What might be the reason that blackmail, extortion and coercion are so predominant in this collection of adventures of Sherlock Holmes?
The Return of Sherlock Holmes pits the greatest detective in the world against “the worst man in London.” Such is the distinction Holmes confers upon Charles Augustus Milverton, also known as the master blackmailer. That story, of course places its entire focus upon a man who makes his living—and quite a good one at that—extorting those who have been careless enough to make a mistake in their past which follows them through to their present. The famed detective manifests an astonishing disregard for the law when it comes to dealing with the circumstances surrounding Milverton’s death. Conan Doyle certainly seemed to view blackmailers as a criminal type with the same harsh judgment as this particular criminal activity plays varying roles in “The Priory School,” "The Six Napoleons" and “The Second Stain.” In addition, a more abstract style of blackmail is present in “The Golden Pince-Nez,” “The Dancing Men” and “The Three Students.” Although blackmail and extortion are nearly as prevalent as murder in the entire Holmes canon, it is likely more than mere coincidence that it is the volume which marks the return of Sherlock Holmes back from the dead which is distinguished by not just the sheer volume of such coercive techniques but also the fact that the worst criminal in London is blackmailer rather than a murder. In reading these stories, it is easy to get the impression that Conan Doyle’s peculiarly zealous distaste for this particular sort of crime may have been stimulated by his feelings of having been blackmailed or otherwise coerced into bringing back from the dead after three years the character he had come to view as an unfortunate a mistake destined to haunt him for the rest of his writing career.
Is Holmes serving justice in his assertion to Lestrade in “Charles Augustus Milverton” that “there are certain crimes which the law cannot touch, and which therefore, to some extent, justify private revenge.”
The difference between serving the law and serving justice is the recognition that sometimes justice can only be served by breaking the law. Nevertheless, this rationale can only apply if justice that is delivered is in excess to the law which has been broken. In “The Abbey Grange” Holmes takes it upon him to allow a man who knows is guilty of killing another man—in self-defense—go free without facing trial as long as no innocent person is charged with the crime. In this case, the only law Holmes is breaking is essentially not reporting a crime which will likely not be judged a crime at all. In addition, the man whom this fellow killed in self-defense was a truly reprehensible human being. The argument that Holmes serves justice in “The Abbey Grange” is fairly easily made. The argument is a bit tougher in the case of witnessing the murder of Milverton, allowing the killer to go free, destroying evidence, stealing private property and pulling Watson into a conspiracy to lie to the police about the whole series of events. The only clear thing here is that Holmes did not serve the law in any way. As with “The Abbey Grange” the primary argument that justice gets served lies in the vile character of the man who is killed. That a person making a living extorting others is better off dead is beyond debate and so in that sense justice is served. Where the argument grows most unsteady and perhaps collapses is not that Holmes can identify the murderer of Milverton to the police and chooses not to, but that he forces Watson into what amounts to a criminal conspiracy. He has placed Watson at a risk over which Watson has no control. Suppose Holmes were to get killed during their next adventure and Inspector Lestrade bumbles his way through the evidence of their present at Milverton’s to solve the mystery? Is Watson losing his license to practice medicine and perhaps spending time in jail truly a case of justice being served?
What is particularly and quite noticeably unique about most of the stories in The Return of Sherlock Holmes that distinguishes them from the majority of stories in the other collections?
The opening story in the very first collection of Holmes stories identifies Irene Adler as “The Woman” and situates her as a unique specimen. The next twenty-three stories spread out over two collections does little to challenge that assumption. Then, suddenly, in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, four stories prominently feature women whom Holmes explicitly admits to admiring, another features a villainess whom he treats with appropriate wariness and in yet another he allows a female murderer to go free in admiration of her willingness to delivery retributive justice. One might well conclude that during his three year absence, Holmes had occasion to engage in incidents which lent him a brand new appreciation of the women of the world.
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