Gaslight and Fog

John Pemble

  • The Ascent of the Detective: Police Sleuths in Victorian and Edwardian England by Haia Shpayer-Makov
    Oxford, 429 pp, £30.00, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 957740 8

‘Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?’ snapped Edmund Wilson, writing in the New Yorker in 1945. He refused to find out who did, because he’d already discovered that Agatha Christie’s books were garbage and that he couldn’t put them down. This is what you’d expect. Wilson was a literary prude, and detective stories are literature’s oldest profession. They do one thing, they do it once, then they go off to jumble sales and charity bookshops to do it for someone else – unless they feature Sherlock Holmes. He seldom turns up with Poirot and Miss Marple in trays of second-hand pulp, but haunts the libraries, loos and luggage of people like T.S. Eliot, Ronald Knox, Eric Newby, Vladimir Nabokov and Umberto Eco. He even made it into Edmund Wilson’s bedroom. Although Holmes is a private detective, he’s frequently consulted by Scotland Yard and repeatedly succeeds where it fails. This leads Haia Shpayer-Makov to read in the Holmes saga a powerful argument for privatising the police. Its message, she claims in The Ascent of the Detective, is unequivocal: ‘Effective crime investigation requires the input of the commercial sector.’

What’s so special about Holmes? He’s hardly an original. He first appeared in the 1880s, when almost everyone in Britain who wrote or read was writing or reading about detectives – even though actual detectives were thin on the ground. The CID, founded in 1842 as the Detective Department at Scotland Yard, had by 1890 only 300 members – barely more than 2 per cent of the Metropolitan Police – yet its activities attracted a swarm of journalists and boosted the circulation of their papers. Private detectives were probably even fewer, because Victorian Britain never had anything comparable to Pinkerton’s. Furthermore, they worked chiefly on divorce and libel cases, taking little part in the investigation of crime, and so didn’t figure much in the press.

In fiction, however, they were paramount. Here they eclipsed outlaw heroes of folk tradition – Dick Turpin, Jonathan Wild, Dick Sheppard – and usurped the leadership of the police in the fight against delinquency and disorder. The prolific Stephen Knight has calculated that Sherlock Holmes had at least 13 predecessors, some of them women. Most were quickly forgotten, and there was every reason to suppose that Holmes would soon disappear too. He’s a derivative of the detective heroes of Edgar Allan Poe and Emile Gaboriau, matched with a Boswell figure (Watson) to act as stooge and narrator, with a few added clichés from the Victorian literary bazaar. Dickens and the melodrama supplied fog and gaslight; Stevenson, Wilde and Pater props and accessories: revolver, boxing gloves, jack-knife, briar pipe, jewelled snuffbox, Stradivarius violin, a penchant for recondite chemistry, cocaine, Sarasate and the polyphonic motets of Lassus – and eyelids that are a little weary, like the Mona Lisa’s. When he first appeared, in the novella A Study in Scarlet in 1887, no one took much notice. But when Arthur Conan Doyle repackaged Holmes and Watson in short stories for the Strand Magazine, the trifle improvised for pin money by a struggling young doctor soon turned into an apotheosis that bemused, enriched and finally exasperated him. He tried to exorcise the incubus by killing Holmes off, but resurrected him in order to appease public outrage and keep the pot boiling.

It’s gone on boiling ever since. We’ve had reprints, pastiches, parodies and adaptations galore. Holmes migrates effortlessly between cultures and languages because, like Robinson Crusoe, he’s fiction that’s become myth. ‘Fictions,’ according to Frank Kermode, ‘can degenerate into myths whenever they are not consciously held to be fictive.’ The fictiveness of Sherlock Holmes was uncertain from the start. The letters addressed to him sent to Conan Doyle for redirection, the landladies who wanted to keep house for him when he retired, the tourists who came to Baker Street looking for his lodgings: these are more than mythical, they are legendary. And addicts who know he’s fictive pretend that they don’t. There’s a whole archive of mock research in pseudo-academic publications dedicated to his life and work. In 1954, when the BBC broadcast a 100th-birthday tribute, the contributors all said they hoped he was listening. This mythic afflatus has made him a standard resource for authors in search of a character, actors in search of a role and academics looking for somewhere to hang a theory. It’s also made him famous for things he never said (‘Elementary, my dear Watson!’; ‘Quick, Watson, the needle!’).

