Master Detective & Race

Note: … I seem to have got that urge to demolish the innocence of my reading pleasures (as done previously with Father Brown). I still love how in the old Sherlock Holmes stories the difficulty of problems is measured by the quantity of cigarettes it takes to solve them and various quantities of brandy are a universal medicine for just any ailment. Still… that concept of “masterfulness” had it coming like the wall in the BBC’s Sherlock episode “The Great Game”. This post is based nearly exclusively on my reading of the Sherlock Holmes stories (having re-read all 56 of them) and the BBC adaptation Sherlock (having watched all episodes… at least twice). But the primary purpose of those readings was not analysis but entertainment. I do not have any claim to Sherlockist expertise in literary criticism – nor to anything approaching expertise in critical whiteness… so I would not be surprised to find that similar arguments have been made (or rejected) more competently by someone else already.

The brilliance and wit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories remains captivating and the latest BBC TV adaptation with Benedict Cummerbatch and Martin Freeman are great watching. Yet re-reading the original stories became ever ever less comfortable as I progressed. As is nearly inevitable in Victorian fiction, reading Sherlock Holmes sooner or later one is confronted with the protagonist’s (and author’s) problematic views on “race”. While you may debate how prominent they are across the canon there is no question about Holmes’/Doyle’s blatant racism in the late story The Adventure of the Three Gables. It opens with a hired thug, Black boxer Stevie Dixon, trying to intimidate Holmes. The detective teases him using the crudest racist stereotypes describing him as smelly, woolly-headed, thick-lipped. Dixie is portrayed as strong and stupid. And Holmes subdues him using his investigative prowess as an intellectual whip while Dr Watson lies in waiting with the iron poker in case physical force was needed after all. There is no debating away the racism in this story (not for lack of trying – various Sherlockians have had a go across the fanzines). Also, it cannot simply be set off against the anti-racism of Sherlock acting as noble defender of a child from a mixed-race marriage in The Adventure of the Yellow Face or his action against the KKK in the Three Orange Pips – racism is not a carbon-emissions-like quantity. You cannot, as Cunningham (1993) in an otherwise valuable article seems to suggest, neutralise Doyle’s (and through him Holmes’) racist slurs against the “bad” Black man who associates himself with criminals by highlighting their support for the “good” Black[1] gentleman who has acquired civilisation in manners and reading (referring to Doyle’s positive portrayal of Henry Highland Garnet). In present terms – racist slurs against villains like Robert Mugabe or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan cannot be justified by the fact that they really are dictatorial bullies. Even less does this work with fictional characters. Steve Dixie may be modelled on real life Jack Johnson who has deliberately played on White fears about Black sexual prowess, but in his ridiculous physical and psychological features Steve Dixie was created by Doyle. Cunningham (1992: 124) excuses the racist venom by the criminality of the character it is directed at:

“If Steve Dixie receives worse treatment from Holmes than is customary for black clowns, we must remember that this bruiser was allied with the villains.”

What we must, indeed, remember is that – controversial as his public demeanour may have been and the criticism he has drawn from Black civil rights activists of his time: the real Jack Johnson was no criminal. The “fact” that Steve Dixie was criminal is due to his creator, Sherlock Holmes’ author, writing him as one.

Hence it is difficult to see how the racist outburst of the Holmes of the Three Gables would not corrupt, after 33 years, the ‘praiseworthy sentiment Doyle dramatized in “The Yellow Face”’ (Cunningham 1992: 123) only because he ‘undoubtedly meant only to capitalize on a popular comic tradition and did not consider the possible harm in propagating a derogatory black stereotype’ (ibid.) Maybe Cunningham is right to assert that Doyle’s attitude had not undergone a dramatic change – but as the attempt to trivialise the undeniable racism in The Three Gables fails we have to look for something in Sherlock that allows us to account for this sudden outbreak in one of the last stories. That something is obscured by a focus on the use of racist language as merely wrong or harmful words without relating them to their function in reassuring White masculinities.

