A couple of weeks ago, I described Escherich, the Gestapo detective in Hans Fallada’s Alone In Berlin, as ‘a fascist Maigret’. At the time, I considered talking about a fascist Sherlock Holmes, but something stopped me. At first glance, and certainly this was the interpretation Tim McInnerny placed on the character in his portrayal for the BBC radio dramatisation, Escherich’s arrogance and superiority complex are vintage Holmes: “He worked on the assumption that he was completely different from everyone else.” [pg. 390]
In so far as Holmes considers others at all, he operates on a similar basis. “Do you know, Watson,” he says in ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beaches’, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.” But as much as Holmes conceives of himself as different to others, it is at least in part not so much ego as simple statement of logical fact. In A Study In Scarlet, Watson, too, admits that, “I had no idea that such individuals exist outside of stories.”
Escherich’s worst sin is not to see himself as different so much as apart: after murdering a man he has attempted to frame for the distribution of Otto Quangel’s anti-Nazi postcards, he simply thinks, “The piece of shit, the little whimpering piece of shit.” [pg. 301] On the other hand, Holmes, for all his at times cavalier approach to human feelings (harsh words to Watson, sham romances with servant girls), never loses sight of the importance of a shared humanity: approaching Christmas, we might remember his act of charity in ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’. This is a generosity and selflessness lost to Escherich, who questions the validity of the law only in his final moments. Holmes, on the other hand, is always aware that natural justice is higher than any human legal system.
Neither is it the case, of course, that in Maigret (of all detectives) we can perceive incipient fascism. It is more that, in his love of life’s pleasures – food, wine, camaraderie – there is something of Escherich’s desire for comfort. This all too human tendency to seek the easy life powers the narrative of Alone In Berlin, in which everyone is compromised by a brutal and brutalising regime, its agents most of all. Holmes, of course, was a super-human ascetic: he rarely ate and had apparently minimal need for comfort. The temptations of collaboration as depicted by Fallada would have had little appeal for Sherlock Holmes – but only, perhaps, because his is in reality an impossible character. Such is what ideals are made of.