Antibody of Orthodoxy: Subversive/Conservative Holmes
It is a curious fact—but fact nonetheless—that elements in the story of the creation and reception of Sherlock Holmes approximately parallel elements of the plot and reception of Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein creates his monster by exhuming and appropriating body parts. Similarly, Holmes is also assembled from an assortment of parts: he is, as various critics have remarked, part Poe's Dupin, part Collins' Inspector Cuff, part Doyle's old professor Joe Bell, part Doyle himself. Frankenstein's monster is more passionately "human" in the book than the cold, emotionally repressed Victor and is eventually victorious in his struggle against his creator; in latter-day popular lore and usage, the monster's victory has been compounded by the fact that he has usurped his creator's name. Holmes has also effaced his creator. Everybody seems to know the story: the Irish eye-doctor's unexpected success with a character in a little-explored genre, the decision to kill Holmes in the Reichenbach Falls, the outbursts of public grief (young men wearing mourning bands in the streets, letters to Doyle beginning with "You brute!"), the harried author's reluctant decision to bring the detective back to life. And at least since the publication of Dorothy Sayers' essay "Dr. Watson's Christian Name" in 1946, it has been a staple of "Sherlockian" mock-criticism to treat Holmes and Watson as historical figures and to deny that Doyle actually wrote the stories.
Although this parallel is of course slightly fanciful, it serves to illustrate a point that I think is central to the Holmes canon. Much of Doyle criticism focuses on the ways in which Holmes embodies and defends Victorian order through his use of 'scientific method.' My goal in this essay is to raise questions about these claims. For the Holmes stories, like Mary Shelley's novel before them, are intensely concerned with the tense, anxiety-ridden relationship between science and ethics; between the epistemological framework of nineteenth century "natural philosophy" and its application in the arenas of political ideology and moral thought. Their effect is rather to complicate and question Victorian orthodoxy (especially where imperialism is concerned) than to reinforce it.
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So what does one make of Sherlock Holmes? The stories and novels, of course, seem to tell a clear enough tale. Holmes is repeatedly represented (and represents himself) as a model of objective rationality. From the very first description we get of him in A Study in Scarlet, the Great Detective
[...] is a little too scientific […] it approaches to cold-bloodedness. I could imagine him giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects. To do him justice, I think that he would take it himself with the same readiness. He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge. (Doyle, 1.7)
Later stories continue in this vein. For instance, in "A Scandal in Bohemia," Watson opens by saying that Holmes was "the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has ever seen […] he never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer" (Doyle, 3.1). In "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter," Watson tells us that "sometimes I found myself regarding him as an isolated phenomenon, a brain without a heart, as deficient in human sympathy as he was preeminent in intelligence" (Doyle, 4.184). The physical descriptions given by Watson are also calculated to reinforce this impression of ascetic, excessive, cerebrality; Holmes is "excessively lean" with "sharp and piercing" eyes in A Study in Scarlet (Doyle, 1.13); "lean" and "gaunt" in "The Boscombe Valley Mystery" (Doyle, 3.77); "thin and sinewy," "tall," and "spare" in "The Adventure of the Empty House" (367-8).
