Wednesday, May 1, 2013

47. Danger

“My night was haunted by the thought that somewhere a clue, a strange sentence, a curious observation, had come under my notice and had been too easily dismissed.”
“The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax”

Throughout the canon, there are many opportunities for the reader to delve into the complex moral conundrums that often emerge from Holmes’s cases. These clouds of ambiguity descend upon not only the detective himself, whose early travails make no mistake of assuring the reader that, if a case did not sufficiently capture his interest, regardless of how heinous or morally outrageous it was, Holmes would likely not lift a finger to solve it. Compounding this are those rare instances in which Holmes tried and failed to arrive at a solution (as in “The Adventure of the Yellow Face”) or, as in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” was actively deceived from the outset. What’s more, stories, like “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” and “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” show Holmes as willing to risk a great deal (including his life and that of Watson) to arrive at a successful conclusion.  Thus, it is perhaps surprising that a story, in which Holmes, through indolence or carelessness, might endanger the life of an innocent (or, by remove, a client), occurs so late in the canon. “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax” is that story.

Interestingly, Conan Doyle would seem to have anticipated the response to Holmes’s recklessness, and endeavors to balance scenes of Holmes’s arrogance, or disinterest with Watson’s determined diligence to “do the right thing.” Also, in a similar fashion to both “Bohemia” and “Yellow Face,” Holmes is depicted as equal parts contrite and horrified by his actions, so much so that H.J.N. Horsbrugh of the University of Victoria used his reactions as the centerpiece to an article on forgiveness, printed in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy in 1974. As Horsbrugh assayed:

Sherlock Holmes says in the story, ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax’: "Good heavens Watson, what has become of any brains that God has given me? Quick, man, quick! It's life or death, a hundred chances on death to one on life. I'll never forgive myself, never, if we are too late!" Here Holmes is saying that he will never forgive himself if his oversight has resulted in the death of Lady Frances. Now, he knows perfectly well that he has not lost his brains: what he is deploring is that on this occasion he has used them negligently, thereby placing Lady Frances's life in danger. Clearly, then, he is suffering from severe loss of self-respect.

In agreement with Horsbrugh’s reading of the story, we might add that where Holmes erred was not immediately to do with the facts of the case, but rather in his assessment of their potential severity. It was not, as such, that the mysterious con artist Henry Peters has bested him in a game of wits (though it appears so, at first), but rather that Holmes had misjudged the continuum of risk involved in the case, and, as such, his own involvement, and allowed the potential for danger to elude him. When he realizes his mistake, he springs to action, but not without some mental and emotional cost. It would seem that the memory of the moral and ethical calculus involved in the work of the detective could, potentially, linger over Holmes, and the questioning of his process leading him to consider the future of his peculiar, obsessive “methods.” 

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