Holmes: people versus puzzles


in Books and literature, Rants, Security

The sterling reputation of Sherlock Holmes as a detective is legitimately based upon a combination of a keen ability to reason from observation coupled with a high level of personal energy. Holmes is not above waiting for hours in the dark to catch his culprit, disguising himself for long spans of time in uncomfortable ways, or even living in a rough shelter on a rainy moor so that his client doesn’t know that he is close at hand and observing.

At the same time, it is worth pointing out that Holmes frequently subjects his clients to unnecessary danger, so as to satisfy his own curiosity about the precise nature of the peril they face. In “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, Holmes intentionally uses his client as bait, knowing full well that whatever danger he faces is capable of being fatal, since it already killed an escaped convict. In “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist”, Holmes repeatedly exposes his client to an unknown pursuer, who later turns out to be armed. In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”, Holmes leaves his client in the power of her violent stepfather, who he suspects of having killed her sister (though he does relocate the client on the night when he expects her assassination to occur). In “The Adventure of the Priory School”, Holmes leaves the son of the Duke of Holdernesse with his kidnappers for an unnecessary span of time, so that he can explain the manner in which he located him with maximum drama and in a way that earns him £6,000.

All this demonstrates the dangers of choosing a consulting detective who is obsessed with solving the puzzle, potentially at the expense of the welfare and safety of the client. Someone more inclined to precaution and less obsessed with solutions may be a better choice, for those who value their lives more highly than precise answers.

(As a separate criticism, Holmes sometimes allows murderers to go free because he personally approves of the murder they undertook most recently, for instance in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” and “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”. This may not be so commendable from a public safety standpoint.)

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

dp December 6, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Stories where he saves the client but never solves the puzzle would be rather boring, no?

Milan December 6, 2011 at 7:41 pm

In fairness, the victim in ‘Milverton’ definitely had it coming, and the murderer showed determination and class. Gunning down blackmailers and grinding your boot in their dead faces is a serious business, but doing it may not mean you are a danger to society.

oleh December 7, 2011 at 2:19 am

One feature of Holmes’ identity was that he was a private detective for hire. This provided him with the luxury of letting go murderers go free which a member of a public police force could not do, no matter how much they might want to. I could understand a polic force not expending its full resources on tracking down a murderer in a dispute between two organized crime gangs.

Milan December 9, 2011 at 7:49 pm

That would still be a good time to invest police resources in solving the crime, I think. For one thing, it might stave off a spiral of private revenge between the gangs.

oleh December 10, 2011 at 4:00 am

Solving the crime may not cost that much. General police insight into the gang activities, and informants and other tools can probably quickly lead the police into any cases to know the identity of the murderers or at least their gang affiliation relatively quickly within a reasonable belief.

It is the prosecution to the required standard of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” that costs excessive monies. Police and court costs of prosecuting gang members can be very draining on the public purse, with uncertain results. I would be OK with turning away from expending those costs.

Milan December 10, 2011 at 2:50 pm

I don’t think we should be skimping on the investigation and prosecution or murders, regardless of who the victims are or who we think the murderer may be.

If we want to reduce the cost of the legal system, it would be enormously more sensible to stop criminalizing drugs. That would also cut off a major source of revenue for organized crime groups.

Milan August 19, 2017 at 6:30 pm

Another slightly questionable practice of Arthur Conan Doyle is avoiding ambiguity through the use of criminals who conveniently happen to by dying. We’re spared from seeing what a British court would think of Jefferson Hope’s revenge quest in A Study in Scarlet, for example.

Similarly, the expectation of imminent death and a desire to avoid scandal (perhaps Holmes’ most questionable moral impulse, along with his automatic deference to the high-ranked) leave John Turner unpunished in The Boscombe Valley Mystery.

Sometimes this is addressed by Holmes or Watson saying that the guilty party will face a more demanding trial in the afterlife, but it’s awfully difficult to understand Holmes as a genuine man of faith.

Cas-9 December 29, 2018 at 4:32 pm

it’s awfully difficult to understand Holmes as a genuine man of faith

What about his behaviour seems to contradict “genuine” Christianity?

Milan January 3, 2019 at 5:27 pm

He does describe a belief in heavenly judgment and life after death at times, particularly in terms of comments about how dying criminals will soon need to face a higher court than the sort established by human beings.

At the same time, supernatural beliefs don’t seem to influence his day-to-day decision-making.

This post may be of interest: Did Sherlock Holmes Believe in God?

