South London Holmes: Strangers, Aliens & Conspiracies

Holmes (2)

On the first page of A Study in Scarlet, the first-ever Holmes story, first-person narrator John H. Watson, M.D., late of the Army Medical Department, describes London as:

“ … that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”.

This is a powerful and pungent metaphor, coined by Doyle before he himself had ever lived in London at all. Over the course of the many Holmes stories which he wrote over the following decades, he constructed a version of London which is rather more subtle than a cesspool – but even so, the essential insight remained. Whether expressed in terms of drainage, or magnetism, or greed, or necessity, Holmes’s London is a centre of attraction. People of all types and conditions from across the globe are drawn to it, and bring with them their various devices and desires. And from these arise certain odd little problems which Holmes is called upon to solve.

There are two themes here which I want to explore: Doyle’s use of outsiders, of strangers and aliens, in the South London Holmes stories; and his association of these outsiders with secret societies and conspiracies.

Strangers and aliens

All detective fiction starts from a mystery, a problem demanding solution, intended to prick the reader’s interest. When the mystery is given a setting which is familiar to the reader, a setting which is comforting or homely, then the story may provoke a pleasurably unsettling shiver of estrangement. We twenty-first century readers of the Holmes stories miss this. We read them not because their late Victorian and Edwardian settings are familiar, but precisely because they are not; to us, the setting is as enticing as the mystery. But Doyle wrote these stories not for us but for his contemporaries. For them, the familiarity of the setting was at odds with the strangeness of the mystery, and this contradiction created the potential for a narrative charge, a shock, which is not available to us.

Doyle was a product of the Victorian British middle class, and his intended readers were also members of that middle class. Most of the Holmes tales were written between the late 1880s and the start of the First World War, and middle-class normality and received ideas of those years, middle-class ideology, was Doyle’s starting point, the standard against which he posited his mysteries. And an obvious source of mystery, then as now, is the stranger, the outsider, the person who is present but is not one of us – which in the Holmes stories means to say, not a member of the late Victorian and Edwardian British middle class.

The Empire, with its many peoples, was a ready source of outsiders: in The Sign of Four we meet three Sikhs and an Andaman Islander; and in The Man with the Twisted Lip a “sallow Malay” and “rascally lascar” in the London docks. People of colour are regularly portrayed in the Holmes stories as frightening or ugly in appearance, a casual racism which reminds us that these stories were written by a white, middle-class man for white, middle-class readers.

Alongside this racist description is an occasional theme of honour. It appears, for instance, in The Sign of Four, where the Sikhs are faithful to their oath, and Tonga the Andaman Islander is mourned by Jonathan Small as an honourable friend:

“He was staunch and true, was little Tonga. No man ever had a more faithful mate”.

This does not cancel or excuse the racist description, but it qualifies it. It adds another dimension to these fictional figures, it moves them beyond mere stereotype and invests them, at least in a preliminary way, with some vestige of personality and agency.

The USA was another source of outsiders which Doyle drew upon repeatedly. A Study in Scarlet tells of a murder in Brixton triggered by a marital feud in Utah. The back-story to The Yellow Face, set in Norbury, is an inter-racial marriage in Atlanta, Georgia. And there are other tales falling outside our South London remit which also refer to America, and also tell of sexual or marital dispute or disaster: A Scandal in Bohemia, The Adventure of the Dancing Men, The Valley of Fear. I’m not sure why Doyle repeatedly associated America with sexual rivalry and dispute, but he did; maybe there’s a PhD in here somewhere, but I’m not the one to write it.

Continental Europeans, and people of European descent, are another obvious category of stranger, and here we see Doyle making use of off-the-shelf national and ethnic tropes which his readers will recognise and with which they will feel comfortable. Latins and Greeks, for instance, are conventionally passionate and prone to extravagant acts of revenge, as seen in both The Greek Interpreter and The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge. In the very last paragraph of the former tale, we learn that the Greek heiress Sophy has had her fatal revenge upon the two Englishmen who killed her brother. And the convoluted plot of Wisteria Lodge turns on an assassination attempt by Latin American conspirators against their former dictator; they fail, but again we learn, on the final page, that a subsequent attempt has succeeded and that “justice, if belated, had come at last”.

The equally conventional contrast between passionate southern Europeans and phlegmatic northern Europeans is vividly drawn in The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, when Holmes and Watson visit the works where busts of Napoleon are made. The manager is German, “big, blond” with “blue Teutonic eyes”, friendly and helpful, only roused to anger when reminded of a former worker, the Italian Beppo, who knifed a colleague. Beppo, meanwhile, is a very different character, a creature of greed and passion, “an alert, sharp-featured simian man”.

This portrait of the affable German is not, however, Doyle’s last word. History matters here. As stressed above, most of the Holmes stories were written in the twenty-five years before the First World War. For much of this period, there was no popular sense in Britain that Germans were enemies, and certainly no sense of national rivalry with Germany equivalent to the historic rivalry with France. But as tensions mounted from the turn of the century, there was a growing unease, and we can see this reflected in the Holmes stories.

