In recent weeks, as my bedtime reading, I have been reading a Sherlock Holmes story or two. Like anything else with an extended canon, there are good and not so-good Sherlock Holmes stories and the other night I read one of the worst, “the Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”. Here’s the set-up. Holmes is hired by a lady who is being blackmailed by an extortionist, the Charles Augustus Milverton of the title, who is threatening to break up her engagement, a proper young woman who was the author of several indiscreet letters to a man who was not her fiancé . What makes it a pretty lousy story is that there is none of brilliant deducing that makes the Sherlock Holmes stories fun to read, none of these episodes of Holmes taking one look at a footprint in the mud and determines it was made by a 33rd degree Mason who is an astigmatic pigeon fancier. Holmes is more direct, and less fun.
Holmes hates Milverton, and indeed calls him the “worst man in London,” more evil than a murderer for his occupation of blackmailer, specializing in ruining the reputations of marriageable upper class woman.
So this is what Holmes does. First he romances Milverton’s maid, and after a few days of wooing, proposes marriage, which is accepted, all to get some information about Milverton’s house and whereabouts. Then he and Watson, rather than trying to solve the crime, decide to burgle Milverton’s house to purloin the incriminating letters, and while they are there, a wronged woman, posing as a fence with more naughty letters, comes to a pre-arranged meeting with Milverton, and rather than hand over more blackmail material, pulls a pistol fires a few shots, and dispatches Milverton. Holmes does nothing to stop the lady from shooting him, and then does not report the crime to the police, and then do what he can to ensure that the crime will not be solved.
First Holmes lies to Milverton’s maid (and though he seems very concerned about the blackmailer breaking up upper class marriages, he evidently doesn’t care one whit about the feelings of the woman he romances and then unceremoniously discards.) And then he commits two felonies, one of commission—breaking and entering, and one omission, failure to report a murder. Holmes evidently thinks that Milverton’s got what he deserved, a measure of poetic or literary justice, but he of course knows that blackmail was hardly a hanging office in late Victorian Britain. Holmes is cruelly deceptive towards the maid, and blithely indifferent to the various laws he breaks. His behavior is simply disgraceful. This , surely, was Sherlock Holmes’s moral nadir.
What has happened to Holmes? Why does no longer trust his intelligence, in both senses of the word, to solve the crime, and reveal the criminal? What has happened to his profound respect for the law, and its plodding but necessary procedures? Clearly he is a man on a mission, convinced that some sort of higher law—the incorrigible evil of extortionists, I suppose—is sufficient justification for his deception and law breaking. He has traduced his former principles, a traitor to his better angels. He is worthy only of our contempt.
I will let the reader draw any relevant analogies between Sherlock Holmes and the administration that soon to make its way over history’s Reichenbach falls. But if you behave like Professor Moriarty to capture Professor Moriarty then you become Professor Moriarty. When it comes to civil liberties, we must always be vigilant, and ready to bark, with as threatening a growl as if we all had the footprints of a gigantic hound. But all too often, over the past eight, long, horrible years, civil liberties has been the curious incident of the dog in the night-time who was silent.
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