Naturally enough, most readers of Doyle take him (or Holmes/Watson, as the case may be) at his word. Stephen Knight writes in an influential essay, for example, that "he [Holmes] stands for science, that exciting new nineteenth century force in the public mind" (Knight, 55). Van Dover remarks, somewhat more specifically, that "The detective offered himself as a special model of the new scientific thinker; his distinction lay in his decision to apply the new method to concrete human problems rather than abstract mechanical problems" (Van Dover, 1). And it is undeniably true that Holmes often seems to voice much of the brash confidence of the science of the era. "From a drop of water," he writes in the article that is to propel him into partnership with Watson in A Study in Scarlet, "a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other […] all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it" (Doyle, 1.18). Later he elaborates his views in the case of "The Five Orange Pip
"the ideal reasoner," he remarked, "would, when he had once been shown a single fact in all its bearings, deduce from it not only all the chain of events which led up to it but also all the results which would follow from it. As Cuvier could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents should be able to accurately state all the other ones, both before and after. We have not yet grasped the results which the reasoner alone can attain to. Problems may be solved in the study which have baffled all those who have sought a solution by the aid of their senses. To carry the art, however, to its highest pitch, it is necessary that the reasoner should be able to utilize all the facts which have come to his knowledge; and this in itself implies, as you will readily see, a possession of all knowledge, which, even in these days of free education and encyclopedias, is a somewhat rare accomplishment. It is not impossible, however, that a man should possess all knowledge which is likely to be useful to him in his work, and this I have endeavoured in my case to do" (Doyle, 3.118-9).
Holmes's emphasis, and Doyle's, would seem to be on the organic, interconnected nature of the world, in which everything is arranged in a causal (and ultimately teleological) order--a claim that was codified quite early in the nineteenth century by Laplace, who claimed, in his "Essai Philosophique sur les Probabilitiés" (1814), that "the present state of the physical universe is the effect of its past state and the cause of the one to follow, so that an intelligence in possession of all the data and great enough to analyze it would both know past and future with perfect certainty" (Chapple, 48). Supporting Laplace's claim was, first, the newly discovered science of thermodynamics, the first law of which posits that "energy is neither gained nor lost in operation, only transformed into some equivalent form. The energy of the whole system remains constant" (Chapple, 45)--that is to say, that the universe is a vast, but ultimately closed, and therefore quantifiable and predictable system. And the yet more recently formulated theory of evolution by natural selection could also be marshalled to the defense of Laplace, since the entire history of life, although of "infinite complexity" in the "relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence" (Darwin, 127) was shown to be driven by a Malthusian law of scarcity of resources and survival of the fittest: "all past and present organic beings constitute one grand natural system […] intelligible on the theory of natural selection with its contingencies of extinction and divergence of character" (Darwin, 386). As Gillian Beer writes: 'it is its [Darwin"s theory"s] ability to propose a total system for understanding the organization of the natural world which has been its most powerful influence' (Beer, 16). It is what enables Matthew Arnold to write that, although science has been "a divider and a separatist […] dissipating dreams of a premature and impossible unity, […] true science […] recognizes in the bottom of her soul a law of ultimate fusion, of conciliation" (Arnold, in Chapple, 129).
These overarching narratives of determinism and organic unity--what Deleuze and Guattari call "arborial logic" (Darwin's favorite metaphor for the history of evolution is the tree)--are mirrored in Holmes's own work of detection, in which he gathers clues (seemingly isolated events), reads them as signs, and organizes them into coherent narratives--"a chain of logical sequences without a break or flaw" (Doyle, 1.142). Doyle's detective fictions, in this view at least, are thus best read as narratives of scientific optimism (appropriately enough, Doyle was born in the same year that The Origin of Species was published), in which the hero is able to apply the methods and narratives of science to the realm of human interaction; the realm of society and morals. As Van Dover writes: "the detective is the timely figure who makes the argument in popular literature […] that scientific method can serve a moral function and that the common man can comprehend the method of scientific thinking" (Van Dover, 9). Holmes's "deduction," then, is a science, but also an ideology.
It is a kind of panopticism. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that the formation of a body of scientific knowledge goes hand in hand with the development of "disciplinary power" that is "exercised through its invisibility; [while] at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility [… which] assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them" (Foucault, 187). Seemingly omniscient in his omni-scientific competence, Holmes can thus be read as the personification of the surveillance mechanism necessary for the continuing existence of the state. Gillis writes that
the rise of the detective narrative in the nineteenth century must be viewed in relation to the conjunction of the particular discourses of justice, the body and capital that emerged at the point […] 'The growth of penology, criminology, urban sanitation and social medicine is a response to crowding on the part of the urban middle class, which sought a greater social control and surveillance over the body'
The detective is a kind of technician of the judicial code. He is representative of the invisible disciplinary power that replaces the traditional form of power that was (again, according to Foucault), prior to the seventeenth century, always visibly manifested, most notably through the spectacle of the criminal body directly tortured by the executioner.
