2 Justice and Judgment in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton
3 Lies and Deceit in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous literary figures in the world. He is known by almost everybody, whether people have read his stories or not. His readers, however, have often believed “[…] that Sherlock Holmes and his biographer, Dr. John H. Watson, were actual living, historical persons, and that the stories Holmes appears in were actual historical events” (Doyle, Steven; Crowder, David A. 29).
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had numerous sources of inspiration, both in literature and in real life, when he created Sherlock Holmes: “[…] [He] turned to his predecessors in the field. They were Edgar Allan Poe, Émile Gaboriau, and Wilkie Collins. It’s fair to say that Doyle borrowed a little from all three of these writers” (Doyle, Steven; Crowder, David A. 29).
This paper is intended to discuss and to contrast the topics “Justice and Judgment” and “Lies and Deceit” with regard to the short story The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In the above-mentioned story Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wants to make the threat the upper class had to face in the Victorian era a subject of discussion and moreover tries to support the upper class:
Victorian England was an extremely class-conscious society with very low social mobility. In early Victorian society, people had little opportunity to move up the social ladder. (Moving down was always a possibility, should financial disaster strike.) However, by Holmes’s time, increased industrialization, capitalists, a growing skilled labor force, trade unions, and political pressure from socialists began to put cracks in the class system (Doyle, Steven; Crowder, David A. 74).
For Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional character Sherlock Holmes “[…] the social order is something to be both upheld and defied. On one hand, his bohemian nature rebels at class distinction and privilege, while on the other hand he takes extreme measures to rescue the aristocracy from scandal” (Doyle, Steven; Crowder, David A. 74).
Another important point to mention is the fact that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chose to name the whole story after one of the main characters of this story, namely Charles Augustus Milverton. This fact gives us already a hint what the story will be about.
I personally chose this short story on the one hand because of the presence of one of Holmes’ biggest opponents apart from Professor James Moriarty, his gofer Colonel Sebastian Moran and Irene Adler – the already mentioned Charles Augustus Milverton – and on the other hand because of the fact that Sherlock Holmes himself commits a crime in this story.
My aim in the conclusion of chapter 4 will be to consider whether lies and deceit or justice and judgment gain the upper hand in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton or if there is simply no clear line that makes it possible to separate both topics from each other.
2 Justice and Judgment in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton
The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton is a perfect story when talking about justice and judgment as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective Sherlock Holmes commits a crime himself in this story. Sherlock Holmes considers himself the law and much more capable as the police: „[...] [Er] repräsentiert [...] einen Hüter des Gesetzes. Wenn die Polizei nicht weiter weiß und es keine Lösung zu geben scheint, dann kann Sherlock Holmes in den meisten Fällen doch noch helfen“ (Fleischhack, Maria. 41). However, Sherlock Holmes often pursues his own form of justice outside the actual law and decides on a case-by-case basis whether a punishment by the law is really necessary or not:
[...] [E]r kennt [...] das Gesetz genau und entscheidet in einigen Fällen selbst, was mit den Verbrechern geschehen soll. Oft lässt er Milde walten und sieht die Überführung des Täters und dessen offensichtliche Reue als Absicherung, die diesen davor bewahrt, erneut ein ähnliches Verbrechen zu begehen (Fleischhack, Maria. 41).
Sherlock Holmes seems to act up to the following principle: Truth can always win but is not always welcome. So, when Holmes, for instance, considers the incident in question a minor tort or a justifiable way of acting, he might just hide the truth in order to protect one of his clients or to simply solve the case in question successfully. That is exactly what happens in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton when Holmes not only buries the truth about him and Watson breaking into Milverton’s house with the purpose to steal the letters that incriminate his client Lady Eva Brackwell but also hides the truth about the real murderer of Charles Augustus Milverton in order to protect the woman in question.
With regard to the murder of Milverton one could raise the question whether Holmes might consider Milverton’s death as fair, i.e. that he was punished in a fair way taking into consideration how he had been treating people: “[…] [A man] who methodically and at his leisure tortures the soul and wrings the nerves in order to add to his already swollen money-bags […]” (Conan Doyle, Arthur. 62). If that is what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary figure Sherlock Holmes had in mind as well when protecting Milverton’s murderer, he definitely shows a lack of judgment because no matter whether Holmes prizes his own judgment and reasoning above all else and feels superior, hiding his knowledge about the identity of a murderer is, was and always will be a violation of law. The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton shows us that Sherlock Holmes is not an almighty person but someone who needs every now and again help and maybe a good friend, as well:
Sein Verstand und der Beistand John Watsons sind die wichtigsten Elemente, die Sherlock Holmes helfen, die ihm angetragenen Fälle zu lösen. Gleichzeitig zeigt die gelegentliche Hilflosigkeit von Sherlock Holmes gegenüber [...] [seinen Gegnern] seine Fehlbarkeit und lässt ihn als komplexen und menschlichen Charakter erscheinen (Fleischhack, Maria. 107).
Sherlock Holmes is a person who likes showing his intellect, his superiority and likes to surprise people. We learn about that when Holmes plays a little game with Lestrade, of Scotland Yard, at the end of the story. He draws Lestrade’s attention to the fact that the description of one of the burglars who broke into Milverton’s house is a perfect match with Watson but Lestrade just considers this a funny joke: “”Why, it might be a description of Watson!” “It’s true,” said the inspector, with much amusement” (Conan Doyle, Arthur. 68). Holmes seems to be so sure of himself, his superiority and his intellect that he not even doubts a second that Lestrade might believe it is true and Watson might get into serious trouble because of him.
Normally, in the stories, Scotland Yard and Holmes are competitors and collaborators at the same time “[…] but the balance between the two shifts over time. Older, more established detectives like Inspector Lestrade come to see Holmes as a colleague, while younger, less experienced Scotland Yarders haven’t had time to reach this understanding” (Doyle, Steven; Crowder, David A. 106).
Nevertheless, the reader gets the impression that the police, represented by Lestrade in this story, are fools who do not understand anything at all. The reader learns that Holmes, no matter what he does and if it is against the law or not, is always smarter and that his investigative skills are always better than the police’s are:
The portrayal of the official detective force as a bunch of bumblers created the environment for someone like Holmes to appear on the scene. As a result, while feeling a natural sense of professional competitiveness, the police actually end up being some of Holmes’s best customers (Doyle, Steven; Crowder, David A. 106).