Doyle, like as Cunningham points out some Black writers of the time, is dismissive of Jack Johnson’s vulgar hypermasculinity rather than of Black people in general (and only happens to use available stereotype to make his point without generalising that stereotype). But why bother? Cunningham gives us the clue: Johnson has thrashed the idea of superior White masculinity by physically destroying his White opponents in the boxing ring. In fact, his convincing defeat of John Jeffrey in 1910 dented the general White ego so badly that race riots broke out that saw White mobs attacking and murdering Black people from coast to coast. The significance of the victory was that it did away with the myth that White men are physically superior to Black men, that Black men are effeminate, servile and infantile and therefore White society has nothing to fear from them despite centuries of humiliation, mutilation and murder – that any attempt to avenge these injustices would necessarily fail. How difficult it still is for White audiences to stomach Black victories in hitherto White sports can be seen, as Ahmed Olayinka Sule conclusively argues, in the way that Serena William’s dominance in women’s tennis is reduced to the mere physical force, her technical accomplishment is denied and her physique is subjected to racist ridicule. What those who feel the Whiteness of the white sport threatened and with it their own status crave for would be a White player who defeats Williams through superior technique. When the hope seemed to materialise and Maria Sharapova defeated Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon finals there was great relief

In describing the magnitude of Sharapova’s victory, the media dispensed with the usual words of “smash”, “brutalise”, and “overpower”, often used to describe Serena’s triumphs, replacing them with softer words like, “breathtaking”, “intelligence”, and “sensational”.

Since then Williams’ play has proved the more sustainably powerful and intelligent (just as Johnson’s boxing success was owed to elegance rather than brute force). But this short moment of White relief gives us a more contemporary example that may help to understand the scene between Holmes and Dixie as in it crystallises the psychological motive behind the racist denigration:

The decisive element of the encounter between Dixie and Holmes is not the mockery about the size of the former’s lips or the texture of his hair – they are just one element of the way Holmes asserts superiority, shows himself master over the Black man without having to resort to physical violence. The key statement about Dixie is that he is, essentially, harmless. He is not real adversary like other foreigners, formidable White foes like von Gruner, Isadora Klein, James Moriarty. As much as Dixie seems threatening in his demeanour drawing confidence from his physical strength he is easily put in place and not even ill-meaning. He has no psychological and intellectual force and the “mad bull” as which he enters the scene therefore is easily “cowed”[2] – and he is ever only the tool of others, naturally serves a master and thus lacks criminal responsibility. Despite his knowledge about Dixie’s criminal actions Holmes does not hand him over to the police! More urgent than, as Cunningham suggests, cashing in on cheaply available laughs by hopping onto the bandwagon of fashionable racist humour, is the motive of relief for a White psyche under duress: the deep-seated fear of the colonial master class/race – a fear from the justified revenge of the colonised against the background of the tangible fragility of imperial rule and the nagging doubts about its legitimacy.

Such fears surface early on in the adventures of the master detective and his military-medical chronicler. Accounting for the fate of the stolen Indian treasure[3] which the avenging villain Jonathan Small narrates how his misfortune in as former colonial soldier and then plantation overseer in India began:

Suddenly, without a note of warning, the great mutiny broke upon us. One month India lay as still and peaceful, to all appearance, as Surrey or Kent; the next there were two hundred thousand black devils let loose, and the country was a perfect hell.  (The Sign of Four)

When colonial rule breaks down the physical energy of the colonised is discharged and the colonised take revenge. The untamed anger is felt as a constant presence under a seemingly undisturbed surface: it may spring up any time “without a note of warning.” And the colonisers can mark them out as “devils” or “beasts” as much as they like – deep inside they know that such violence was and would be justified. Some, very few, spelled out what everyone must have known: that from the perspective of the colonised military action against the oppressor is as legitimate as that of Robin Hood against the Sherriff of Nottingham… As here, in 1881, Dutch writer Eduard Douwes Dekker positioning a himself as anticolonial propagandist  and threatening his own class with the repercussions of their actions:

En ik zou klewangwettende krygszangen slingeren in de gemoederen van de arme martelaren wien ik hulp gheb toegezegd, ik, Multatuli. (Multatuli 1900: 257)

(And I will sling klewang sharpening war songs into the minds of the poor sufferers whom I have promised help, I, Multatuli) [i.e. “I, the one who has suffered much”]

Both the legitimacy and the sheer superiority of White rule, I will argue in the following, is asserted and assured by Doyle in his creation of a blend of essences from the cultural heroes of European modernity – the scientist, the doctor, the writer, the soldier – in the duo Holmes and Watson. The result is a character type whose presence in  the elites will ensure the next “Mutiny” will be put down as successfully as the last. The key in this discourse is the notion of master detective.

