“I think there are certain crimes which the law cannot touch, and which therefore, to some extent, justify private revenge.”
—“The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”
A number of aspects of the canon—and the character—of Sherlock Holmes reach their quintessence with “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.” As with many of the Holmes stories, the case is one initially of blackmail, and appears to be nearing its finish before its titular suspect, whom Holmes describes as “as cunning as the Evil One” and worse in character than any of the fifty-odd murderers that crossed paths with the great detective up to that point, is even introduced. However, by the time the case has closed, its subject has turned to murder, with Holmes and Watson themselves placed in the unprecedented position of co-conspirators, or, at the very least, in clear violation of Section Eight of the Accessories and Abettors Act of 1861, the very law which codified a phrase, by now a famous one in the annals of crime fiction—the “accessory after the fact.” This aspect is given even more weight as the story, appearing in The Strand in 1904, seems to outline an all-too-real scandal that reached its unfortunate conclusion nine years before with the mysterious death of Charles Howell in a Chelsea pub.
As discussed in posts on “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” and “The Blue Carbuncle,” Holmes is possessed of a unique sense of moral obligation, one which defies both professional identity and popular convention. It would be some time (and due in no small part to Conan Doyle’s characterization of Holmes) before popular letters provided its readership with the exceeding ironic persona of the “unscrupulous detective.” As Orlando Park noted in his 1962 book Sherlock Holmes, Esq., and John H. Watson, M.D.: An Encyclopaedia of Their Affairs, “the reader must read such cases and form an independent opinion as to the correctness of Holmes's attitude." In the case of the murderous revenge plot at the center of “Milverton,” even Watson’s normally stalwart sense of right and wrong is subsumed by Holmes’s, and Watson reserves his judgment for Holmes’s attempts at investigating the miscreant through deception, particularly when that deception involves an otherwise innocent person and takes the form of a feigned romantic attachment cultivated by Holmes.
Whatever side of the ethical argument the reader upholds, and whether or not one speculates that Conan Doyle’s depiction of Holmes was never meant to be heroic or even upstanding, it is clearly indicated in the conclusion of “Milverton” that the greater good was served, in keeping, if not with the characters, than with the author’s own sense. As Harold Orel stated in a 1995 article:
Unlike Sherlock Holmes, who had little or no interest…Conan Doyle was a man who held strong opinions [and] was capable of changing his mind…He did not want to be ignored, or his proposals for remedying social wrongs and injustice to be taken lightly. He was, taken all in all, a courageous warrior enlisted in one cause after another. He was on the right side most of the time-the morally right side, the ethically right side. He deserves to be remembered in our age for both the passion of his convictions and the eloquence with which he expressed his views.