—“The Man with the Twisted Lip”
The idea of disguise—either for shielding identity or hiding an important fact from view of the general public—is both a prevailing theme and underlying preoccupation of much of the early Holmes canon. In fact, Holmes’ own penchant for traveling about London incognito has, thanks to television and film adaptations, become something akin to a superpower, certainly exaggerated from the source material but no less entertaining in seemingly endless imaginative iterations and depictions of an endlessly beguiled Watson. Standing out from other stories, “The Man with the Twisted Lip” and its multilayered use of disguise as a motif and central plot device is perhaps most remembered for Holmes’ duping poor Watson with false hair and teeth, but is also notable for Holmes himself falling victim to an elaborate disguise, going so far as to proclaim with absolute certainty that his client’s husband is dead, when he is, in fact, very much alive. But, even more than the disguises on the faces of the characters in the tale, is the mystery at the heart of the story itself—namely, that “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is itself a kind of disguise, one that escapes even the attentions of some Holmes scholars.
One character within the story is hidden in plain sight—the titular character, which appears to be borrowed wholly from Thomas Harman’s Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors, first published in 1566. Harman’s work was a heady blend of sociology and storytelling, and contributed greatly to both the Elizabethan literary conception of the vagabond as well as the development of the English Poor Laws, as codified in 1601.While the mystery at the heart of “The Man with the Twisted Lip” is original to Conan Doyle, it certainly bears all of the hallmarks of a comment on the situation of the poor and destitute in the London of the 1890’s, albeit disguised as a rollicking crime narrative, filled as it is with allusions to the (still legal, but no less scandalous) opium trade, kidnapping, theft, graft, and murder. As such, it is indebted both to Harman and more contemporaneous works, like Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1851.As Audrey Jaffe noted:
The New Poor Law of 1834 had as one of its main objectives the separation of the able-bodied poor from those who could not raise themselves out of poverty, and Mayhew's system of identification, distinguishing those who "cannot work" from those who "will not work," fulfills the state's need to bring into the light of "open day" figures who represent a threat before they themselves choose to emerge […] Conan Doyle's story performs the same function as Mayhew's social science…since both Mayhew's structure and Holmes's reproduce the system of representation they find so troublesome.
With “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Conan Doyle proves himself to be quite the master of literary disguise, seamlessly blending fact, fiction, and social commentary in a way which would no doubt rival the skills of Holmes himself.