Master Holmes

When reading through the complete Sherlock I heard of Harvard University’s decision to remove the word “master” from job titles on the ground of its association with slavery I started reflecting on the use of the notions “masterful” and “masterly” by Arthur Canon Doyle even before the Three Gables collapsed on me. What I found was a racialised and classed (and, as masterfulness in women is presented as exceptional, gendered) discourse of control. Control of self and control of others – which makes for an ideological linkage between White middle class ideals of character and Imperial rule. While the, relatively few, openly racist instances are suppressed in recent adaptations the question arises whether the colonial legacy is sufficiently dealt with or whether, maybe, Sherlock is still attractive to White middle-class males because, with unquestioned supremacy threatened by calls for race and gender equality, Sherlock represents a sense of natural sovereignty which does not have to resort to violence or higher authorities to assert itself.

Of course, there is the notion of “mastering a craft” which lives on in the title of Meister that is still the highest attainment in the German vocational training system or the notion of maestro (though, of course, conducting an orchestra is as much about domination as it is about art)… or the academic title M.A., magister artium, master of arts. And when Sherlock Holmes is referred to as a master detective we invariably think about the supreme powers of deduction, not of power and control – not of “master” as in “master and servant” or “master and slave”. Or do we?

Because this is not how the term is used in the story. When a character (including Holmes himself) is described as “masterful” the term invariably refers to natural and irresistible authority:

‘The strong, masterful personality of Holmes dominated the tragic scene, and all were equally puppets in his hands.’ (Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist)

Holmes’ overpowering command is strong enough, even, to keep the ever-caring Mrs Hudson from calling in medical help when he, seemingly, is on his death bed. She explains to Dr Watson:

‘ “… You know how masterful he is. I didn’t dare to disobey him. …” (Dying Detective)

Being master is not just an act, a purposively deployed skill which the master detective uses to (as in the case of the dying detective) keep up appearances in the service of solving crimes. It comes natural. So natural, in fact, that he enjoys it. His is a

‘masterful nature, which loved to dominate and surprise those who were around him’ (Hound of the Baskervilles)

While Holmes’ masterfulness is exerted by deploying his investigative and logical skills, the key component is character – not flinching in the confrontation, exuding an air of decision and control, determination. In fact, is the kind of character the boys in the educational institutions of the 19th century set upon shaping middle-class boys Graeco-Roman bodied and Puritan spirited elites of Nation and Empire. Holmes’ body is not described beyond his being tall, slim and strong – but his physical and psychological endurance would make him a type right out George L. Mosse’s The Image of Man. Physical strength is to be acquired in training, yet alone it is nothing (as demonstrated by the failure of Steve Dixie in his attempts at intimidating Holmes); it is the masterful character controlling su chstrength which makes all the difference. As in the case of the (wrongfully suspected) gentleman Cecil Barker in The Valley of Fear:

‘In age he was rather younger than Douglas – forty-five at the most – a tall, straight, broad-chested fellow with a clean-shaved, prize-fighter face, thick, strong, black eyebrows, and a pair of masterful black eyes which might, even without the aid of his very capable hands, clear a way for him through a hostile crowd.’ ‘A tall, sunburned, capable-looking, clean-shaved man looked in at us. I had no difficulty in guessing that it was the Cecil Barker of whom I had heard of. His masterful eyes travelled quickly with a questioning glance from face to face.’

The contrast between the two prize-fighter bodies – Barker’s and Dixie’s – is not only in the racial traits Doyle attaches to them and which Holmes ridicules. The difference is made by the public-school-educated self-disciplined mind which holds the racial other subdued, as it does the domestic working classes and its very own middle-class body as well. Facing the moral, intellectual and physical results of a public school education the angry bodies of their subjects can be no threat, as Paul Weller once concluded to the delight of a now well known young Tory who didn’t get the critical intent, in a brush with the Eton rifles

We came out of it naturally the worst, / Beaten and bloody and I was sick down my shirt, / We were no match for their untamed wit

And while the “fine education” received at public school promises to furnish just such militarily deployable wit, it becomes second nature to the degree that it is not felt as the result of learning but that of “breeding” (a term in which nature and nurture converge with the implication that nurture is but a secondary effect of nature). It is culturally and biologically hereditary. As with young Baskerville:

