I gave serious thought to subtitling this post: “The Six Lives of Sherlock Holmes,” but it sounded a bit too much like a bad cable television drama for my liking, even if Sherlock Holmes himself had a well-documented appreciation of sensational literature. Throughout the canon, Sherlock Holmes serves in many capacities, and is many things to many people. Sometimes the list of descriptors is not so flattering, as in “The Speckled Band,” when the villainous Dr. Grimesby Roylott says to Holmes: “You are Holmes, the meddler…Holmes, the busybody…Holmes, the Scotland Yard Jack-in-office!” On the other hand, some are flattering to the point of sounding obsequious, such as when Inspector Stanley Hopkins, in “Black Peter,” tells Holmes: “…I should never have forgotten that I am the pupil and you are the master.”
There are a multitude of planes and facets to Sherlock Holmes and his personality. Some traits are quite clear and distinct, while some are as subtle and elusive as “trying to catch an arrow in mid-flight.” And more often than not, many of Holmes’s characteristics are difficult to reconcile with each other, such as how a “perfect reasoning and observing machine” (SCAN) can also play his violin with the sensitivity and grace to lull his friend to sleep (SIGN). Sherlock Holmes describes the case detailed in “The Six Napoleons” as “absolutely original in the history of crime,” but even more interesting is the variety of personality traits he presents to the reader within the tale. Each trait is distinct and unique, but ultimately, dependent upon each other to create the complete picture of Sherlock Holmes that Dr. Watson presents in this instance.
1. The Homebody: SIXN opens on what is actually a very charming, domestic scene: Holmes, Watson, and Inspector Lestrade seated around the fire at 221B Baker Street, smoking cigars and discussing the news and weather. Moreover, Watson informs the reader that this is not the first such visit that the inspector has made and “It was no very unusual thing for Mr. Lestrade, of Scotland Yard, to look in upon us of an evening, and his visits were welcome to Sherlock Holmes…” Later, before the trio ventures out on a late-night visit to Chiswick, Holmes invites Lestrade to rest on the sofa until the proper time, and it is all very friendly and comfortable, with Holmes giving off the impression of a king governing from his favorite armchair, secure in his domain.
Furthermore, Inspector Lestrade’s visits serve another purpose, in that Lestrade keeps Holmes up-to-date on the latest news from Scotland Yard and specifically, any details of the cases on which the inspector is currently engaged. The Detective, in turn, “…was able occasionally, without any active interference, to give some hint or suggestion drawn from his own vast knowledge and experience.” While it goes without saying that Sherlock Holmes was an incredibly active man, who would occasionally go to any extreme to solve a case, SIXN also shows the side of Holmes that was sometimes content to solve crimes from his armchair, in front of his fire.
2. The Relentless Pursuer: One of the victims of SIXN is Mr. Horace Harker, who works for the Central Press Syndicate. After Harker’s Napoleon bust is stolen, and a man is murdered on his front step, Holmes has Inspector Lestrade tell Harker that clearly “…a dangerous homicidal lunatic, with Napoleonic delusions, was in his house last night.” Holmes conveys this opinion even though he personally believes no such thing. More importantly, Holmes knows that Harker intends to write-up the story for the evening press, and now this piece of fraudulent and ill-thought-out information will likely appear in print. When the item does indeed appear in the newspaper, Holmes famously says, “The Press, Watson, is a most valuable institution, if you only know how to use it.” According to Leslie Klinger’s New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, this is “…perhaps the first recorded instance of deliberate manipulation of the news…” (1033).
But this is not the first example of Holmes in relentless pursuit of his own ends. Periodically throughout the canon, Holmes has been known to impersonate a member of the clergy (SCAN), break into homes (CHAS, BRUC), and even allow a criminal to go free, if he felt the crime did not warrant whatever consequences loomed (BLUE). He even once required Watson to serve as a makeshift jury, while he served as judge in a mock trial (ABBE). Sherlock Holmes typically operates with his own goals and ends in mind. Sometimes those ends work fortuitously with the goals of others, but that is merely an added bonus, rather than an intended purpose.
3. The Attack Dog: When he finally has the notorious Beppo cornered, Sherlock Holmes is not satisfied with any subtle or modest method of capture. Watson claims that Beppo was perfectly intent upon and consumed with smashing his stolen statue and combing through the debris, so it is possible that the criminal could have been cornered and captured quietly, as he was outnumbered and outmaneuvered. But instead, “With the bound of a tiger Holmes was on his back, and an instant later Lestrade and I had him by either wrist, and the handcuffs had been fastened.” Illustrations of the scene sometimes show Holmes pinning Beppo firmly to the ground, his body sprawled entirely over him, giving no quarter. It is no wonder that Watson describes the man as having, “...a hideous, sallow face, with writhing, furious features, glaring up at us…” If in that position, most people would probably look similarly furious—criminal or no.
