Those that have read the works commonly attributed to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have, no doubt, among them come across the accounts that originate from the pen of one Dr. Watson.
Among these accounts of the exploits of the detective Sherlock Holmes, and Watson his aide and chronicler, one is rather out of place: the tale titled “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”.
In the tale, Holmes does no detecting, no proud tracking-work. No, the tale sees the brilliant detective cast first as a base Don Juan (first seducing, then betrothing a serving-maid, and presumably then running away), and then with Watson as a burglar! The target of this first criminal act is a maid of the Mr. Milverton of the story’s title; of the second, Mr. Milverton himself, a rather base blackmailer.
Even when the burglaring pair is in Milverton’s house in the middle of the night, let in by the poor betrayed girl, Holmes does no detecting, no clever deducing-work: no, he jimmies open a safe, and the duo then slip to shadows as a masked lady enters, shoots Milverton dead, and then flees. Holmes and Watson are almost caught as they, too, flee, after having committed to flames the safe’s contents — the weapons of Milverton’s blackmailing business, whose unwilling “customer” the grieved lady in question had been.
The story ends with Holmes and Watson unwilling to aid the police in seeking the “murdering two”, for obvious reasons, and smirking over the murderess’s identity, assuring each other she is of too lofty position to be touched even if her identity was revealed, even after the disaster Milverton’s villainy had brought on her.
Why would Watson tell such a story? A churlish user of an innocent woman, a burglar, and a bystander to murder — is this sordid account the best tale of Sherlock Holmes he had?
This petty investigator thinks Watson wrote the story — that much is certain beyond all reasonable suspicion — but that the story itself never took place — not in the form the story is told. Other investigators have confirmed the existence and murderous death of Charles Augustus Milverton, but the story itself is false — from the very beginning, with Holmes, a remarkably agnostic, even atheistic, man (see note), talking of the Evil One in quite uncharacteristic fashion, to the very end, with Watson smugly suggesting the real murderess should not be sought.
How much, then, is known to be true from sources outside the story? Charles Augustus Milverton was shot dead; two people were seen fleeing from the scene, one of which could have, from the hazy descriptions, been Watson himself; and finally, Holmes did not investigate the murder, which went unsolved.
It is the suggestion of this investigator that Holmes was never involved in this case — indeed, Holmes might not have even been present in London during it, or then might have been persuaded to not investigate it because of the way Dr. Watson blanched and swooned when Inspector Lestrade came to Holmes seeking for help in solving the killing.
What if the two seen fleeing Milverton’s house weren’t Holmes and Watson, but instead Watson, a brash ex-military man, and a woman of his acquaintance — maybe even a former lover — who, like the untouchable noblewoman of the story, was unpleasantly entangled with Milverton the Blackmailer? The two entered his house during the night — probably the woman had been there before, pleading with Milverton, so no seduced serving-girl was needed to give guidance and leave doors unlocked — found Milverton with his safe open, killed the man, destroyed his injurious letters and photographs, and fled, but not before being spotted by servants alarmed by the gunshots.
Years later Watson, burdened either by guilt or by the fear of his murderous misdeed being revealed, concocted and published the story of Holmes’s involvement, and either out of misunderstanding the great man’s limits or intending to make his part in the crime seem lesser, attributed to Sherlock Holmes these sad calumnies of burglary, seduction and jilted bridery. By adding the anonymous “Lady Untouchable”, he quite heavy-handedly suggested that further investigation was futile: Sherlock Holmes had been there, and wherever he was, justice was served.
And, by the tables of contents of all collected accounts of Sherlock Holmes’s true (Watson-Doyle) exploits, Watson got away with it! No doubt Holmes was, by the time of the story’s publication, either dead or then unwilling to reveal the real, sad truth — he knew he could survive injust slander better than Watson could take the ruinous reality.
* * *
Note — Holmes the Atheist: This investigator cannot recall Holmes, a man of those miserably religious Victorian times, ever expressing any religious sentiments beyond those common in the idioms of the day. Even when, in the Adventure of the Naval Treaty, Holmes goes quite out of his character —
“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”
— this flowery outburst can be explained in two ways more plausible than such pap being the genuine feelings of that always calm and rational man.
Both explanations rely on the rather gullible religiosity of his “storyteller”, Dr. Watson. Either Holmes was merely wishing to make some impression, no doubt quite necessary, on the others present, and Watson as so often failed to notice this was the true intent of Holmes’s flowery nonsense, or, as another example of the regrettable behavior described above, this was another fiction of Watson’s, who felt the urge to either proselytize by putting words into the mouth of a man much more admired than he, or then to assure his readers that Holmes was, underneath his cold and eccentric exterior, a Christian of sorts after all. And surely this identification of Holmes as a theist is rather improbable; even more improbable given the embarrassingly witless argument from beauty so clumsily attributed to the greatest deducer of all.
(Final note: This is the sort of a thing that starts boiling out of your mind once you get lost in Klinger’s Annotated Holmes.)