The reading of Holmes as the personification of omniscient/omnipotent disciplinary power is, in many ways, undeniably justified by many passages in the canon of the Holmes stories. One need only remember, for example, how often Holmes is able to solve his cases by becoming effectively invisible, while his enemies remain exposed. In "The Case of the Dying Detective," for example, he is able to entrap his foe by pretending to be dying. In "The Final Problem," he and Watson disappear off of a moving train, and watch gleefully as Moriarty passes them by, in hot pursuit of the empty vehicle. In "The Empty House," and "The Mazarin Stone," Holmes fools his enemies by substituting a life-like wax bust for himself, while he remains lurking in the shadows, or behind a curtain (not to mention the two year hiatus in which he pretends to be dead in order to throw his enemies off the track!). In The Hound of the Baskervilles, he pretends to be in London, whereas in reality he is on the moor, watching every move of both his friends and his enemies. In "A Scandal in Bohemia," he is bested only because Irene Adler is able to see through his disguise, and able to don a disguise of her own that is impenetrable even to his trained eyes. And from the very first, in the Study in Scarlet, he lets the police take the credit for his work, imbuing them with a measure of his power. Holmes prefers to remain unseen and unknown, thus functioning to reinforce the official economy of state power.
This reading is further reinforced when one takes into consideration the fact that the economy of power it hypothesizes was precisely the kind of power-dynamic that made it possible (along with theories of Darwinian evolution) for Doyle's contemporary (and later fellow-Spiritualist) Cesare Lombroso, the Italian criminologist, to develop his theories of the "criminal type" which, although Clausen makes claims to the contrary, appear in the Holmes canon in incarnation after incarnation. Lombroso argues that "the congenital criminal is an [evolutional] anomaly, partly pathological and partly atavistic, a revival of the primitive savage" (Lombroso, xii). This can be manifested in "savage" cultural leanings: for example, when Lombroso encounters a ruffianly soldier, he writes: "I was struck by a characteristic that distinguished the honest soldier from his vicious comrade: the extent to which the latter was tatooed and the indecency of the designs that covered his body" (Lombroso, xii). But more often the criminal tendency is, according to Lombroso, manifest in physiognomy. Having applied "the experimental method to the study" (Lombroso, xiii), Lombroso finds that the criminal "reproduces, in civilized times [ , ] characteristics, not only of primitive savages, but of still lower types as far back as the carnivora" (Lombroso-Ferrero, 6-7). The criminal—or, at any rate, latent criminal tendency—is made physically visible.
The rhetoric of visible "criminal" characteristics go hand in hand with a racialist/imperialist hierarchy of "type" that amplifies Darwin's rhetoric from the Origin. For Darwin, of course, makes imperialism and racialism a law of nature when he writes that the "natural system is a genealogical arrangement, in which we […] discover the lines of descent by the most permanent characters, however slight their vital importance maybe" (Darwin, 387); that there is a "preponderant migration from north to south […] due to […] the northern forms having existed in their own homes in greater numbers, and having consequently been advanced through natural selection and competition to a higher state of perfection […] than the southern forms […] and have [thus] beaten the natives" (Darwin, 306-7, emphasis added). Criminality according to Lombroso is in fact almost completely a kind of atavism; a mis-firing of natural selection, in which the characteristics of violent and extinct species have survived.