What’s the explanation? Edmund Wilson’s verdict – ‘literature on a humble but not ignoble level’ offering ‘imagination and literary taste’ – isn’t much help. Nor is Raymond Chandler’s snub that ‘Sherlock Holmes … is mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue.’ The current authorised version of events goes something like this: Holmes was a response to late Victorian anxieties and neuroses that have since become generalised as a recurrent sense of crisis. In the 1880s prolonged recession brought violence onto London’s streets and the neologism ‘unemployment’ into the lexicon; Irish nationalists adopted a new explosive, dynamite, and added ‘terrorism’ to urban experience; Jack the Ripper ran rings round the police and exposed the terrifying vulnerability of marginal groups. In the 1890s this sense of insecurity was compounded by London’s growing notoriety as a refuge for dangerous foreign dissidents and revolutionaries, and by a panic about physical and moral degeneration.

To counter these fears the mothballed bourgeois monarchy was reinvented as a spectacular imperial roadshow, and during Queen Victoria’s golden (1887) and diamond (1897) jubilees brass bands and cheers drowned out alarm and dismay. There was additional comfort in escapist literature and Holmes was the most appetising of these jubilee lollipops. He was a paladin of private enterprise, bringing reason, chivalry and justice where chaos and malevolence reigned. Those who were troubled came to Baker Street. The great detective would listen, light his pipe, knit his formidable brow, deploy his amazing skills, and with a sacerdotal, almost messianic flourish (‘I am the last and highest court of appeal in detection’), set the world right. He waived his fee if the supplicant was needy, and kicked his cocaine habit when the boy scouts made him their mascot. In 1951 he was recruited once more to cheer the nation up. Official strategies for dispelling the postwar, post-imperial blues included the Festival of Britain, a reprise of the Great Exhibition of 1851, as part of which St Marylebone Borough Council mounted a Sherlock Holmes exhibition. This included the elaborate reconstruction of the sitting room and study at 221b Baker Street, which was later installed (and can still be seen) in the Sherlock Holmes pub on Northumberland Street.

Conan Doyle reckoned that Holmes was a consistent bestseller because he provided ‘distraction from the worries of life’, and Shpayer-Makov shows that one of the chief worries of Victorian life was the Victorian police. The Victorians cherished privacy and detested secrecy. What consenting adults did in private was their own affair. ‘The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society,’ John Stuart Mill said, ‘is that which concerns others.’ What was done in secret was another matter. Secret ballots were pernicious, according to Mill, because they freed voters from ‘all sense of shame or responsibility’. ‘Everything secret,’ Lord Acton said, ‘degenerates.’ Public opinion had sanctioned the foundation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 on the understanding that its officers would be uniformed and employed in preventing crime, not in detecting criminals. Detectives, the Times warned in 1842, ‘collect rumours and recollect misdemeanours … watch and store up random words and unintended disclosures … find out what they were never intended to know and … make instant communication and, if necessary, use of it’.

