The View from the East End (50)
By Inspector HopkinsOctober 22, 2006
The Character of Holmes – part 1
by Inspector Hopkins
After we read through the Canon several times, we develop a sense of what Sherlock Holmes was like, both as the world’s greatest consulting detective as well as a human being. That is, thanks to Watson’s descriptions of him, we can get glimpses of what Holmes’s inner character was really like.
I thought it might be interesting to briefly look at several aspects of our hero’s personality and character and present them here as an irregular mini-series. To that end, I have decided to take examples from some of the stories (in no particular order), briefly examine Holmes’s behaviour regarding them, and then see how they relate to his character.
Inspired by an excellent article in the autumn 2006 edition of the BSJ by my colleague Susan Dahlinger, I will begin with an example from “Shoscombe Old Place”.
Was Sir Robert’s conduct really “inexcusable”?
Recall the basic elements of this case: we have a member of the aristocracy who was very deeply in debt. All his property and wealth was in his sister’s name. His only chance to avoid total bankruptcy and destruction was if his horse won the “big race”. He trained the horse, nurtured it and guarded it. Everything that Sir Robert owned, worked and hoped for, was riding on this one big, last, long-shot.
Then, three weeks before the big race, his sister suddenly dies.
What was he to do? If he announced her death, his creditors would foreclose, and that would be the end of everything. She was very devoted to her brother and even his head trainer John mason stated that “they have always been the best of friends”. Thus, Sir Robert did not want to just dump her body somewhere, or bury it the woods. Instead he concocted a plan to temporarily house her remains in the ancient family crypt with the intent of properly re-burying them after the race.
Enter Sherlock Holmes, who of course, got to the bottom of the mystery. Even after he listened to Sir Robert’s entire story and realized that absolutely no crime had been committed, he still found his conduct to be “inexcusable”.
Why was this so?
Three possibilities immediately come to my mind. The first is that Holmes took an immense dislike to Sir Robert. As we know by now, these sorts of feelings were not limited to this particular case. For example, recall Holmes’s attitude towards Neil Gibson in “The Problem of Thor Bridge”, or towards the Duke of Holdernesse in “The Priory School”. With Sir Robert Norbertson, Holmes may have once again been fighting against his seeming dislike of the aristocracy. (Quite naturally, this feeling of dislike would have us wonder why that was so, but that will be another future column). In any event, the fact that Sherlock Holmes still pursued the case in spite of his personal feelings shows us his integrity.
The second possibility is that this case provides us a glimpse into Sherlock Holmes’s private feelings regarding death itself. Although I myself do not think that Sir Robert’s behaviour was exactly “inexcusable”, it may be that by saying so, Holmes unwittingly revealed an extremely deep respect for the dead. Indeed, without going through a long list of references, it is safe to say that the manner in which the dead of any society are treated reflects the quality of that society itself. Thus, the proper respect and burial of a corpse is but one way that the morality of a society can be measured.
However, if this was the way that Holmes displayed part of his moral fiber to us, then what of his lack of concern for the 1000 year old corpse? Pulling one set of remains out of a coffin, and tossing them into a furnace like so much firewood in order to make room for another set, did not seem to bother Mr. Holmes very much.
This leads us to the last possibility that Holmes considered Sir Robert to be guilty of fraud, if not legally, than at least morally so. Even though Sir Robert loved his sister, and there was no foul play involved, it most likely was that Holmes’s personal morality and integrity itself would have forbidden him to accept his conduct in any other way.
I personally believe Sir Robert’s conduct was more of an instinct to survive rather than to commit any deliberate fraud. This is so because he had placed all his faith in his horse getting him out of trouble, whether his sister had died or not.
Until next time, when we will look at another part of the character of Holmes, I am,