Tellingly, the three major villains of the Holmesian canon conform to this model of criminality as atavism: Moriarty, with his reptilian body language ("The Final Problem"); Colonel Moran, who is "quite like a tiger," and "represents in his development the whole procession of his ancestors, […with] such a sudden turn to […] evil [ , ] stand[ing] for some strong influence which came into the line of his pedigree […] the person becom[ing], as it were, the epitome of the history of his own family" ("The Empty House," 375); and Stapleton (The Hound of the Baskervilles) who is the twin of his evil ancestor Hugo. Even lesser figures of the Holmesian rogue's gallery, such as Blessington (from "The Resident Patient": he has the cheeks of a "bloodhound" Doyle, 4.174), the "mean looking, middle aged man" of "The Greek Interpreter" (Doyle, 4.193), the cockroach-killing child from "The Copper Beeches" (Doyle, 4.293), the monkey-serum-taking Professor Presley from "The Creeping Man," and the pathologically jealous and effeminate Jack from "The Sussex Vampire"--possess degenerate or atavistic traits that are manifested visibly as physiognomical or behavioral cues, alerting the guardian(s) of empire and disciplinary power to their presence, and eventually ensure their own defeat. And Moran and Stapleton, at least, along with Dr. Grimesby Roylott of "The Speckled Band," are products of British colonies; dangerous because they can pass for normal Englishmen, but have the bestial natures assigned in criminal anthropology to the colonial Other. No wonder that Thompson argues that
Conan Doyle's detective fiction is distinctive in its valorization of empirical values and imperialism. He was one of the great Victorian apologists of empire […] in Conan Doyle's detective fiction, once individuals are designated as cultural 'others' by virtue of being foreign, lower-class, or simply female, they are scarcely characterized at all or are only handled in the most stereotypical fashion. (Thompson, 68-9)
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But to paraphrase what Gillian Beer writes of Darwin, "the story [of Holmes …] prove[s] not to be single or simple. It [is], rather, capable of being extended or reclaimed into a number of conflicting systems" (Beer, 5). A number of clues scattered throughout the text of the Holmesian canon allow us to theorize a Holmes who is less single-mindedly an agent of the existing system of science and panoptic order; or to theorize a system of science and panoptic order that is continually threatened by the very ideas and institutions that allow it to exist--a portrait, in Doyle's fiction, of a Victorian era that is more fractured than it can bear to imagine. On the surface level of the stories, of course, Holmes is, as we've already seen, the invincible semiotician and omniscient flaneur who "reads" the text of modern urban life; "reads" class signifiers; 'reads' cigarette ash, boots, calluses, physiognomy; knows every aspect of London like the back of his hand. But on a deeper, non-obvious level, an implied self-critique runs throughout the stories.
Holmes himself, despite the critical consensus that he defends orthodoxy, is portrayed as being intensely heterodox and (perhaps unintentionally) subversive. "A Scandal in Bohemia," for example, opens with Watson remarking that Holmes "loathed every form of society with his whole soul" (Doyle, 3.1). He has, as he says in "The Five Orange Pips," no friends but Watson; Watson, similarly, doesn"t seem to have too many friends of his own. And although Watson marries Mary Morstan of The Sign of Four, and moves out of Baker Street for a while, his wife quickly fades into the background, leaving Watson queerly (the pun is only semi-intentional) free to spend most of his time with Holmes. And despite Holmes"s insistence that 'detection is […] an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner' (Doyle, 2.5), Holmes is an artist, every bit as much as he is a scientist. The 'somewhat fantastic title' of A Study in Scarlet is, of course, of Holmes"s own devising, and would be wholly appropriate as the title of a painting. In "The Speckled Band," Watson notes that Holmes worked 'for the love of his art' (Doyle, 3.179); in "The Copper Beeches" Holmes himself claims that he is one who 'loves art for its own sake' (Doyle, 3.288). Moreover, Holmes"s skill with disguise hints at something behind his façade of cold objectivity: "It was not merely that Holmes changed his costume. His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed. The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime" (Doyle, 3.18). This theatrical bent also extends to his behavior, as when Holmes serves poor Percy Phelps his lost naval treaty on a dinner plate (Doyle, "The Naval Treaty," 468), or when he makes Watson faint 'for the first and the last time in [his] life' by coming back from the dead (Doyle,