‘He came from the old masterful Baskerville strain, and was the very image, they tell me, of the family picture of old Hugo’ (Hound of the Baskervilles)

The heritability of masterfulness is evidenced by the way it inscribes itself into the very physiognomy of the gentleman that can withstand even long term exposure to American culture:

‘There he sat, with his tweed suit and his American accent, in the corner of a prosaic railway-carriage, and yet as I looked at his dark and expressive face I felt more than ever how true a descendant he was of that long line of high-blooded, fiery, and masterful men. There were pride, valour, and strength in his thick brows, his sensitive nostrils, and his large hazel eyes. If on that forbidding moor a difficult and dangerous quest should lie before us, this was at least a comrade for whom one might venture to take a risk with the certainty that he would bravely share it.’ (Hound of the Baskervilles)

This implication of bio-cultural heritability of character goes along with the inheritance of property to make for an intuitively social Darwinist justification of domination. Young Baskerville is entitled to the property that his adversaries try to scare him away from not only by law, but by being naturally masterful (his refusal to back off being further evidence). He is, we learn several times, just the kind of leading figure the bleak corner of Dartmoor needs to flourish. The underlying logic is easily extrapolated to national and global level. There is implicit reference to struggles that somehow must have led to the dominance of a line of able leaders who hand down not only property but also spine, fitness to rule, from generation to generation. The governing entity of the empire whose elite is thus legitimised is not a cosmopolitan city (as in the Roman Empire and its successors down to the Ottoman Empire) but a nation state (it’s “Rule Britannia”, not “Rule Boudica” after all). In such a setting the inheritance of privilege and obligation to rule  is inevitably racialised – the infamous “White Man’s Burden”.

Sherlock’s brother Mycroft is, in a very full sense, the incorporation of Imperial rule which effortlessly masters the complex systems of government and trade, consuming the spoils without having to lift a finger (or even raising his voice) as he does it all from the arm chairs of his silentiary London club. Masterfulness is primarily a state of mind – and in his capacity to make others run errands for him he is superior even to Sherlock whose investigative activities still involve “footwork”

‘A moment later the tall and portly form of Mycroft Holmes was ushered into the room. Heavily built and massive, there was a suggestion of uncouth physical inertia in the figure, but above this unwieldy frame there was perched a head so masterful in its brow, so alert in its steel-gray, deep-set eyes, so firm in its lips, and so subtle in its play of expression, that after the first glance one forgot the gross body and remembered only the dominant mind.’ (Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans)

Note that physiognomy, even where distorted by over-eating and lack of physical activity, still testifies to the biologistic element in the narrative construction of “race”: The thin lips of the decisive and intelligent English gentleman contrast with the thick lips that in Watson’s words delineate the Black boxer’s “hideous mouth”. As the frame the mouth from which issues the word of command the clarity (thinness) of Mycroft’s lips they are essential, outlining the rationality of the superior mind which is thrown into sharp relief by the “gross body” it inhabits. An allegory on an Empire which gorges on the produce of colonies spread over four continents – it may have grown fat, but as long as the Mycroftian spirit can, out of the immobile body it inhabits, deploy the agility of the likes of Holmes and Watson its rule is secured and so is the comfort of its metropolitan bourgeoisies.

Masterfulness as the ability of the mind to control not only one’s own but primarily other bodies is quasi magical – in Weberian terms: while it may deploy rationality as a means, its basis is charisma. A master from another imperial tradition, ex-despot Don Juan Murillo who travels disguised as an Englishman (going by the name of “Henderson”), is ascribed “magnetic black eyes” – mesmerism. Another foreign upper-class crook, from another Hapsburgian-Catholic empire in decline, the Austrian Baron von Gruber, also of superior intellect (he is nearly equal to Holmes) mainly does his evil works by means of hypnotism. This element of magic can be seen as an anachronism – a remnant of “primitive” power. And here the Victorian rises above the old imperial traditions and demystifies masterfulness as rooted in rationality (and those roots are accessible to scientific interrogation). With this commitment to rationality comes an ethos of restraint and moral concern which are to feature in the ideology of specifically British superiority in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Kipling’s formula of the “White man’s burden” captures well the legitimising ideology of Empire not only vis-à-vis those who that Empire actually is a burden on, the colonised, but also (as in Kipling’s poem) the transition from previous Catholic empires to contemporary Protestant ones. The Englishman and his “cousin”, the Anglo-Saxon American have replaced the Spaniard and the Austrian who had a similar position before. That position, too, is suggested to be owed to a bio-cultural heritage of masterfulness – describing famous Isadora Klein – Holmes real adversary in The Three Gables – colonial conquest and rule are linked to assumptions about racial superiority. Klein’s ability to direct the actions of others is explained by her being

