The Game’s Afoot

Though today they are often published without the standard prefix, I think it’s important that so many of the fifty-six Sherlock Holmes stories bear the word “Adventure” in their title: “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist.” It has become commonplace to view the Holmes tales, and the detective story tradition that they engendered, as fundamentally conservative. In this reading the detective, while technically independent of the law, is in truth the dedicated agent of the prevailing social order—a static, hierarchical structure, in which murder is an aberration. This was the view Raymond Chandler took of “murder in the Venetian vase,” against which he famously posited his “mean streets” theory, in which the autonomous if not anarchist detective operates in a disordered and fluctuating world that can never hope to be restored, in which social position is transient, the law a hopeless fiction, and morality flexible at best.

This view of the Holmes stories as reassuring fables of the fixed values and verities of the Victorian order contains an element of truth. Especially after the first two Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, and beginning in 1891 with the first great short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Conan Doyle gradually abandoned most of the louche, Wildean touches with which he had initially encumbered the character of Holmes. The outré personal habits, the vampiric hours, the drug use, the willfully outrageous ignorance of “useless facts,” such as the order of the solar system or contemporary politics, gave way to a more conventional and cozy sort of eccentricity.

While Holmes is curt with toffs and colonels, he can be a suck-up to royalty, and beneath the surface of the tales glides the majestic shadow of Victoria, emerging only at the end of “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” when Holmes, having saved the Navy by helping recover the stolen plans for a submarine—“the most jealously guarded of government secrets”—returns from a visit to “a certain gracious lady,” wearing an emerald pin in his tie.

Holmes’s veneration of methodology, his love of rank and classification (we are informed that Moriarty’s henchman, Colonel Sebastian Moran, is “the second most dangerous man in London,” and the blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton is “the worst man in London,” and John Clay, who conceived of the Red-Headed League, is “the fourth smartest man in London”), his systematic approach to cataloging the minutiae of crime (as in his monograph on the ashes of 140 different varieties of pipe, cigar, and cigarette tobacco) all partake of the Victorian passion for taxonomy, for hierarchies and progressions, for articulating new, rational systems of control. But to read Sherlock Holmes, regardless of his frequent service to Queen and Empire, as a prop and agent of the dominant social order, to regard the function and effect of the stories as characteristic of industrialized, imperialist, Darwinistic, bourgeois, nineteenth-century Britain, the literary kin of Bentham’s panopticon or the …

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Letters

Correction March 10, 2005