South London Holmes: Whisper Norbury in my ear

This is the ninth and last of my series of posts on ‘South London Holmes’, inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s constantly recurring use of South London as the setting for Sherlock Holmes’s adventures. Over the course of the sixty Holmes stories, Doyle sends the detective to South London more frequently than to any other single vicinity. To the best of my knowledge, this has never been remarked upon before. If you know better, please get in touch.

Times and places

Brixton is by far Holmes’s most-visited place in South London. It plays a significant role in the very first tale, the (brilliant) A Study in Scarlet published in 1887; in one of the very last, the (lame) The Veiled Lodger written forty years later; and in three other stories in the intervening years: The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, The Naval Treaty, and The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax. It also crops up in passing in other stories, such as The Greek Interpreter and The Adventure of Black Peter, as a quick way of identifying the social standing of particular characters. Brixton was, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an expanding middle-class and skilled-working-class suburb, and Doyle returned constantly to it because he judged that its modest and diligent respectability provided a nicely ironic backdrop for his tales of passion, greed and violence.

Norwood and Lee are equal-second in popularity. Each appears in the first batch of stories written in the 1890s: Norwood in The Sign of Four, Lee in The Man with the Twisted Lip. And each appears again when Doyle resurrected Holmes in the early 1900s: Norwood in The Adventure of the Norwood Builder, and Lee in The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge.

Other locations appear only once. Grouped chronologically, they are:

The early stories of the 1890s: Beckenham (The Greek Interpreter), Croydon (The Adventure of the Cardboard Box), Norbury (The Yellow Face), Streatham (The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet).

The ‘resurrection’ stories of the 1900s: Chislehurst (The Adventure of the Abbey Grange), Kennington (The Adventure of the Six Napoleons), Woolwich (The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans).

The late stories of the 1920s: Kingston (The Adventure of the Illustrious Client), Lewisham (The Adventure of the Retired Colourman).  

Overall, about 30% of the Holmes short stories include South London settings, more than any other locality. The second most popular arena is the West End or “fashionable London”, flexibly defined to include 221B Baker Street. Next come the Home Counties, especially country houses in Sussex or Surrey. And there are one or two tales set in the City of London, and the East End.

The paucity of East End locations is especially interesting, because it was only a year after the publication of A Study in Scarlet that Jack the Ripper made his appearance in Whitechapel. Once the Ripper murders had taken place, Doyle could easily have homed in on the East End as a regular setting for his stories. He had already staked out his claim to write London-based tales of criminal detection, and fate had now provided him with a locality indelibly associated in the public mind with the most horrific crime, so it must have been tempting to cash in on this association. But he did not. He decided to set most of his stories not among London’s poor, but among its respectable middle and upper classes. This was a narrative choice rather than an expression of social conscience, and possibly reflected nothing more than a preference to focus on a social milieu with which he, and his intended readers, were familiar. Nevertheless it was an important choice, because from it emerged the Holmes, and the Watson, that we know. Holmes would not be Holmes, nor Watson Watson, had Doyle chosen differently.

Domestic drama

If I were to suggest that many, even most, of the Holmes tales were essentially domestic dramas, I think most Holmes readers would instinctively rebel. They would do so for two reasons.

Firstly: we all tend to associate Holmes with forensic skill, a talent for close observation, for analysing that observation, and for drawing inferences from the analysis. It is this talent which constantly astonishes Watson (and, in the process, underpins our affection for him). And yet: a possible consequence of this focus on physical process is to deflect our attention from questions of human agency and motivation.

Secondly: we all tend to associate Holmes with crime, complex crime, high-concept crime requiring high-concept detection. Professor Moriarty is a key figure here, Holmes’s arch-enemy, the ‘Napoleon of crime’, a perverse genius lurking at the centre of a web of evil. And yet: however darkly attractive Moriarty may be, he only crops up in two or three tales. Most of Holmes’s adventures have nothing whatsoever to do with organised crime.

Instead, if we look at the stories themselves; if we push to one side Holmes’s forensic skills; if we concentrate instead on the circumstances and motivations behind the crimes and mysteries which he investigates; then time after time we find ourselves looking not at high-concept crime, but at domestic drama. Of sixteen South London stories, no fewer than twelve feature family or sexual tension or jealousy.  

Misunderstanding or deception between husband and wife is the driving factor in The Man with the Twisted Lip, The Yellow Face, The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, and The Adventure of the Retired Colourman.

Jealousy and lust for revenge on the part of rejected lovers fuel the drama in The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, The Adventure of the Norwood Builder, and The Adventure of the Illustrious Client; while jealousy and lust for revenge between rival suitors is the motivation in A Study in Scarlet.  

A daughter’s concern for her father is the starting point for The Sign of Four; and misunderstanding between father and son provides the pathos in The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet.

Even the two tales of espionage and treason, quintessentially high-concept affairs in which Holmes successfully staves off national disaster, involve family betrayals: betrayal of brother-in-law by brother-in-law in The Naval Treaty, and of brother by brother in The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans.

To conclude: when we strip away the forensic paraphernalia of blood-stains and cigar-ash, of hat-bands and walking-sticks, we find that Sherlock Holmes’s real function is to reveal the family as a reservoir of discontent, passion and violence.

Whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear

I finish with the final lines of The Yellow Face, the setting for which is Norbury. This is a subtle little tale of inter-racial marriage and a mixed-race child. Surprisingly, it has a happy ending, but we only reach it after Holmes has misinterpreted the evidence, jumped to the wrong conclusion, and generally messed up. However, he has the grace to admit his errors to Watson:

“Watson” said he, “if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear and I shall be infinitely obliged to you”.

‘Whisper Norbury in my ear’. A poignant note on which to end: mildly ridiculous, somewhat touching, and undeniably South London.