‘pure Spanish, the real blood of the masterful Conquistadores, and her people have been leaders in Pernambuco for generations’[4]

The difference between Catholic and Protestant masterfulness becomes clear in the case of aforementioned Murillo/Henderson – and that difference provides an ideological account for the change of guards in world domination. For one, there is the psychological case. The Spaniard and the Austrian are both masterful in manipulating others, but don’t have the self-mastery that comes with the moral fibre of the public-school educated Englishman. In the case of the Spanish there also is the suggestion of racial corruption, a dilution of Whiteness by reliance on unassimilated non-Whites: Holmes describes the pair Henderson/Lucas him to Watson as

‘a man of fifty, strong, active, with iron-gray hair, great bunched black eyebrows, the step of a deer, and the air of an emperor – a fierce, masterful man, with a red-hot spirit behind his parchment face. He is either a foreigner or has lived long in the tropics, for he is yellow and sapless, but tough as whipcord. His friend and secretary, Mr. Lucas, is undoubtedly a foreigner, chocolate brown, wily, suave, and cat-like, with a poisonous gentleness of speech.’

Note how Murillo can possibly pass as an Englishman by the combination of masterfulness and skin colour, character and race – but his associate is recognisably “foreign” with submissive/subversive comportment and dark skin being the giveaways. And Murillo’s superiority is subverted by association, draining colour (from White to yellow) and “sap”.

The decline of competing empires becomes plausible by the failure to control impulses which then also opens the character to further corruption by association with the lowly elements of colonised lands. This is not only a reassurance of competitive advantage of the British Empire at the height of its power, but also a warning against the lowering of gentlemanly standards and against the admission of physically, psychologically and morally corroding influences from the peripheries. The opium den represents such a herd of decomposition of Victorian vigour. And so does the way that villains often come with native sidekicks – sidekicks over which they tend to lose control as did Jonathan Small over his Andamanian poison-arrow shooting associate Tonga (whose depiction is yet another instance of unabashedly racist representation of colonial subjects). In this contrast, British colonial rule comes out as benevolent against the backcloth of Spanish cruelty (Murillo has been the brutal dictator of the fictitious Central American state of San Pedro). Also hinted at is the widespread idea that colonialist cruelty has its roots not so much in the colonisers’ cultures but in the confrontation with and partly adaptation to the “savages” who were subjected to their rule (my other favourite detective, Father Brown, makes similar suggestions) – so that in the end the victims of colonialism themselves are blamed for its inhumanity.

In more general terms the point that laxity in ethical self control and loss of mastery over one’s servants goes hand in hand is made in, tellingly, the Adventure of the Priory School. Here misfortune arises from the moral lapse of a duke who comes to be domineered by his secretary and (as he shall turn out to be) illegitimate son – forcing him into becoming an accomplice in the abduction of his own heir from the very institution that is designed to beat gentlemanly values into the ruling class – his public school.

So what?

