Books, sherlock holmes

“It Suits My Purpose”: Doyle, Holmes, and Milverton

"Milverton had glided as quick as a rat to the site of the room..."

This blog enjoyed one of those periodic – but inexplicable – spikes yesterday, for the phrase ‘charles augustus milverton’. Milverton is, of course, the only Sherlock Holmes villain named in the title of the story in which he appears. When I read the story last year, what struck me was the seediness of the affair: the unctuous Milverton, his amoral blackmail racket, Holmes’s own descent into moral ambiguity. It’s a story very strong in characterisation – its villain is no rent-a-crook, and remains one of the most memorable of all Holmes’s nemeses. But Holmes and Watson, too, get some fine moments: when Watson insists he join Holmes in robbing Milverton’s home, the good doctor huffs at his conceited friend that, “Other people besides you have self-respect, and even reputations.” Rarely does Watson get lines like that.

This is all for the best, because the story itself is pretty weak, resolved as it is by the arrival of a character mentioned not at all until her very moment of entrance. Though Milverton crosses swords with Holmes on the subject of one of the latter’s aristocratic clients, his undoing – entirely without any input or influence from our hero – is a quite separate tale, and engineered by a wronged woman who remains, thanks to good old circumspect Watson, nameless. The only satisfaction we have is the story’s atmosphere.

This is set early on when Holmes, far from a man uncharmed by criminal competency (he praised Moriarty, remember, with the remarkable sobriquet ‘the Napoleon of crime’), calls Milverton, plainly and without adornment, “The worst man in London.” Though he admits that “the fellow is a genius in his way, and would have made his mark in some more savoury trade”, Holmes’s disdain is clear for the manner in which the blackmailer preys on the private indiscretions of those unfortunate enough to possess an acquaintance willing to sell secrets for cash. Milverton “methodically and at his leisure tortures the soul and wrings the nerves in order to add to his already swollen money-bags.” Rarely, Watson notes, has Holmes spoken with such intensity.

That intensity may have been Conan Doyle’s: published in 1904, the story was written whilst his first wife, Louisa, became increasingly ill with tuberculosis; for consolation, Conan Doyle turned to Jean Leckie, whom he married a year after Louisa’s death in 1906. The passionate denunciation of those who would profit from the painful complications of a gentleman’s private affairs may therefore be unsurprising, particularly given that Milverton is based on Charles Augustus Howell, a real life blackmailer who died in mysterious circumstances in 1890. Milverton is a potent mix of true life study and darkest fears made flesh. It is he who makes this otherwise akward story dance – thus, one assumes, the searches.

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