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The View from the East End (51)

By Inspector Hopkins

November 4 , 2006

The Character of Holmes – part 2
Killing the “Killer”

by Inspector Hopkins 

Throughout the Canon, we see many cases with crime and some without it.  Of the ones with crime, murder and/or attempted murder was the most common mystery that Holmes was called upon to solve.

When we consider the taking of a human life by murder, many aspects of this crime may assail our senses: the finality of it, the tragedy, the motives or causes of it, and so forth. Murder may be justified or condoned by society if it occurs “in self defense”. 

Throughout the entire Canon, Sherlock Holmes killed only two people. He shot Tonga to death in The Sign of the Four, and threw Professor Moriarty into the Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem.  Both times he acted in self defense because his life was in direct danger from these villains.  In the case of The Three Garridebs, however, Holmes specifically threatened to kill James Winter, aka “Killer” Evans, aka John Garrideb.

Why was this so? 

Recall the basic elements of the case: we have an American gangster over in England trying to recover counterfeit money and a printing press hidden under the flooring in an apartment building. He concocted an elaborate and very original ruse to lure the tenant, Nathan Garrideb, out of his apartment and well away from London so that he could rip up the floorboards and get to the goods.

Enter Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, who investigate the ruse and catch James Winter in the act, red-faced and red-handed. But one of his red hands was faster than the eye as he whipped out his revolver and fired two shots at Holmes and Watson. One of the shots missed, but the other hit Watson in the thigh. This could have easily been a fatal wound if the bullet had severed the major artery. They didn’t call him “Killer” without good reason either, because he had previously shot and killed the owner of the bogus money.

After knocking Winter senseless and verifying that Watson was alright, Holmes uttered the famous line, “By the Lord, it is as well for you. If you had killed Watson, you would not have gotten out of this room alive.”

Would Holmes really have killed “Killer” Evans?

This is a perennially popular question, one which is brought up in scion meetings and one which was recently put to the test in our own “Scandalous Bohemians” chat room. Most people feel that Sherlock Holmes would never deliberately kill anyone, except of course in self-defense as has been pointed out above.

However, I am going to out on limb here and assert that Holmes would indeed have killed Winter if Watson had succumbed to his wound.

I have several reasons for my opinion. The first and most important one is Watson’s description of Holmes’s tenderness and concern for his well being. Nowhere else in the Canon does Watson describe these feelings so succinctly: “It was worth a wound – it was worth many wounds – to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask.” His description of Holmes’s misty eyes and trembling lips leave the reader with no doubt that beneath the machine-like exterior lurked a vulnerable and human heart, beating with genuine affection for his friend and chronicler. This point was made even more abundantly clear by Watson’s remark, “ALL [emphasis mine] my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.”

Here and there throughout the Canon, the newer Sherlockian will notice that Watson often emphasized Holmes’s cold, calculating, and unemotional attitude. This made him appear relentless, objective, logical, and invincible. To break through such a tough exterior would require an event so enormous and catastrophic that it would overpower all of Holmes’s character. Put another way, an event such as the killing of his best and only friend might well override all the civilized circuits of the Holmes-machine!

Another reason is that Sherlock Holmes never threatened anyone with murder anywhere else in the Canon. He certainly had his share of arguments and was threatened by a number of nasty villains such as Dr. Grimesby Roylott, Steve Dixie, and Count Sylvius to name a few.  Quick-witted and able to deftly size up an opponent, he may have often blustered or used psychology to obtain formation (for example the goose dealer in BLUE), but he never lied or threatened.  In short, Sherlock Holmes was a man of his word, and as such, would act upon it.

The last reason is that Holmes was also a man of justice.  Recall our last discussion of his morality and integrity regarding his conduct towards Sir Robert Norbertson. A large part of those character traits was, in fact, justice. On more than one occasion, Holmes took the law into his own hands, a point for which he is often criticized. (We will take a closer look at that character trait next time). Consider that if Watson had died, Holmes may well have blamed himself for his friend’s death. His sense of justice would blend with his love for Watson and with the responsibility that he felt. As a man of honor, he would have avenged his friend’s death and taken his chances with a British jury later.

I personally do have trouble picturing Sherlock Holmes killing anyone in cold blood. But this was a case where his blood was a bit warmer than usual . . .

Until next time, and thanking you for your attention, I remain as always,

Yours faithfully,