The Sherlock Holmes stories have great value in many respects. For the social scientist, taken together with Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, they make for a methodological inspiration as to how to deploy logical moves of abduction and deduction. Casual racism is to be expected from Victorian authors and we are reassured that, at least, Arthur Conan Doyle also highlighted and attacked racial prejudice. Can we not, one could ask, just cut out the racism of Holmes and salvage the bulk of his work? Can we not just enjoy the mastery of investigative technique and discard the mastery of the White Victorian bourgeois? I’m afraid it is not as easy as that. Unlike Father Brown, whose racism in the original stories is at least as bad as if not worse than that of Sherlock Holmes, modernising the narrative in such way does not seem to work. The BBC’s new Sherlock remains emphatically White. He is not a racist nor does the new series contain (to the best of my knowledge) any instances of racism. The detective has no time for racists: As the old Holmes takes on the KKK, the new Sherlock advises Dr Watson to medically ignore a knocked-out bodyguard on the grounds that he is identifiably a White supremacist. The problem is that he operates in a world where nearly all the significant characters are White, a metropolis that is White to the core because it is White at the core – his 21st century metropolis which oddly contrasts with the deliberately diversified 1950s village idyll of the BBC’s latest version of Chesterton’s Father Brown. It is easier to surgically remove the racism from Father Brown (though there remain question marks as the ethnic and racial outsiders, by premise of the plotline, all need the paternal help of the White priest to establish their innocence and their position): As a Catholic priest Brown in Protestant England is himself defined as necessarily marginal and his mystic realism is at odds with Victorian scientism. Holmes and Watson together make out the character ideal of the English gentleman in whom unconventionality itself is conventional: typically British eccentricity. He is entwined with the establishment even though he is often in contempt of it – if you can express that contempt by stealing ashtrays from Buckingham Palace you’re part of the ruling class. And that class still is predominantly White, even if only just under 60 per cent of Londoners identify as White and although the Capital is now (just now) headed by the son of a Pakistani bus driver. Non-White characters remain marginal (such as Lestrade’s assistant  Sally Donovan) or exotic (as Soo Lin Yao in the Blind Banker) – all of which is still an improvement on the nearly all-White cast of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock movie. Sherlock could only be imagined beyond Whiteness if displaced dramatically… as in Leonardi, Mendoza and Boller’s graphic novel recasting of a Black Sherlock in Harlem.

However, a mediatically successful Sherlock needs to be the quintessentially British master detective. While expressions of racism can be removed, the underlying discourse of mastery is too much part of the attraction of the stories. Dr Watson tells us as much already in the first story:

‘…there was something in his masterly grasp of a situation, and his keen, incisive reasoning, which made it a pleasure to me to study his system of work…’ (Study in Scarlet)

The new Sherlock (as much as the old) stands for a laudable morality that does not tolerate bullies, he stands up for the weak and, forced by his friend Holmes, allows us to glimpse the human heart that informs his decisions as to how to use the great powers his intellect confers to him. When stating his disdain for blackmailing media tycoon Rupert Murdoch Charles Austustus Magnusson he says that it is the way he is preying on those who are different. He is by no means a government goon bent to defend the establishment – to the contrary: the old and the new Sherlocks have a great disregard for the Law and for social conventions where they get in conflict with moral values and where they are inhumane. But both the old and the new are defenders of (what is left of) Empire. The new Sherlock defends its core, the old England (embodied by Mrs Hudson),[5] against Americanisation (represented by the CIA thugs who roughed her up). And he keeps up the external power of the realm on various international missions.

A key scene in the new Sherlock is his encounter with aforementioned Australian Swedish media tycoon Magnusson (an updated version of the serial blackmailer Milverton whose murder Holmes witnesses and whose murderer – one of his victims – he has identified, but chooses not to reveals). Magnusson controls the British political class with his encyclopaedic knowledge of their little sins and their “pressure points”. Making his point by urinating against the wall in Holmes’ and Watson’s apartment in Baker Street, he lectures them about what a spineless pushover of a country Britain has become and thereby plays to the Imperial nostalgia of the audience, the mourning of a stronger Britain. As long as he is active “the personal freedom of every single individual you know is a mere fantasy”. Which makes a mockery of the Imperial slogan that “Britons never never never shall be slaves”. Sherlock makes sure the Empire is avenged and the Britannia is freed from this foreign succubus by putting (at the end of the episode) a bullet into Magnusson’s head.

While the Daily Mail complained about (and those who, like myself, loathe the Murdoch press cherished) the anti-capitalist sentiment which that episode played to, the real ideological gain goes somewhere else. The image of the master detective who (via his brother Mycroft) frequently acts on behalf of Queen and Country punishing a Continental for pushing around the British should be more to the taste of a camp that, through the voice of Boris Johnson, promotes a nostalgia for Empire reinvigoration of the Commonwealth against alleged European domination.[6] In fact, like all good myth-making symbolically forcing into one what in reality is an irresolvable contradiction, the new Sherlock manages to reconcile the xenophobic impulse of the Right with the resentment against neoliberal globalisation on the Left.  In doing so the BBC series updates not only the setting and the moral attitudes of the stories, but also their mythical power in a new context of postcoloniality.