"The Empty House," 366); not to mention his notable penchant for verbal repartee. Thus Barrie Haynes writes that "Holmes certainly is a recognizable bohemian, and belongs to the same aesthetic movement as Wilde" (Haynes, 150), while Barolsky similarly notes that "Holmes is a closet aesthete" (Barolsky, 92). The rooms at 221B Baker Street may be, as Kim Herzinger suggests, the objective correlative for the 'whole set of values and assumptions and emotions which animated that homogenous world [of late Victorian England]' (Herzinger, 113-4) but just look at what they contain: 'all the plugs and dottles left from his smokes of the day before, all carefully dried and collected on the corner of the mantelpiece' ("The Engineer"s Thumb," Doyle, 3.213); 'cigars in the coal scuttle […] tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper […] unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jack knife […] a patriotic V.R. done in bullet pocks […] chemicals […] criminal relics […] in the butter dish […] bundles of manuscript' (Doyle, 4.95-6). The Persian slipper, along with other self-indulgent eccentricities, in fact, serve to hint at a connection between Holmes"s rooms and Thaddeus Sholto"s more ostentatiously eccentric (in the form of extreme Orientalist luxury) rooms in The Sign of Four.
And although, to all appearances, Holmes is a champion of Progress, he is also a nostalgic embodiment of chivalry; an atavism himself—even bearing a physical resemblance, in his lanky height, to Don Quixote (like another Doyle creation, Sir John Roxton of The Lost World). Doyle's own favorite among his works, after all, was his historical novel The White Company, along with its prequel Sir Nigel--and Sherlock's anachronistic knightliness is an obvious subtext of the stories, both when one considers the number of damsels-in-distress who come to him as clients or appear in the course of the plot, and when one considers his relationship with Watson in terms of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. The ladies of The Sign of Four speak sooth:
"it is a romance!" cried Mrs. Forrester. "an Injured Lady, half a million in treasure, a black cannibal, and a wooden-legged ruffian. They take the place of the conventional dragon or wicked earl."
"And two knight-errants to the rescue," added Miss Morstan, with a bright glance at me."(Doyle, 2.79)
Holmes rights wrongs, saves the undertrodden, clears men's names, shows mercy to wrongdoers as he sees fit, adhering to a code of conduct that belongs to an earlier era. In "The Greek Interpreter" he even attributes his own intellectual prowess to heredity: the "art in the blood" (from his French grandmother) that takes "the strangest forms" (Doyle, 4.185). Scientific and social progress is thus portrayed in terms of the continuity of tradition. The past is neither superseded nor extinct. It merely changes form—and sometimes the older forms are better. Thus bureaucracy regularly makes mistakes, as seen , again, in "The Adventure of The Naval Treaty," or in the regular blunders of the Lestrades and Gregsons and Athelney Joneses, and it is left to Holmes, the unorthodox loner, aesthete, anachronism, and part-foreigner, to mop things up. As Clausen puts it:
Holmes does more than simply satisfy his clients or uphold the abstractions of the law. He single-handedly defends an entire social order. (Clausen, 72).
This is, however, far from the only critique of Victorian orthodoxy hidden away in the Holmes canon. For instance, in the story of The Five Orange Pips, the very story where Holmes most vocally aspires (with more than a touch, we can now see, of hubris) to Laplacean omniscience, he is chastened, first by his failure to save his client, and then by the stochastic nature of the universe itself. Although Holmes is immediately able to identify the persecutors of John Openshaw as the undesirably foreign Ku Klux Klan, he makes a fatal mistake in sending his client unescorted to the railway station, and the young man is murdered. And although Holmes determines to avenge his client's death on the KKK by using their own methods of terror, sending them the five orange pips that are the sign of their power,
There is ever a flaw […] in the best laid of human plans, and the murderers of John Openshaw were never to receive the orange pips which would show them that another, as cunning and as resolute as themselves, was upon their track. Very long and very severe were the equinoctial gales that year. We waited long for news of the Lone Star of Savannah, but none ever reached us. We did at last hear that somewhere far out in the Atlantic a shattered sternpost of the boat was seen swinging in the trough of a wave, with the letters "L.S." carved upon it, and that is all which we shall ever know of the fate of the Lone Star. (Doyle, 3.126).
