The final episode of the first seasons of the British Sherlock showed (in rebroadcast) this past weekend; yesterday, I finished reading A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes story (a novella).
A Study in Scarlet is certainly an odd beast. Like The Hound of the Baskervilles, which I read more than 30 years ago, it's structured like a typical Holmes story but expends much more energy and time on the backstory to the mystery (and allows Holmes himself more room to be annoyingly voluble in his explanations). For Hound, you get the tale of the Baskerville clan, which is rife with intrigue. For Scarlet, you get a story of a dying man and child in the American West, an fortuitous (at least initially) encounter with Utah-bound Latter-Day Saints, and a slow-developing story of nefarious Mormons and long-term revenge. This backstory takes up the entire second half of the tale and, likely because Conan Doyle is unmoored from his usual scenic harbor, the prose becomes forcedly poetic and unconvincing. It's not bad writing, but it draws attention to itself the way prose shouldn't, as an attempt to tell me something. The landscape is mostly believable; the way the Mormons talk seems highly unlikely (they're like unhinged Amish without a sense of humor . . . which I suppose is possible); and the story itself, though it shifts protagonists, turns out to a good one. The problem comes when one returns to the mystery itself, which feels somewhat flat.
The first Sherlock episode, "A Study in Pink," picks up on one element of the tale, the poison pill, and makes that the center of both the mystery and the murderer's thinking. The ending plays out a bit stiffly (oh, the difficulty of third acts), somewhat like a comic book conclusion in its fragile motivations, but it's held together by strong performances. The third ep, "The Great Game," actually uses other elements from A Study in Scarlet, including Watson's complaint that Holmes doesn't know the Earth revolves around the sun, but it also (confusingly, if one knows the stories) tosses in references to several other Holmes tales, which left me struggling to follow the plot. (Near as I could tell, the second episode didn't draw on any Conan Doyle stories directly.) The conclusion included an incredibly tense confrontation with Moriarty (by a pool rather than a waterfall). Actor Andrew Scott (and the writer) takes the character into the psychotic realm, his voice not tied to the content of his words, his emotions wildly meandering from context. Great great fun.