The Man with the Twisted Lip starts darkly: an evening in for Watson and his missus is interrupted by a tearful visit from the wife of one of the doctor’s patients, whom has gone missing and, she fears, has sequestered himself in an opium den, where he has set to assuaging his addiction. There follows a short but potent section in which Watson arrives at the establishment to find “bodies lying in strange fantastic poses”. It is a memorable vision of the debilitating face of addiction, with that high moral tone Conan Doyle often adopts when describing the unseemly underbellies of London.
The mystery proper, however, has little to do with this episode, though the opium den does figure. Watson comes across Holmes whilst helping his friend out of his sleeper, and – with a hasty note dispatched to the long-suffering Mrs Watson (though given at one point she calls her husband ‘James’, this may be a form of revenge for the good doctor) – the two of them decamp to Lee in Kent, and the residence of Holmes’s latest client, the wife of a missing man named Neville St. Clair.
The story, then, makes a gesture towards the domestic impact of a man’s secret life, and both St. Clair, Whitney and Watson ask too much of their wives in the course of the tale – though each woman is more or less a passive figure who can do little but endure this treatment. Mrs St. Clair does, however, manage to wrong foot Holmes, who starts the story convinced St. Clair is dead some days, but is astounded when his hostess produces a letter she has received whilst Holmes has been prowling around Victorian crack houses.
Once Holmes ascertains that the missive is genuine, he quickly solves the case. What is most interesting about the affair is that it is left until the end, and a monolgue by another character, for us to understand why the mystery came to be. Holmes, here and elsewhere, concerns himself with mechanics, “rearranging his facts, looking at [the case] from every point of view, until he had either fathomed it, or convinced himself that his data were insufficient.” That is, for Sherlock Holmes, motive comes last. For him, method is more important.
I’ve already linked the Holmesian approach, unusual for a character in detective fiction, to the very modern cop show, The Wire. But the show’s writer, David Simon, writes in his 1991 book Homicide (which I have just begun to read) something even more pertinent to Holmes’s condition: “The best work of Dashiell Hammett and Agatha Christie argues that to track a murderer, the motive must first be established; in Baltimore, if not on the Orient Express, a known motive can be interesting, even helpful, yet it is often beside the point. Fuck the why, a detective will tell you; find out the how, and nine times out of then it’ll give you the who.”
Holmes may not have used the profanity, but he’d have agreed with the sentence. The reported nature of so much of the action in Holmes stories can make the narrative feel inert, but it is a natural consequence of Holmes’s very particular technique. Why Whitney or St. Clair cause their wives pain is immaterial when set against the fact that they do so, and this focus of Holmes upon the intellect is probably what allows each generation to reinvent him for themselves – he rarely reveals the mores of his own time in misplaced psychoanalysis. Sherlock Holmes makes the facts fit together – it is for others to apply the moral.