Significantly, the tables are turned on Holmes in this story. Holmes is, as we have seen, normally the one who is invisible, the one who sees everything, and who is himself never seen. Holmes observes clues, uncovers crimes, discovers criminals, hunts and tracks threatening influences, exposes injustice, while continually concealing and disguising himself. But in "The Five Orange Pips" the murders are reported as accidents; they leave no trace. In the case of John Openshaw's father's death, "there were no signs of violence, no footmarks, no robbery, no record of strangers having been seen upon the roads" (Doyle, 3.114); in the case of John himself, "the body exhibited no traces of violence, and there can be doubt that the deceased had been the victim of an unfortunate accident" (Doyle, 3.123). Holmes never sees the scene of either crime. Although he manages to discover the names of the Klan members, no description is ever given of the villains; there is no denouemént, no final discovery, nor still a final and definite proof of foul play. The "mysterious and inexplicable chain of events" (Doyle, 3.109) are never contained/explained fully: it is, as Watson says, one of the few Holmes's cases that "have their explanations founded rather upon conjecture and surmise than on that absolute logical proof which was so dear to him" (Doyle, 3.105). Holmes may be "the last court of appeal' (Doyle, 3.108), but he, too, can be thwarted, trumped by an invisible power that even he cannot expose fully, whether it be God, nature, or a secret society. Panoptic power is only powerful against what it can see; it is powerless, therefore, against itself, or another version of itself that draws power from its own internal contradictions.
Again, the science of the time must factor into our discussion. The scientific ideas and ideologies that make both Victorian orthodoxy and Holmes"s work possible and plausible—the first law of thermodynamics, with its corollary of cosmic determinism and teleological flow; the theory of evolution that applies that teleology to the world of living things; the criminal anthropology that uses evolutionary teleology to justify imperialist/racialist orthodoxy—all of these have, as it were, uncanny doubles. That is to say, they carry pessimistic implications in addition to the optimistic implications that critics associate with Holmes. The first law of thermodynamics, for example, is, as Chapple points out,
'accompanied by an odious twin, the second law of thermodynamics, which proclaims the ultimate exhaustion of useful energy. Mechanical work may produce an exact equivalent in heat, but not the reverse. Heat is one-directional in nature. It passes from a warmer to a colder body without difficulty, but to make a cold body colder, more energy has to be expended than is actually gained. If the second law is applied to the known universe as a whole, we are presented with a scientific image of the promised end, the horror of an earth unfit for human life […] the so-called 'heat-death of the universe,' the end of organic life through irreversible physical processes […] sometimes expressed through the concept of 'entropy,' Clausisus's measure of the unavailability of thermal energy in a system" (Chapple, 45-6).
The 'laws' of thermodynamics allow us to view the universe in terms of structures of opposing extremes—the hot and the cold, the high and the low. These oppositions are important because, without them, there is no potential energy, no motion, no exchange, no life. Hierarchy is thus an essential part of the universe. It is the very same kind of structure that is adopted by Darwinian narrative, which moves life-forms 'up' the hierarchy towards increasing complexity and sophistication. Simultaneously, however, thermodynamics predicts its own death; the second law is a law of the dissolution of hierarchy, of increasing dis-organization and degeneration, in which structures become increasingly simple, useless; in which, eventually, there is no 'dynamic' at all. As Slusser points out, the first effect of an intellectual endeavor that is directed towards the understanding and control of phenomena, or 'primal forces,' as Slusser calls them, is to reveal precisely how much is beyond one"s control. Thus science awakens the fear of "an unleashing of the uncontrollable,' and the certainty that the 'pursuit of innovation [leads] paradoxically to [the] resurgence of some horrible primitive past" (Slusser, 251).
