Wednesday, August 7, 2013

60. Jealousy

“He was a jealous man, and his jealousy became a frantic mania.”
“The Adventure of the Retired Colourman”

As stated earlier, Conan Doyle often crafted plots with very real elements and, well into his later life, was immensely well read, particularly on those subjects which most easily aligned with his writing. Issues around crime, science, medicine, and the occult were among his most keen interests, and references frequently found themselves into his stories, novels, and non-fiction works. One of the most unusual cases of this was first explored by Sherlockian scholar Charles A. Meyer, in a 1988 issue of Baker Street Miscellanea. In “Retired Colourman,” Meyer contends that Conan Doyle used a highly publicized murder case, from several decades before in America, to inform the plot and the characterization of the Josiah Amberley.

Following from Meyer’s contention, perhaps in selecting the influential story, Conan Doyle was most struck by the alias used by Herman Webster Mudgett in his diabolical schemes, that of a “Dr. Holmes”. Considered to be one of the first modern serial killers, Mudgett is probably best known to modern readers as one of the central characters of Erik Larson’s 2003 book, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, which details Mudgett’s activities during and immediately following the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Although the exact number of Mudgett’s victims is still unknown today, Larson meticulously details various methods that Mudgett used to torture and kill his victims, some which resonate directly to the investigation of the disappearances recounted in “Retired Colourman.”  Moreover, Holmes and Watson soon realize that another private investigator, Barker, from Surrey, is also looking into the case, and much like the actual investigation of Mudgett, it is the rivalry between the different investigators that almost allows the guilty party to evade detection.

In addition to the remarkable similarity noted by Meyer, there is something else in Larson’s rich description of the Chicago murders that continues to resonate with “Retired Colourman”—that is the central theme of jealousy. Mudgett’s own criminal intentions were colored, as it were, by both a disturbed mind and a mad desire to eliminate evidence of earlier crimes, but, as Larson points out, the earliest of Mudgett’s victims were romantic partners, and Mudgett seems to be gripped, in committing these horrible acts, first and foremost by uncontrollable jealousy. Much like the antagonist of “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman” Mudgett’s jealousy was let loose, after all, to his own peril.

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