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Sherlock Holmes and C. Auguste Dupin

Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, freely acknowledged his deep indebtedness to Edgar Allan Poe, whose tales of ratiocination featuring the amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin, were so well conceived, Doyle said, that nothing could be done to improve upon the conventions they established. In the opening paragraph of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Poe describes the possessor of a keen analytical mind in terms that would characterize literature's most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes.

THE MENTAL FEATURES discoursed of as the analytical, are, in themselves, but little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects. We know of them, among other things, that they are always to their possessor, when inordinately possessed, a source of the liveliest enjoyment. As the strong man exults in his physical ability, delighting in such exercises as call his muscles into action, so glories the analyst in that moral activity which disentangles. He derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talents into play. He is fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension preternatural. His results, brought about by the very soul and essence of method, have, in truth, the whole air of intuition.

Like Poe's amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin, Doyle's Sherlock Holmes "derives pleasure from even the most trivial occupations bringing his talents into play." This is the case in "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League," a story in which Holmes becomes involved with the comical Jabez Wilson, who hopes to get the famous detective to help him recover his job copying articles out of the Encyclopedia Britannica without charging Holmes for his services. Wilson is gratified when Holmes agrees to take on the case, not realizing that Holmes has almost immediately detected much deeper significance to the problem than either Wilson or Dr. Watson imagine.

Sherlock Holmes is constantly complaining that he needs problems to solve. His brain is always working, but it needs puzzles to analyze. His hyperactive brain is represented in his tall, ascetic physique and hawklike features, and it is responsible for his restlessness and bursts of energy, as well as for his quick, precise speech. He will spend hours examining an old hat, as he does in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," or creating a mental picture of the owner of an old walking stick, as he does in the opening of "The Hound of the Baskervilles."

What was important to Doyle was that his hero's interest in solving problems would enable the author to create stories involving all types of characters from the most humble to the most exalted, and all types of puzzles from the most trivial to problems involving fortunes in gold and issues threatening the balance of powers in Europe.

Holmes calls himself a "consulting detective." Today we would call him a "private eye." Most private detectives work for people who can afford to pay fees and expenses, but Holmes has a broader spectrum of clients and mysteries because he will only accept cases that challenge his brilliant analytical mind. Why should he take on a case that could be solved by a mediocre police detective like Inspector Lestrade? Holmes can also be motivated to help ladies in distress; innocent men wrongfully accused of serious crimes and threatened with disgrace, years in prison, and sometimes execution; and in some tales is motivated by patriotism when a case involves an issue of vital importance to the British government. Because Holmes sometimes receives enormous rewards from rich and prominent clients, he can live in comfort and devote most of his time to analyzing any problem that intrigues him, no matter how seemingly petty or arcane. This must explain what Poe meant about his own analytical genius C. Auguste Dupin when he opened "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" with the epigraph from "Urn Burial" by Sir Thomas Browne:

What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, although puzzling questions are not beyond all conjecture.  

Jabez Wilson

Jabez Wilson is one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most interesting and memorable characters. He is comical and serious, dumb and sharp, active and lethargic, well dressed and slovenly. His involvement in the actual crime is only incidental, yet he and his shop and his cellar, and his assistant, and his greed, and his defensive pride are all-important to the outcome of the story. This is probably why the author directs such close attention to Wilson's appearance. Both Holmes and Watson look him over and draw conclusions about him. For example, Watson says:

I did not gain very much, however, by my inspection. Our visitor bore every mark of being an average commonplace British tradesman, obese, pompous, and slow. He wore rather baggy grey shepherd's check trousers, a not over-clean black frock-coat, unbuttoned in the front, and a drab waistcoat with a heavy brassy Albert chain, and a square pierced bit of metal dangling down as an ornament. A frayed top-hat and a faded brown overcoat with a wrinkled velvet collar lay upon a chair beside him. Altogether, look as I would, there was nothing remarkable about the man save his blazing red head, and the expression of extreme chagrin and discontent upon his features.