This is precisely what happens in The Sign of Four. The opening chapter of the book is called, with unconscious irony, "The Science of Deduction": the readers of A Study in Scarlet expect to be treated to yet another demonstration of the "exact science" of detection, employed in the services of orthodoxy. From the very beginning, however, Doyle maps out the shadowy side of Holmes's scientific ability:
Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.
Holmes's use of the famous "seven-percent solution" shows us the champion of progress methodically using the tools of progress towards a "pathological and morbid" end (Doyle, 2.4). The hypodermic syringe, with its "tiny piston" recalling the engines of the industrial revolution, lets Holmes indulge his vice of "self-poisoning" with sinister precision and efficiency. When, therefore, Holmes shortly after reprimands Watson for mixing romance into his account of "scientific" detection--for working, as it were, "a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid" (Doyle, 2.5)--his authority is undercut. We are not surprised when Holmes unconsciously reveals his own romantic bent a few pages later:
Stand at the window here. Was ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world? See how the yellow fog swirls down the street and drifts across the dun-colored houses. What could be more hopelessly prosaic and material? (Doyle, 2.11)
Watson, characteristically, sees both more and less than Holmes. As they ride with Miss Mary Morstan towards their rendezvous with her unknown benefactor, the same urban landscape becomes a powerful trope for the alienation, transience, and desolation of modern life, prefiguring T.S. Eliot:
"a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud colored clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets […] the yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghostlike in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light--sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all humankind, they flitted from the gloom into the light and so back into the gloom once more" (Doyle, 2.21).
Watson, who has been wounded in Afghanistan by a "jezail bullet" (although, notoriously, he seems to forget which part of his body has been wounded--in some stories he speaks of a wound in his shoulder, near his collar bone; in The Sign of Four, it is his "tendo Achillis"), is able to make the imaginative leap that associates such desolation with imperialism when he sees
"rows of two-storied villas, each with a fronting of miniature garden, and then again interminable lines of new, staring brick buildings--the monster tentacles which the giant city was throwing out into the country" (Doyle, 2.23)
Appropriately, this very district is their destination, and even more appropriately, it is a site of hidden Orientalist luxury and splendor, the apartment of Thaddeus Sholto:
[…] at the third house in a new terrace […] the door was instantly thrown open by a Hindoo servant, clad in a yellow turban, white loose-fitting clothes, and a yellow sash. There was something strangely incongruous in this Oriental figure framed in the commonplace doorway of a third-rate suburban dwelling-house" (Doyle, 2.24).
Thaddeus Sholto himself is represented as somewhat less than masculine: prematurely bald, and something of a hypochondriac, he has a "high, piping voice" (Doyle, 2.24). At one point Watson feels a desire to slap the poor man silly. Urban expansion is linked with imperialism; both, the text seems to hint, creates monsters--the monstrous city itself, and the monstrously effete aesthete Sholto.
And soon we are to see that it creates even more monstrous things. After Thaddeus tells the adventurers of the discovery of the great Agra treasure, to which Mary Morstan has, apparently, some claim, they go to Norwood, to convince Thaddeus's twin brother Bartholomew to give Mary what is hers by right. Bartholomew is, however, dead:
Looking straight at me and suspended, as it were, in the air, for all beneath was in shadow, there hung a face--the very face of our companion Thaddeus. There was the same high, shining head, the same circular bristle of read hair, the same bloodless countenance. The features were set, however, in a horrible smile, a fixed and unnatural grin"
Bartholomew is Thaddeus's own shadow side, who shares Thaddeus's Orientalist tendencies in a more acquisitive, actively imperialist way. His house, Pondicherry Lodge, serves as an illustration of his character in comparison to his brother's:
A gravel path wound through desolate grounds to a huge clump of a house, square and prozaic […] the vast size of the building, with its gloom and deathly silence, struck a chill to the heart.
