—“The Adventure of the Illustrious Client”
In the first chapter of Christopher Redmond’s In Bed with Sherlock Holmes: Sexual Elements in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Stories of the Great Detective, the stated reason for beginning the exploration of the sexual elements of the Holmes canon by focusing on “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client” is because the story is, in Redmond’s words, “drenched in sex.” And, by comparison to many of the other tales in the canon, it does appear so, albeit within the expected limits of Conan Doyle’s typical authorial (and, by extension, Watson’s typical narrative) constraints. While looking past the cloak of propriety allows Redmond to speculate on much of the innuendo germane to the plot of the tale, it is the sexual element that provides the exciting cause to Redmond’s secondary motive for choosing “Illustrious Client” as his starting point: the fact that the case, quite simply, contains no active crime (though, as we shall see, many possible crimes are alleged).
The victims, here represented by the unknown concerned party of the title (whose identity is never revealed to the reader, though perhaps, one may surmise, may even be the reigning monarch, Edward VII), are all women who have, for various reasons, come under the spell of the story’s villain, Austrian Baron Adelbert Gruner. These range from insult (the perceived future damage to the reputation of the Baron’s current fiancé, Violet de Merville, a woman of society with military, aristocratic, and Royal connections) and furthermore are personified by Kitty Winter, a “ruined woman” and former mistress of the Baron who bears the deep psychological scars of her dalliance and is bent on revenge—to injury, as when aristocrat and Holmes acquaintance Sir James Damery suggests that Gruner was complicit in the death of his last wife, though escaped prosecution due to the technicality of the death of a witness to the woman’s demise at the Splügen Pass, in the Swiss Alps. If the possibility of bringing a suspected murderer to justice is what persuades Holmes to take the case, it is Kitty Winter who seals the deal, with her tale of a debauched Gruner who charms and “collects” women to sexually manipulate and then, either through reputational or physical means insidiously disposes of them.
It would be exhaustive to name here the possible reasons for Kitty Winter’s explosive rage at the Baron, or what sorts of genuine threat the Baron represented for those in the highest echelons of British society. Suffice it to say that Redmond’s own theories have genuine merit and resonate with what we know of Conan Doyle’s own concerns. In 1909, for example, Conan Doyle wrote an impassioned pamphlet calling for reform of the Divorce Law in England, a reform which, Conan Doyle wrote, would potentially free women “from the embraces of drunkards, from bondage to cruel men, from the iron which fetter locks them to the felon or the hopeless maniac”—all of which seem encapsulated in the character of the Baron, who, as the “Illustrious Client” draws to its conclusion, seems ripe for retribution.