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Written by Timothy Sexton
One of the most potent bits imagery to convey the true personality of Sherlock Holmes—and in the process diminish the stock view of him as a soulless calculating machine—is the revelation of the old man annoying Dr. Watson in his examination room as the old friend he thought long gone dead. The imagery here is multiple: description of the old book peddler, Watson’s increasing exasperation and Watson’s fainting as the resurrected image of the great detective. Throughout the canon—including a few more times in the stories in this collection—the imagery presented of Holmes is as a man willing to go to great lengths to solve a mystery. Holmes’ predilection for disguise also serves to implicitly explain how he knows so much about human nature that he can practically give a life history of a person just by looking at them.
Dames in Distress
A tapestry of young, attractive, vulnerable—and notably intelligent enough to impress self-styled misogynist Holmes—women populate the best stories from this era of Sherlock’s adventures. From Hilton Cubitt’s young American bride desperately trying to save her marriage and cut off all ties to her connection to underworld figures back home to Violet Smith’s willingness to put herself at risk astride her bicycle, the image of the worth of women here is far above that of the man readers first came to know as finding only “The Woman” a worthy example of her sex. The game of nerves that Mrs. Trelawny Hope is willing to play also makes an impression upon Holmes, but few women prove quite the match for his considerable intellect as domestic abuse victim Mary Fraser. Holmes’ visit to the Abbey Grange is loaded with enough resonance in its imagery to make the entire collection worth reading.
The Re-Emergence of the Past
The opening story in the collection sets the tone for a motif that recurs throughout the collection in which images of the past arise to haunt the present for victims and villains alike. The resurrection of Sherlock Holmes three years after his supposed death at the hands of Moriarty is the most palpable image of the past colliding with the present. The dancing men figures in that story, however, are the most visually integral to the business of solving the mystery. In his role as the master blackmailer, Charles Augustus Milverton is the very image of the venal character who trades on the past sins of others as currency to maintain a future at least as comfortable as his present. Abuse at the hand of her psychotic husband reaches a feverish pitch of fatal intent precisely due to the unexpected presence of a former romantic interest out of her past and the image of a knot tied in a rope by that mystery man is the only flaw in an otherwise perfectly executed crime scene intended to fool the authorities.
Serving Justice Rather than the Law
The image of the cold calculating machine-like Sherlock takes a real beating in these stories. Holmes takes it upon himself to overstep the letter of the law to the point of legally obstructing justice. But in legally obstructing justice, he also seems to be meting out emotional justice. For a man not routinely associated with acting on emotions, some of the images of Sherlock’s actions in these stories is nothing less than shocking. Foremost among them, of course, is that of Holmes and Watson hiding in the shadows as silent witnesses to the murder of Charles Augustus Milverton and then making a compact to allow the murderer to go free. Holmes will extend the same benefit of the doubt to the man responsible for killing Mary Fraser’s abusive husband on the belief that it was an act of self-defense and, no doubt, that the victim had it coming. The climax of the collection is the memorable image of Holmes saving the reputation of the wife of European Secretary furtively replacing a vital government document she had stolen right back in the place where it was originally thought to be.
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