In The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, published in 1904, perceptions were still relaxed enough to allow for the German workshop manager to be portrayed as a genial figure. But by 1908 things were more tense: Britain was now openly aligned with France against Germany, and a public Anglo-German naval arms race was under way. The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plans, published in that year, concerns the theft of top-secret naval documents from Woolwich Arsenal. Holmes is called in by his brother Mycroft to work on the case, and Mycroft provides him with details of the three foreign agents in London who are most likely to be involved: one (La Rothière) has a French name, while two (Meyer and Oberstein) have German names. Holmes quickly identifies Oberstein as the agent responsible.

Finally, there is the case of the missing Jews. From 1881 Britain and other countries were confronted with large-scale refugee migration as thousands of Jews came west, fleeing pogroms in Russia and Poland. Many headed for the USA, but about 150,000 settled in Britain, especially in London, around Whitechapel. Inevitably they suffered racist abuse, and inevitably there was public discussion including old and new anti-semitic slanders. The debate on Jewish immigration was live at exactly the time when the Holmes stories were being written and yet, strangely, Jewish characters hardly figure within them.

I can think of only one such appearance in the South London stories, a minor and unhappy one. In The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, Holmes takes Watson for lunch at an hotel in Croydon, and “with great exultation” tells Watson how he paid less than £3 to “a Jew broker in Tottenham Court Road” for a Stradivarius violin worth at least 500 guineas. Holmes is gleeful not merely because he got a bargain, but because he got a bargain from a Jew; all the age-old fables of Jewish usury and sharp practice lurk within the anecdote. It reflects no credit on Holmes as a character, or on Doyle as his creator.


Like most of us, Doyle liked secrets. And like some of us, he liked conspiracies. He liked the idea of secret societies, sinister cabals of murky miscreants, using plots and passwords and codes to achieve their criminal aims and upset society’s natural order.

In the Holmes stories, although these conspiracies are acted out in London, they are not of London. They originate elsewhere. Conspiracy is something done by outsiders, and London itself is the setting, but not the cause, of their mischief. It is no accident that the greatest conspirator of all, Holmes’s arch-enemy Professor Moriarty, the ‘Napoleon of Crime’ who directs the activities of the under-world as a conductor directs an orchestra, has an Irish name. So too does his brutal side-kick Colonel Moran.

The South London Holmes stories offer a range of examples of conspiracy as an exotic import. A Study in Scarlet brings in a religious conspiracy from the USA; The Sign of Four, a compact between thieves from India; The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, theft and murder by members of the Mafia (which is oddly described by Lestrade as “a secret political society”); and The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge, a failed plot to assassinate a South American dictator. London hosts these intrigues, or attracts those seeking refuge from them, but it does not initiate them.

The great attraction of conspiracies, both in fiction and in life, is that they reduce the complex to the simple. They posit a world in which the common-sense of everyday life, where individual decisions have identifiable consequences, also applies beyond everyday life; a world in which economic and political trends and processes are explained not by collective agencies or interpretive categories or complex systems, but simply by sinister individuals manipulating events. Conspiracies are satisfying because they are consistent with everyday experience (we all know manipulative people); they grant a gratifying sense of hard-headed realism to the believer (those clever-dicks think it’s all about dysfunctional systems, but I know it’s all about a Bad Man); and they suggest easy solutions (solve the problem by finding and removing the Bad Man).

Hence Moriarty and the Reichenbach Falls. By 1892 Doyle was fed up with Holmes and wanted to move on to other writing projects. He sought to get rid of the detective by writing a final story featuring a doubly-fatal encounter between Holmes and the master of criminal conspiracy, Professor Moriarty. The Final Problem, published in 1893, killed off both of them, and set Doyle free of Holmes for the next decade. He only resumed the tales in 1903, in response to a generous financial offer which he felt unable to refuse.

The Final Problem was a neat solution to Doyle’s personal frustration as a writer, but it involved a shameless narrative sleight of hand, because this is the first that we have ever heard of Moriarty and his vast criminal conspiracy. There is no mention of any of this in the twenty-odd preceding stories. It is only within The Final Problem itself that we learn (a) that Moriarty exists, (b) that he is the arch-conspirator behind much of London’s crime, (c) that there is to be a show-down between him and Holmes, and (d) that both of them die. Doyle retro-fits the Moriarty conspiracy onto Holmes’s career as a detective, for the express purpose of bringing it to a clean and simple end – for if the Bad Man is dead, then the conspiracy must be over, and if the conspiracy is over, then there is nothing significant left to detect.

It follows that, when Doyle revived Holmes a decade later in The Adventure of the Empty House, he was also forced to revive the conspiracy in the homicidal form of Colonel Moran, Moriarty’s associate, hell-bent on revenge.