The canon is full of examples of Sherlock Holmes’s physical prowess. He is an accomplished boxer, singlestick fighter, and fencer. Perhaps most famous is his knowledge of the Japanese art of baritsu [sic], a skill he uses to fend off Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. But these skills are all just part and parcel of Holmes’s personality: if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well, but also worth doing spectacularly. Holmes could have easily taken out Moriarty with a pistol or a knife on that mountain in Switzerland, but why would he do that when he could physically clash with his archenemy, twisting him under his own hands, before throwing him, screaming, over the falls? Holmes isn’t just a physical man—as his capture of Beppo shows—he is a dramatic one, a characteristic that is also demonstrated elsewhere in the story.
4. The Dramatist: The Great Detective has a sense of humor that could occasionally be described as “ill-timed,” or even cruel. For example, rather than simply producing the sensitive government treaty that he had been hired to retrieve (the loss of which had driven one man to illness), Holmes requests that Mrs. Hudson hide it under a breakfast dish for their client to find (NAVA). And while it’s been discussed elsewhere that Holmes’s “old bookseller” costume from EMPT was necessary for a number of safety and logistical reasons, the dramatic method in which he revealed himself to Watson probably was not. Such is the case in SIXN after Holmes acquires the final Napoleon bust from Mr. Sandeford:
“When our visitor had disappeared, Sherlock Holmes’s movements were such as to rivet our attention. He began by taking a clean white cloth from a drawer and laying it over the table. Then he placed his newly acquired bust in the centre of the cloth. Finally, he picked up his hunting-crop and struck Napoleon a sharp blow on the top of the head. The figure broke into fragments, and Holmes bent eagerly over the shattered remains. Next instant, with a loud shout of triumph he held up one splinter, in which a round, dark object was fixed like a plum in a pudding.”
I suppose a simple, “Don’t mind me, but I think a rare, stolen pearl is embedded in this plaster bust so I’m going to smash it apart with a hunting crop,” would have been out of the question here? As Holmes once said, “I begin to think, Watson…that I make a mistake in explaining. 'Omne ignotum pro magnifico,' you know, and my poor little reputation, such as it is, will suffer shipwreck if I am so candid” (REDH). Holmes made that statement in 1890, and by 1900 when SIXN takes place, his reputation as a dramatist is firmly established. This goes a long way towards explaining why Watson and Lestrade are pleasantly surprised, but not shocked, by Holmes’s dramatic revelation.
5. The Peer: And on the subject of surprises, Inspector Lestrade has one up his own sleeve before the case is over. After enthusiastically applauding Holmes’s grand reveal and intricate explanation, Lestrade says:
“I’ve seen you handle a good many cases, Mr. Holmes, but I don’t know that I ever knew a more workmanlike one than that. We’re not jealous of you at Scotland Yard. No, sir, we are very proud of you, and if you come down to-morrow, there’s not a man, from the oldest inspector to the youngest constable, who wouldn’t be glad to shake you by the hand.”
What a dramatic change from some of Holmes’s earlier interactions with Scotland Yard—considering that the Detective was even once accused of stealing all the credit for solved cases from the official police (NAVA). Furthermore, Lestrade is saying quite a bit about the Yard’s relationship with the world’s only consulting detective. He shows that he appreciates the considerable effort that goes into Holmes’s methods—unorthodox as they may be—and he’s saying that everyone else at the Yard sees it too. He’s recognizing the many years that he and Holmes have worked together, and that while they will never work together in an official way, that he considers Holmes an equal, if not a colleague, and that the feeling is shared by the collective force. SIXN marks Inspector Lestrade’s last appearance in the canon (after this story, he is only mentioned in passing), making his remarks a fitting closure to his relationship with Sherlock Holmes.
6. The Heart: In her book, The Fictional 100: Ranking the Most Influential Characters in World Literature and Legend, Lucy Pollard-Gott says, “Sherlock Holmes continues to attract us, assuredly for the quality of his mind, but also for the quality of his enigmatic heart” (51). Throughout the canon, the reader gets brief glimpses of that heart: when he is apologetic for nearly sentencing Watson and himself to a life of nightmarish madness (DEVI), and perhaps most famously when he thinks Watson’s life is compromised (3GAR). But Holmes’s reaction to Lestrade’s compliment is equally memorable: “’Thank you!’ said Holmes. ‘Thank you!’ and as he turned away, it seemed to me that he was more nearly moved by the softer human emotions than I had ever seen him.” The scene is made even more haunting by Jeremy Brett’s 1986 interpretation.
Sherlock Holmes may have worked more for “the love of his art than for the acquirement of wealth” (SPEC), but that does not mean he was above praise, or was not susceptible to a well-put or genuine compliment. Lestrade’s proclamation moves him, even if it just for a moment. Suddenly the Great Detective becomes accessible, and human. It is extremely improbable (though I suppose, not impossible) that Holmes would ever have crossed the threshold of Scotland Yard, seeking those handshakes that Lestrade guaranteed. But for just a moment, he seems to consider it. For just an instant, he seems almost open to the possibility—like a regular man, who might enjoy something like that.
In SIXN, the reader experiences the many facets of Sherlock Holmes’s personality, presented on a broad continuum. But not one of the characteristics encompasses him entirely. It would be doing the Detective a disservice in pretending that he could be defined completely by one aspect of his character, no matter how important that characteristic may seem. Dr. Watson presents a wide array of ways to approach Sherlock Holmes and his methods, and while that might never make him ordinary, it goes a long way towards making him accessible.
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