“It is years since the incidents of which I speak took place, and yet it is with diffidence that I allude to them.”
The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton is a uniquely seedy affair. Not only does it involve blackmail and the most memorably oleaginous villain in the canon, but it turns Holmes and Watson into common criminals. Mark Loper emphasises this element of the tale in his post about the story, and asks the fair question, how might “two middle aged men” scale a six foot fence? To be fair, Watson never dates the story, but Holmes’s assertion early on that he has dealt with as many as fifty murderers in his career must put the story post-Reichenbach, and the pair’s athleticism in doubt. (Though, again to be fair, Lestrade, investigating the break-in at the end of the story, remarks that only one of the men was “a bit too active” – poor old Watson is almost caught.)
It’s not just the break-in, though: Holmes here deals with a blackmailer on the criminal’s terms, then performs a confidence trick on a housemaid, posing as a pluimber named Escott and persuading her to marry him, and finally refuses to lift a finger to prevent a murder. I’ve referred before to Holmes’s willingness to apply his own morality to the cases he takes on, but in this story even Watson wonders aloud if the great detective has “gone too far.” Holmes shrugs off the accusation, arguing that his actions are not just morally justifiable but that – given his client is a woman – the lengths to which he is going to protect her are actually both chivlarous and valorous. Holmes also suggests that his “self-respect and reputation” are at stake – and we have seen before how Holmes’s efforts are often motivated by a mix of genuine concern for his clients and personal vanity. Here, so potent is the mix that he resembles more a vigilante than a detective.
“I have always had an idea that I would have made a highly efficient criminal,” Holmes admits, and Watson too is struck by how easily the pair move from stalwarts of the justice system to outlaws. “An instant afterwards … we had become felons in the eyes of the law,” he marvels as he and Holmes cross the final line into trespass. In The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Kate Summerscale argues that the Victorian detective was seen by contemporaries as in “violation of the middle-class home.” In the intensely private domestic spaces the Victorians created for themselves, then, the detective “was a shadowy figure, a demon as well as a demi-god.” No story in the canon makes this ambivalence more a part of its fabric than this one. Concerned as it is with sexual jealousy, secrecy and money, the case speaks to the dark impulses beneath the veneer of Victorian society; the detective’s job is to navigate these murky waters – but to do so, he must dirty himself a little.
The story’s resolution, unfortunately, is another of those in which Holmes and Watson just happen to be in the right place at the right time, making the crescendo of this pleasingly dirty little tale a little less satisfactory than it might be, even if the little coda adds the right note of duality, when Holmes lies to the police and allows a murderer to go free because “my sympathies are with the criminals rather than with the victim.” Milverton, too, is one of the canon’s best villains – richly characterised in his short appearance and terrifically realised. Most importantly, and though there is enough meat on it to provide fodder for the best of the feature length Jeremy Brett adaptations, the story also has the virtue of being quite short, and does not out-stay its welcome. The Return continues to be a relatively consistent one.