Jabez Wilson's main contribution to the story is that his character makes the preposterous concept of a "League of Red-Headed Men" seem believable. Doyle had to sell that concept to the reader in order for the rest of his story to work. Wilson himself explains that he was very suspicious of the institution from the beginning. His assistant Vincent Spaulding had to talk him into going down to apply for a position and then had to keep him from getting discouraged by the large number of other applicants and push him up the stairs and right into the office of his henchman, who also had red hair and called himself Duncan Ross. Even after Wilson had been hired, he still had misgivings.

Well, I thought over the matter all day, and by evening I was in low spirits again; for I had quite persuaded myself that the whole affair must be some great hoax or fraud, though what its object might be I could not imagine. It seemed altogether past belief that anyone could make such a will, or that they would pay such a sum for doing anything so simple as copying out the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Doyle is assuaging his reader's skepticism. Once Wilson is assured and has started working, the reader is assured as well.

Sherlock Holmes was a gold mine for his creator. The great detective was featured in four novels and fifty-six stories. He was famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Doyle was one of the highest-paid writers of his time. But he was canny enough to realize that he needed variety. He couldn't just write stories about upper-class types who had some delicate problem and were willing to pay a lot of money for help. Doyle realized that by depicting his detective as a man who cared little about money and everything about exercising his mental powers, he could introduce a whole spectrum of characters and settings from top to bottom of English society. 

Jabez Wilson is a good example of a client who has a problem but can't afford to pay the high fee a professional like Holmes would deserve. Wilson only netted about thirty pounds from his work at the League, and he doesn't want to part with any of it. He tells Holmes:

I did not wish to lose such a place without a struggle, so, as I had heard that you were good enough to give advice to poor folk who were in need of it, I came right away to you.

This is very important. It helps to establish that Holmes is good enough to give advice to poorer people. Many of the other Sherlock Holmes stories will get started by the arrival at Baker Street of a man or woman who needs help but can't afford to pay for it. A good example is the impetuous arrival of Helen Stoner in "The Adventure of the Speckled Band." Holmes often helps young women in distress. In another story, "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," Holmes assists a young governess named Violet Hunter, and in "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist," Holmes saves the honor of an attractive young woman named Violet Smith. None of these clients can afford to pay Holmes for his services, and all of them have the common denominator of taking Holmes and his friend Watson to different picturesque places, sometimes clear out of the city. In "The Red-Headed League," the reader is given a detailed description of the neighborhood surrounding Wilson's pawnshop. The modern reader enjoys seeing the sights of England and meeting many of England's quaint Victorian characters.

Watson's Embellishments

You have shown your relish for it by the enthusiasm which has prompted you to chronicle, and, if you will excuse my saying so, somewhat to embellish so many of my own little adventures.

In a number of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the great detective criticizes his friend Dr. Watson for "embellishing" actual events. Holmes uses other terms to express his opinion, but it is clear that what he disapproves of is the emotional element which Watson takes the liberty of inserting into the narratives. Here are two examples:

Holmes shot the slide across the front of his lantern and left us in pitch darkness—such an absolute darkness as I have never before experienced. The smell of hot metal remained to assure us that the light was still there, ready to flash out at a moment's notice. To me, with my nerves worked up to a pitch of expectancy, there was something depressing and subduing in the sudden gloom, and in the cold dank air of the vault.

It is natural for Holmes to think that Watson puts too much dramatic detail into his stories. Holmes is always portrayed as unemotional, strictly intellectual, and analytical. Watson, on the other hand, is always portrayed as a person with strong feelings. He wouldn't get involved with so many of Holmes's cases if he didn't relish the thrill involved as well as the intellectual challenge. The Sherlock Holmes stories often have titles that begin with the words "The Adventure." Arthur Conan Doyle knew that some readers would appreciate the "ratiocination" involved in the mystery, while others would get more fun out of the emotional aspect. Both "The Red-Headed League" and "The Speckled Band," have a strong mixture of deduction and suspense.

