Wednesday, July 17, 2013

57. Extortion


“You can’t play with edged tools forever without cutting those dainty hands.”
“The Adventure of the Three Gables”

Another of the later tales that serve to forever ruffle the feathers of the Sherlockian faithful, “The Adventure of the Three Gables” presents itself as a web of blackmail and extortion, for either money, information, silence, or acquiescence. As such, it is perhaps not altogether unsurprising to note that one of the extortionists in question is none other than Sherlock Holmes himself. When considering Conan Doyle’s motivations for portraying Holmes here at his most arrogant and vitriolic, one must consider an even more intricate web through which Holmes and Watson must navigate: that of the British social classes.

It would be remiss not to remark, at least cursorily, on the issue of race in the story, as many of Holmes’s comments to, as well as Conan Doyle’s roughhewn attempt at the African-American dialect or “pidgin” English spoken by, Steve Dixie, are considered by many scholars to be patently racist. This attitude would seem to fly in the face of what we know to be Conan Doyle’s own persuasion as well as that of his character’s expressed anti-racist views proclaimed, for example, in “The Yellow Face”. While many scholars have attempted to account for this discrepancy, going so far as to disavow the story’s canonicity, a class-based view of the story would seem to illuminate (but by no means excuse) the motives that may lie behind it. Unveiling the various attempts at extortion (particularly one perpetrated by Holmes himself) that occur in the story; we uncover a plot that has just as much to do with how social minorities of all kinds could be manipulated or abused by those with status and privilege.

The first instance of extortion is the treatment of Dixie himself, in a dramatic reversal that sees Dixie dominated and subjugated by Holmes to give away more information than, as it transpires, he was hired to dissuade Holmes from obtaining, albeit in a most despicable way. As D. Martin Dakin noted, “Holmes was a gentleman. And one thing no gentleman does is to taunt another man for his racial characteristics.” However blunt the force, Holmes’s gambit rings true in the deduction that behind the thug’s brutishness is a far more delicate and dangerous power at work. This leads to the second instance of a more subtle brand of extortion, that of the offer to purchase Mary Maberly’s home and all of her possessions, which, of course, only serves to conceal another blackmail plot beneath it.

Holmes’s discovery of this tangled web of intrigue sets the stage for the final act of extortion, this one deployed by Holmes himself, once the true culprit has been revealed. It is worthy to note that Conan Doyle’s own life history and impoverished upbringing would likely fuel the desire to see the wealthy and unprincipled miscreant—emblematic, no doubt, of the hubris of the privileged class—receive their due comeuppance, and Holmes does not fail to deliver on this front, at least. But, as “The Adventure of the Three Gables” comes to a close we are left to ponder whether, as to the question of the £5,000, Holmes allows himself to have his silence bought, or, given his casual waiver of fee, remains silent to best serve his client? It remains an unsettling and open question.  

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