Attitudes softened in the 1850s, when Dickens wrote in Household Words about Inspector Field, whose watchfulness enabled honest Londoners to sleep easy at night; but, as Bernard Porter has described, misgiving intensified in the 1880s, when Special Branch was set up at Scotland Yard to handle counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. Everyone knew that clandestine organisations like the Irish Fenians could be fought only with clandestine methods, yet hardly anyone was easy with that knowledge. Whenever it was suspected that the police had used agents provocateurs or other tactics of surveillance and entrapment, the papers bristled with angry comment about threats to liberty and civil rights. The detectors of secrets became enemies of privacy, sinister agents of the vigilant state. ‘There is,’ the home secretary William Harcourt told the queen in 1884, ‘such a violent prejudice against that espionage which can alone remark these secret plots, that the task of detection is very difficult.’ Shpayer-Makov claims that at some point the public image of the Victorian plainclothes policeman changed ‘from menacing figure to national celebrity’ and that ‘neither in the press, nor in fiction, and certainly not in their own memoirs, did the figure of the detective come across as intrusive, oppressive, or subversively omnipresent.’ The presumption, perhaps, did change from guilt to innocence, but the doubts never went away and mistrust was quickly revived by evidence of corruption (as in the Goncourt turf scandal of 1877 in which several senior policemen were found to have been taking bribes) or ineptitude (as in the case of Jack the Ripper ten years later). Journalists were always complaining about Scotland Yard operating undercover: the secrecy that was a professional advantage to the police was a professional handicap to the press. And bourgeois readers were doubly worried: one of Shpayer-Makov’s most interesting discoveries is that the Victorian plainclothes service attracted very few middle-class recruits. Almost all police detectives were working-class men who’d graduated from the uniformed branch. And since they weren’t gentlemen, they couldn’t be trusted to uphold gentlemanly values.

The freelance detectives of fiction are invariably gentlemen (even when they are professionals earning a living), and they make it their mission to expose what is secret while concealing what is private. No secret is proof against Holmes’s penetrating intellect, not even secrets of state, but there is no surer guardian of privacy than his gentlemanly code. Unlike Scotland Yard’s officers, he has the privilege of discretion, and he uses it to protect domestic life from the law’s indiscriminate scrutiny: ‘We are endeavouring,’ he tells a reticent witness, ‘to prevent anything like public exposure of private matters which must necessarily follow when once the case is fairly in the hands of the official police.’ In his avidity for success he can sound like a blackmailer (‘I can hush up that which others will be bound to publish, and you would really be wiser to take me into your complete confidence’), but he’s severer even than the law with blackmailers who violate privacy for gain: ‘I am not the law, but I represent justice so far as my feeble powers go.’

The worries felt by the Victorians are now universal. As it spreads across the globe, capitalism carries with it its characteristic viruses – recession, terrorism, drugs, organised crime – and the crisis of confidence in the police increases as the need for them becomes more urgent. ‘The law is a bigger racket than crime,’ Orwell said in 1944, voicing a still current misgiving. Though late Victorian Britain wasn’t multi-ethnic, late Victorian London was already a world city, and the problems involved in policing it have changed more in degree than in kind. Meanwhile, the royal circus is still performing and Holmes thriving. The latest literary pastiche, Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk, is a serious historical novel in which Holmes investigates the Cleveland Street scandal, a real-life Victorian child prostitution racket.[*] The BBC’s Sherlock recycles Conan Doyle’s stories as high-gloss, high-tech, high-speed comedy. Telegrams and horse cabs have been ditched for mobiles, laptops, swipe cards and 4x4s. Yet both are nostalgic in their way, and both are hugely popular. When it was published last year, Horowitz’s novel became an instant bestseller and attracted worldwide interest. Sherlock is a prime-time blockbuster with guaranteed global distribution. The historicist case begins to look plausible: the enduring appeal of Holmes is the result of a sense of crisis we and the Victorians share. With capitalism in disarray, he remains a more reassuring buttress of bourgeois values than the official forces of law and order. Holmes vindicates the claim made by D.A. Miller in The Novel and the Police, that fiction can be a more effective form of policing than the police it disavows. He belongs with Foucault’s subtle and insidious apparatus of social discipline and control.