Milan January 9, 2019 at 3:34 pm

On Facebook Aaron Mize noted an especially egregious example:

In “The Five Orange Pips” he sends his client, John Openshaw, out alone and unprotected onto the streets of London with the knowledge that the Klan plan to kill him and are in London to carry out their plot. When he reads of his client’s death in the morning paper, he says, “I feared as much.”

Milan March 21, 2019 at 8:15 pm

The excellent blog An Observance of Trifles has some comments on this:

We have seen thus far many stories where Holmes does not turn in the perpetrator. In A Case of Identity, there was no crime committed, and Holmes also decided that it would be far too icky to tell his client that she was wooed by her own stepfather. In The Boscombe Valley Mystery, the murderer was dying, and Holmes made sure that he left a signed confession so no innocent party would be convicted. In The Blue Carbuncle, Holmes hadn’t been hired by the police, and chose to show holiday-inspired mercy to an inept thief who seemed unlikely to break the law again. In Beryl Coronet, Holmes allowed a blackguard to flee in order to protect his client–as well as one of England’s “highest, noblest, most exalted names”–from scandal. In Copper Beeches, Holmes did not turn in Rucastle for kidnapping–perhaps because his victim had escaped and eloped, perhaps because the detective thought getting mauled by a dog was punishment enough.

In The Naval Treaty, Holmes allowed Joseph to flee, in order to get the papers back, although he did wire Scotland Yard about him–but not until the next morning. In The Priory School, Sherlock was persuaded by a very wealthy man to allow the villain to get away (“no, really, he’s leaving the country and will reform!!”). He lied to the police about his knowledge of the murder of Charles Augustus Milverton, because the blackmailer had it coming (and to turn in the mysterious lady would have incriminated he and Watson for burglary!).

So, there have been plenty of times when Holmes has substituted his own judgement for that of the official legal system. It’s hardly a rare occurrence. Whether it is because he feels the criminal has been punished harshly enough, or in order to best protect his client, Holmes has shown little compunction about covering up the truth, and allowing criminals to go.

Re: The Abbey Grange the site points out:

Finally, Holmes himself seems less than firmly resolved to keep the police away from the truth. He tells Hopkins where the silver was, and tries to convince the inspector to accept the theory that it was a blind. This could only have led to the conclusion that Lady Brackenstall’s tale was not true, had Hopkins had the sense to use it. Holmes declaration at the end of the tale–“I have given Hopkins an excellent hint and if he can’t avail himself of it I can do no more”–does not sound like the attitude of a man who is convinced that he is morally right in this matter. It sounds more as if he is playing a game, rolling the 12-sided die for the fate of all involved.

Perhaps it makes a bit of sense given Holmes’ frequent view that if the police aren’t able to figure out a case he isn’t obligated to help them — “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies” — but this still seems quite random and cavalier.

Milan March 21, 2019 at 10:00 pm

Definitely one of Holmes most questionable decisions:

A violence-prone suitor who won’t take no for an answer, and follows her across continents, driving her into a state of fear and tension? This is the man in whose care Holmes left lady Carfax at he end of the story: “And here is someone who has a better right to nurse this lady than we have. Good morning, Mr. Green.”

GOOD GOD, MAN, HE’S HER STALKER!!!! He’s part of the reason she needs to be nursed!?!? What the hell, Sherlock?!?!?!?!

Another fair criticism:

We should also compare this tale with The Five Orange Pips, another story that I found underwhelming. When Sherlock never evens meets the villains, and has nothing to do with their final fate, we lose a fundamental sources of interest–seeing our hero confront the malefactors. Yet even in Pips, for all its weakness, Holmes at least did some detective work to figure out who the perpetrators were (probably), and took steps to ensure their capture. In Engineer’s Thumb, we’re even denied that. Despite the fact that we know this crew has murdered at least one person, Holmes does absolutely nothing to track them down, or even identify them. Essentially, he just shrugs and says, “Well, at least you have a nice story to tell at parties!” Talk about unsatisfying.

. May 22, 2019 at 5:59 pm

Excerpts from ‘Sherlock Holmes and his Times’

The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition: Literature, Politics, Belief, 1927–1929, ed. Frances Dickey, Jennifer Formichelli and Ronald Schuchard (Baltimore, 2015)

“But every writer owes something to Holmes. And every critic of The Novel who has a theory about the reality of characters in fiction, would do well to consider Holmes. There is no rich humanity, no deep and cunning psychology and knowledge of the human heart about him; he is obviously a formula. He has not the reality of any great character of Dickens or Thackeray or George Eliot or Meredith or Hardy; or Jane Austen or the Brontës or Virginia Woolf or James Joyce: yet, as I suggested, he is just as real to us as Falstaff or the Wellers.”

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