3. Sherlock Holmes – Rooted in Reality
3.3.The Issue of Justice
Inquieries into the concept of Justice in A.C. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes narratives, read both in historical context and with regard to general ethical concerns. With various examples from the original texts.
The Issue of Justice is closely connected to detective stories, as
they deal with any kind of misbehaviour and the punishment following
In his stories, Conan Doyle anticipates a very modern view, as he takes into account that in an imperfect world Written Law and Justice may differ tremendously in some cases.
Although this distinction is almost generally acknowledged in modern
European countries, it wasn't as common in Victorian Times, when
authorities like the state were a reliable source of orientation to
Sherlock Holmes, however, acknowledges that, occasionally
done more real harm by [his] discovery of the criminal than ever he had
done by his crime”
tricks with the law of England than with [your] own conscience.”(1) Needless to say, the detective’s
opinion corresponds to that of Conan Doyle, whose
was always with the oppressed”,as
“he knew from an early age
what it was to face prejudice and unpopularity” – even if he
basically was a rather conventional man.(2)
In the Canon, the issue appears in various different shades(3):
First of all, there's the best possible case, which, although it is quite common in the Canon, requires no further discussion: the criminal is both, legally and morally guilty, he is arrested and receives adequate punishment for his deeds.
Furthermore, there are those cases in which a culprit is morally
guilty, but can not be punished on the basis of Law, either because he
is intelligent enough to evade prosecution or because none of his
actions is illegal in a technical sense.
Sometimes, even Holmes fails to restore justice in these situations. He might, however, choose to break law himself, using his extraordinary abilities to conceal his actions from the police, in defence of the just cause. This adds an amiable, rebellious quality to his character, and gives evidence of his superiority to the official police force.(4)
Two cases dealing with this kind of problem have already been mentioned in a different context: in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”, Holmes and Watson find themselves in the unusual role of intruders, as they try to recover delicate documents from an unscrupulous blackmailer. Holmes clearly states his moral view on the matter, when he admits:
“ […] I think there are certain crimes which the law cannot touch, and which therefore, to some extent, justify private revenge. My sympathies are with the criminals rather than with the victim […] .”and allows himself a practical joke with the police officer, who cannot make any sense of the case so far: “‘
s rather vague,’
said Sherlock Holmes.‘
Why, it might be a description of Watson!’ ”
In “A Question of Identity”, Holmes can't but agree with the step-fathers opinion that he had “
done nothing actionable from the first” and has to release him. Nevertheless, he comes up with a remarkable psychological interpretation of the case, which reflects his creator's own ideas:
“There’s a cold-blooded scoundrel!” said Holmes, laughing, […] "That fellow will rise from crime to crime until he does something very bad, and ends on a gallows. The case has, in some respects, been not entirely devoid of interest.”
(from: A Case of Identity)
that, there are a number of cases in which Holmes proofs the innocence
of a suspect. Among them, there’s the spectacular story entitled “The
Adventure of the Norwood Builder”: a blameless man narrowly
escapes an astonishingly well-planned attack on his life, as the true
culprit is eventually found thanks to Sherlock’s keen observation.
The detective might even show compassion for a criminal, when he feels that, due to certain special circumstances, no Court of Law would be able to pass an adequate verdict: Either, the background to a mystery justifies the crime in question sufficiently(5), or the personal situation of a culprit suggests that mercy should be granted.(6)
With last group of cases, it is beyond the power of any mortal to
In some situations, even a genius like Holmes is unable to discover any detail of a case, so that, on these rare occasions, delinquents may go unpunished.(7)
In addition, adversary circumstances out of his control may overthrow the detective’s plans and thereby deter the Course of Justice.
A criminal might even die during or shortly after an investigation and thus be subjected to a completely different kind of court. This metaphysical sort of penance hints at a time when the trust in the existence of a 'supernatural sphere' was stronger still than it is today.(8)
A modern writer of serious crime fiction would probably also tend to
more critical about various institutions of the state; his hero would
probably be less successful at restoring justice and more often be in
doubt what a just decision was at all.
Nevertheless, I appreciate the position on justice Conan Doyle takes in the Canon: he acknowledges that it is not always easy to distinguish between good and evil, because life may bring about complex situations. Therefore, it seems wise not to be too rash or harsh with your judgements as the texts suggest.
Humane and rather realistic, his view is all but outdated in my opinion.