Or does he? Wagging a long nervous finger, Holmes would chide the historicists, as he chides the dim detectives of Scotland Yard, for faulty deduction, for overlooking a vital clue. He’d point out that if he were capitalism’s comforter his stock would rise and fall inversely to capitalism’s own: yet he was probably least popular in the 1920s and 1930s, when the fortunes of capitalism were at their lowest. Conan Doyle decided to drop him for good in 1927, persuaded he’d outlived his time. The reading public, it seemed, were outgrowing the fictional world of benign mystery where everything added up in the end. They cared more about who killed Roger Ackroyd than about who stole the Beryl Coronet or why the dog didn’t bark in the night. The era of thrillers and psychodramas had arrived, the era of Poirot, Maigret, Philip Marlowe and A Passage to India – all murder, menace, muddle and existential angst. Nevertheless, Conan Doyle’s texts are much less of a stabilising force than they seem. Deadpan yet tongue in cheek, they constantly slip into self-mockery and teasing. ‘Some of my most classic cases,’ Holmes says, ‘have had the least promising commencement. You will remember, Watson, how the dreadful business of the Abernetty family was first brought to my notice by the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter on a hot day.’ That destabilises meaning. Remove the word ‘dreadful’ and it’s not nearly so funny.

Insofar as the stories are hitched to a cause, it’s the cause of divorce-law reform. Conan Doyle cared far more about this than about the plight of capitalism. Hence the ambiguity at the heart of Shpayer-Makov’s exhaustive study. She talks of the private detectives of Victorian fiction as archetypes, and this, surely, is the way to an explanation: no character in fiction is more archetypal than Holmes. But true to the genre, there’s a final twist. Holmes isn’t the archetype you at first suspect, the hero who solves an intractable riddle or cracks the code of a labyrinth/library. This figure, parodied by Eco in The Name of the Rose, is clearly an archetype of the collective unconscious, since it occurs randomly at all times and in all places. Yet to equate this figure with Holmes (as Eco does: his detective is called William of Baskerville) is to reduce Conan Doyle’s stories to retellings – either straight or parodic – of myth. Individually, perhaps, that’s how they appear; but as a whole they look much more like satire on celebrity and life as theatre.

In his memoirs Conan Doyle recorded what happened when he actually applied Holmes’s methods: ‘On the occasion of a burglary of the village inn, within a stone’s throw of my house, the village constable, with no theories at all, had seized the culprit while I had got no further than that he was a left-handed man with nails in his boots.’ The police have always thought that Holmes is a fraud. His feats of deduction are party tricks; his disguises wouldn’t fool a shortsighted criminal without glasses at a hundred yards; fighting crime isn’t a matter of sitting in a dressing-gown puffing a pipe or riding high on glamour and thrills. Chambers’s Journal told its readers in 1870 that the work of detectives was ‘rather prosaic than otherwise’. There wasn’t much mystery about real crime, and solving it was more about routine work than ingenuity. Most cases were solved very quickly; those that weren’t were likely to remain unsolved. Shpayer-Makov shows that detectives had to resort to the ruses of fiction in order to make their memoirs readable. True fiction, many writers believed, dealt with what happened next; deciphering what had already happened, however ingenious and surprising, appealed to an inferior sort of curiosity. Robert Louis Stevenson saw detective fiction as ‘enthralling but insignificant, like a game of chess, not a work of human art’. Conan Doyle agreed. Detective fiction belonged to ‘a lower stratum of literary achievement’. That’s why he pleaded self-defence after he assassinated Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls: ‘If I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me.’

But the failure of his attempt to kill off Holmes taught him that the likes of Stevenson were only half-right. If Holmes is insignificant as art, his indestructibility is all the more significant. The wizard may be no more than a conjuror, but he has been consulted, fêted and decorated by prime ministers, kings, sultans, popes and Queen Victoria herself, not because he’s the Great Detective, but because he’s the Great Performer. That’s why he’s not such a good argument for privatising the police.

[*] Orion, 304 pp., £18.99, November 2011, 978 1 4091 3382 7.