Wednesday, January 16, 2013

33. Money

“I am a poor man.”
“The Adventure of the Priory School”

Nothing quite intervenes so much into the enthusiastic imagination of a youthful reader of the canon than the stark realization that Holmes’s chosen occupation as consulting detective as depicted in the stories bore little, if any, resemblance to any actual modern profession, and, as professed by the man himself, gave very little indication into how even the most meager living could have been made at it. Though some Sherlockian speculations have Holmes living off of a family inheritance that partially subsidized his sleuthing, the canon is also rife with instances in which Holmes refused to be paid for his services at all and reiterates that, due in no small part to mutual methodological differences, his relationship with any potential employer, like Scotland Yard, remained out of reach. All of which begs the somewhat vulgar question: how did Holmes make any money?

A closer examination of the rare instances where money is mentioned directly in the stories reveals that Holmes requests for remuneration (e.g., “Bohemia,” “Speckled Band,” “Red-Headed League,” “Beryl Coronet”) often far exceed a standard fee, given the prominence and ability of the client to pay. To illustrate this, Watson, in “The Final Problem” indicates that, at that time, Holmes had received fees for services rendered by governments to such an extent that he could retire comfortably. Although this may be the case, taking into account Holmes’s own idiosyncratic methods for selecting his cases (e.g., Watson would say later, in “The Adventure of Black Peter” that Holmes would often refuse a wealthy client if their case did not interest him, while he could devote weeks at a time to pro bono clients) and his extravagant travels and additional expenditures during the Great Hiatus, it is unlikely this would still be the case, or more pointedly, as Ed Wiltse noted in a 1998 issue of the journal Narrative, readers would be drawn to elements of Holmes’s character that did not jibe with bourgeois norms or class-consciousness, thus uncovering the need to explore the “intermittently employed” Holmes.

While this line of thinking would be perfectly lost on Holmes, it did not escape his author’s attentions. As Wiltse continued:

Doyle's particular genius was in recognizing the perfect content for this new medium…reveal a frank, market-driven pragmatism […] Recognizing what countless popular narratives have since proven— that a character makes a far more effective "brand name" than either an author or a title—Doyle invented the genre that brought Sherlock Holmes to the public.

And, in “Priory School,” Conan Doyle gives a fine reconciliation to the both the question of money for Holmes and the larger market-oriented forces responsible for his return to the pages of The Strand. Holmes, greedily anticipating his reward while determining his client’s own complicity, either out of sarcasm, for comedic effect, or in an almost punitive fashion to upturn the client’s hiding their own guilt behind money and privilege, wonderfully brings the subject to the fore while giving the contemporaneous reader much pause to consider the attendant layers of meaning. Time may have diminished the impact of the £6000 reward. It would serve today’s reader to know that the sum, adjusted for inflation, would amount to £480,256—nearly half a million pounds today.

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