If it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper 'Norbury' in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.
—“The Adventure of the Yellow Face”
Even Sherlock Holmes gets it wrong, now and again. Conan Doyle endeavors, in “The Yellow Face,” to remind the reader of this, even having Holmes himself remind Watson to remind him of his failing in the future, should the need arise. The Norbury case is an odd one for the detective, as what starts as a simple matter of blackmail and possible romantic intrigue begins to take on a strange, grotesque air, similar to the strange events recounted in “Copper Beeches” and “The Engineer’s Thumb,” centered on a mysterious disguised figure in a yellow mask. A closer look at its dénouement in light of Holmes’s (mistaken) assumption shows that it serves a much larger purpose for Conan Doyle. Henry Cuningham, in his excellent commentary on “The Yellow Face,” states:
As a detective story, “The Yellow Face” is an embarrassment. If, however, Doyle consciously used the device of a grotesque face to make his didactic message more palatable to a largely prejudiced audience, his tale is in this respect ingenious. Such an explanation at least justifies the intrusion of the yellow face. The use of such an extreme tactic is itself testimony to the degree of prejudice Doyle must have felt himself up against. The question remaining is why would he assume the risky position of espousing racial views that were at least half-a-century ahead of their time? Edwards effectively answers this by noting an encounter Doyle had ten years before publishing “The Yellow Face” with a black man who “was one of the most famous black advocates of the abolition of slavery in the 1840s, second only to ... Frederick Douglass”...Henry Highland Garnet.
The role that Garnet played in forming Doyle’s opinions of race relations, racism and discrimination cannot be overstated, and Doyle’s deliberate investment in imbuing Holmes and Watson with anti-racist sentiments (in “The Yellow Face,” but also “The Five Orange Pips” and later, in “The Three Gables” was not only unprecedented in the popular literature, but also the attitudes and perceptions of the majority of the readership of the time. As we have seen with Conan Doyle’s treatment of multiculturalism, Conan Doyle was culturally specific in his characterizations, even when those characterizations maintained the societal stain of racism, but, in each case, made his didactic purpose take center stage, despite what was surely considerable pressure to avoid any controversial or overtly politically liberal claims.
The reveal of “The Yellow Face” is, like Watson’s treatment of Holmes’s errors in deduction, ultimately a gentle one, with the good doctor adding the rejoinder: “it chanced that even when he erred the truth was still discovered.” Where logic fails, “The Yellow Face” would seem to argue, fate intervenes, and Holmes is still able to cling to a resolution to the puzzle. The larger purpose, however, of confronting the very real impact of institutional racism and persuading the reader to see the need for change favored by both Holmes’s logic and Providence itself, lingers with the reader long after the mask is removed, the case is solved, and the story concluded.