Holmes and Watson make a good pair for the storyteller's art. Holmes provides the analysis, deduction, induction, and ratiocination; Watson provides the more "human" element of curiosity, excitement, fear, wonder, amusement, and triumph. Together, the two characters weave intellect and emotion into stories that have remained popular for over a hundred years.

Sherlock Holmes' Ennui

Watson frequently remarks in the Sherlock Holmes detective stories that the great man suffers from ennui when he doesn't have a problem to solve. This is why he sometimes uses drugs such as cocaine and morphine, which were not illegal in his day. He takes on the apparently trivial problem of Jabez Wilson partly because it gives his hypersensitive and hyperactive mind something to work on. As he tells Watson at the end of the tale:

“It saved me from ennui,” he answered, yawning. “Alas! I already feel it closing in upon me. My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence. These little problems help me to do so.”

Holmes' little problems also help the reader to escape from the commonplaces of existence. 

By establishing that Holmes takes on any kind of case that interests him and saves him from boredom, Arthur Conan Doyle can write about a wider variety of characters, settings, and problems than would have been possible if Holmes only worked for clients who could pay a fee commensurate with his services. He has enough wealthy clients to earn all the money he needs. In one story, "The Adventure of the Priory School," a nobleman writes Holmes a check for six thousand pounds as a reward. This would be equivalent in buying power to at least a million of today's American dollars.

Holmes obviously does not expect to make any money off the problem brought to him by Jabez Wilson. Doyle has taken pains in many of his Sherlock Holmes stories to show that the great detective has other motives besides money for helping clients, and Wilson has probably informed him before Watson's arrival that he can't afford to pay. Holmes likes mental challenges. He also likes to help people in trouble. He sometimes finds, as he does in this story, that apparently trivial problems can have very complex ramifications and implications. At the very end of the story he tells Mr. Merryweather that he will not charge the bank for saving their French gold except to be reimbursed for some petty expenses.

Digging the Long Tunnel

Jabez Wilson describes both his assistant and his assistant's accomplice as "small." This is intended by the author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to establish that it would be easier for them than for larger men to dig a long tunnel, because they wouldn't have to remove as much dirt. Also, their small size would make it easier for them to scramble around inside the tunnel, both while they were digging it and while they were hauling all those French gold coins back to Wilson's cellar. Here are the pertinent words from the story Wilson tells Holmes:

“There was nothing in the office but a couple of wooden chairs and a deal table, behind which sat a small man with a head that was even redder than mine. He said a few words to each candidate as he came up, and then he always managed to find some fault in them which would disqualify them. Getting a vacancy did not seem to be such a very easy matter, after all. However, when our turn came the little man was much more favourable to me than to any of the others, and he closed the door as we entered, so that he might have a private word with us."

This occurs when Wilson is being interviewed for the post with the Red-Headed League by Clay's accomplice, who calls himself Duncan Ross. A little later in their initial meeting, Holmes will ask Wilson:

“What is he like, this Vincent Spaulding?”

Small, stout-built, very quick in his ways, no hair on his face, though he's not short of thirty. Has a white splash of acid upon his forehead.”

John Clay, alias Vincent Spaulding, is small but well-built for tunneling. He is husky and agile. The whole business of digging such a long tunnel is one that the author has to make the reader accept. It must be a least a full city-block long. There would be some danger of cave-ins, and they are not using wooden beams as buttresses. Therefore, the less dirt they would remove, the less danger there would be from cave-ins. All the dirt must have to be hauled back out through the tunnel and dumped in Wilson's cellar. It's a good thing he doesn't go down there, but Conan Doyle has forestalled that possibility by characterizing Wilson as old, fat, lazy, and apparently suffering from high blood pressure. He is also a heavy snuff-user, which undoubtedly affects his breathing. He would be unlikely to climb down steep, dark cellar steps out of mere curiosity. And if he did so, he would get murdered with a shovel and buried in his own cellar.