-keepers—worthy souls, who would butter the very barley they gave their pets, if they thought they would the more enjoy it—coop up a male bird and three or four hens in an ordinary egg-chest placed on its side, and with the front closely barred with iron hooping! This system will not do. Every animal, from man himself to the guinea-pig, must have what is vulgarly, but truly, known as “elbow-room;” and it must be self-evident how emphatically this rule applies to winged animals. It may be urged, in the case of domestic fowls, that from constant disuse, and from clipping and plucking, and other sorts of maltreatment, their wings can hardly be regarded as instruments of flight; we maintain, however, that you may pluck a fowl’s wing-joints as bare as a pumpkin, but you will not erase from his memory that he is a fowl, and that his proper sphere is the open air. If he likewise reflects that he is an ill-used fowl—a prison-bird—he will then come to the conclusion, that there is not the least use, under such circumstances, for his existence; and you must admit that the decision is only logical and natural.

BOILED FOWL, with Oysters.


  1. INGREDIENTS.—1 young fowl, 3 dozen oysters, the yolks of 2 eggs, 1/4 pint of cream.

Mode.—Truss a young fowl as for boiling; fill the inside with oysters which have been bearded and washed in their own liquor; secure the ends of the fowl, put it into a jar, and plunge the jar into a saucepan of boiling water. Keep it boiling for 1-1/2 hour, or rather longer; then take the gravy that has flowed from the oysters and fowl, of which there will be a good quantity; stir in the cream and yolks of eggs, add a few oysters scalded in their liquor; let the sauce get quite hot, but do not allow it to boil; pour some of it over the fowl, and the remainder send to table in a tureen. A blade of pounded mace added to the sauce, with the cream and eggs, will be found an improvement.

Time.—1-1/2 hour. Average cost, 4s. 6d.

Sufficient for 3 or 4 persons.

Seasonable from September to April.

THE FOWL-HOUSE.—In building a fowl-house, take care that it be, if possible, built against a wall or fence that faces the south, and thus insure its inmates against many cold winds, driving rains, and sleets they will otherwise suffer. Let the floor of the house slope half an inch to the foot from back to front, so as to insure drainage; let it also be close, hard, and perfectly smooth; so that it may be cleanly swept out. A capital plan is to mix a few bushels of chalk and dry earth, spread it over the floor, and pay a paviour’s labourer a trifle to hammer it level with his rammer. The fowl-house should be seven feet high, and furnished with perches at least two feet apart. The perches must be level, and not one above the other, or unpleasant consequences may ensue to the undermost row. The perches should be ledged (not fixed—just dropped into sockets, that they may be easily taken out and cleaned) not lower than five feet from the ground, convenient slips of wood being driven into the wall, to render the ascent as easy as possible. The front of the fowl-house should be latticed, taking care that the interstices be not wide enough even to tempt a chick to crawl through. Nesting-boxes, containing soft hay, and fitted against the walls, so as to be easily reached by the perch-ladder, should be supplied. It will be as well to keep by you a few portable doors, so that you may hang one before the entrance to a nesting-box, when the hen goes in to sit. This will prevent other hens from intruding, a habit to which some are much addicted.