Bartholomew's house is bleak (I venture to guess that it is probably a deliberate echo of Dickens; both from Bleak House, and Miss Havisham's mansion from Great Expectations) and monolithic, the grounds covered with rubbish heaps where the brothers have been digging for their father's buried treasure. And the agent of Bartholomew's death, Holmes discovers, is a savage straight out of Lombroso: a cannibal from the Andaman Islands, "fierce, morose, and intractable" (Doyle, 2.76), "naturally hideous, having [a] large misshappen head, small fierce eyes, and distorted features" (Doyle, 2.76).
This stereotypical savage is, however, employed by one Jonathan Small, who has, significantly, also been wounded in the leg while serving in the military on an imperialist campaign. Small has been in the colonies longer than Watson--almost as long as Harry Wood from "The Crooked Man"--and has acquired, in addition to his deformed and cannibalistic Man Friday Tonga, some "savage" characteristics of his own: a bearded, hairy face, with wild cruel eyes and an expression of concentrated malevolence" (Doyle, 2.31). Indeed, Small's very name serves to associate him with his dwarfish companion. But the matching wounds of Watson and Small are suggestive, particularly when we remember that (as mentioned above) the location of Watson's wound has mysteriously moved from its earlier place near Watson's clavicle, in A Study in Scarlet. Doyle seems to be taking pains to suggest that the practice of imperial power always leaves its mark; that the cruelties of imperialism are contagious, inscribing themselves in the subject, whether he be colonizer or colonized, forming a logical, causal chain of hideous violence. The Indian rebels of the Mutiny--the "black devils" (Doyle, 2.110) described by Jonathan Small--are, after all, the "picked men" of the English, "whom we [the English] had taught and trained, handling [English] weapons and blowing [English] bugle calls" (Doyle, 2.111).
It is a measure of the true complexity of the Holmesian canon that Sherlock Holmes himself is not exempt from this critique; that he is, indeed, continually shown to be implicated in precisely such a chain. For Holmes himself in The Sign of Four takes on some sinister attributes: he mirrors that which he stalks. When baffled in the hunt, Holmes uses mongrel dogs and "street Arabs"(Doyle, 2.74) to search for his prey. When investigating the scene of Bartholomew's murder, Holmes re-enacts the sequence of events, going so far as to trace Small and Tonga's route on the rooftop of Pondicherry Lodge: "I ought to be able to come down where he could climb up" (Doyle, 2.59). And he finally finds the fugitives by completely identifying himself with Small: "I […] put myself in [his] place and looked at it as a man of his capacity would […] I wondered what I should do myself if I were in his shoes" (Doyle, 2.92). Most suggestively of all, Watson, watching him work, is struck by more fear than admiration:
So swift, silent and furtive were his movements, like those of a trained bloodhound picking out a scent, that I could not but think what a terrible criminal he would have made had he turned his energy and sagacity against the law instead of exerting them in its defense
Holmes may be the immune system of empire, but he works as an antibody that is able to combat disease only because it partakes of its nature. In "The Adventure of the Empty House," he traps Colonel Moran by using a stratagem taken from the big-game hunter's own bag of tricks. Holmes's description of Moriarty in "The Final Problem,"
"He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he know well every quiver of each of them,"
can and should be applied to Holmes himself, as Watson shows us in the case of "The Resident Patient":
"He loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, with his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour or suspicion of unsolved crime"
As Haynes writes: "these villains are all doubles, alter egos of Holmes, the great upholder of the law who might have been a criminal, and his purging of society of these villains is premised on his projection of his dark side on to them" (Haynes, 156). Holmes--far from being a simple champion of Victorian orthodoxy, stability, science, and empire--exists (and prospers) only because all of those concepts are flawed.
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