The old Holmes managed a similar mythical feat – and that is to reconcile the discourse of Imperial mastery with that of gentlemanly protection of victims of oppression and discrimination – the latter being displayed in the story that is usually cited as evidence for Holmes’ antiracism: the Yellow Face. Holmes embodies White male superiority, but one that comes with an obligation and benevolence. As I said: in the end he is even kind to the “savage” Dixie. He is kinder still to the assimilated and educated (post)colonial. This is in line with the ambivalence of the general drift of Imperial ideology. While the registers of Orientalism and racism are played out frequently (discursively and militarily) this does not preclude the Imperialist-Ornamentalist (Cannadine 2002) identification with the colonised ruling elites in which class sentiment tops racism. The two strategies in dealing with the fear of the subjected – conquest and ‘anti-conquest’ (Pratt 1992), military suppression and trade, can happily coexist as long as one has a typology or grid in which to classify the colonised between parameters such as “threateningly physical” or “helpfully educated”.  In Doyle himself the admission to being viscerally repulsed by Black physiognomies when travelling Africa (“the Coast”) does not prevent exchange on equal footing with the African-American abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet whom he describes as “intelligent”, “well-read” “negro gentleman” (Cunningham 1994: 120). To call him a “gentleman” means assigning equal standing regardless of race. The difference is, of course, that the Black gentleman must earn and prove this status while the White gentleman can assume it as a given. The White gentleman incorporates the standard the Black gentleman has to live up to. The racism against whose backdrop Doyle writes is ambiguously bio-cultural in which elements of nature and nurture combine to produce “black devils” like Tonga and Steve Dixie, but can also allows for nurture to overcome nature such as in the mixed-race girl the Yellow Face and in the “negro gentleman” Doyle encounters on the “Coast”. Sherlock himself questions the terms of his own racial revulsion while subjugating Dixie as a specimen for scientific inquiry. When Dixie displays his (extraordinary large) fists, asks him:

‘“Were you born so?” he asked. “Or did you become so by degrees?”’ (Three Gables)

That Holmes/Doyle allow, in some cases, for “nurture” to overcome “nature”, allowing for the possibility of gentlemen of colour does not reduce the underlying structural racism, namely that the standard is the White gentleman and the Imperial civilisation he created. The best an aspiring colonial can achieve under these premises is honorary Whiteness.

Whether the new Sherlock can move beyond this paradigm (despite the structural restrictions mentioned above) to reflect more fully the way his London has changed so as to deserve the epithet “greatest city in the world” (Sadiq Khan) will become clear in the following two seasons. The way the writers have recast female characters to kill off the old Holmes’ patronising sexism in the past seasons may indicate that they may be capable of dealing with Whiteness in a similar way. London itself may help them. I shall be watching. Repeatedly. Purely out of analytical interest, of course.

cited literature

Cannadine, David (2002): Ornamentalism: How the British Saw their Empire, London: Penguin.

Cuningham, Henry (1994): ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Race’, in: Journal of Popular Culture, pp.113-25

Multatuli (1900): Max Havelaar of de Koffiveilingen der Nederlandsche Handelmaatschapy (Verzamelde Werken I), Amsterdam: Uitgevers-Maatschappy “Elsevier”

Pratt, Mary Louise (1992): Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, London: Routledge.


[1] I am capitalising the terms “Black” and “White” and derivatives thereof like “Whiteness” to indicate that they are, like the terms designating nationality names – i.e. social assignations and like those do not have no biological basis (in the way they refer not just to colour of skin but to assumptions of racial difference). To say that they are mere constructs, evidently, does not mean that they have no reality – their reality is in the consequences of social assignment which makes them inescapable for the individual.

[2] The racialised body’s gender is always object of fascination and manipulation – men are over-masculine or effeminate or even, as here, emasculated. And women are either over-sexualised in the image of a “Black Venus” or have their femininity denied if they are too successful in the wrong kind of sports.

[3] The illegitimacy of the legal ownership of this treasure is indirectly acknowledged. While the protagonists are in agreement that it rightfully belongs to the heiress of one of the conspirators – a British officer who agreed on receiving a share as a bribe – the final loss of the jewels as they are sunk in the Thames to be washed out into the sea comes to a great relief. In her morally purifying power the Thames seems to emulate the Ganges. After all, both are under the same Crown. Thus cleansed from colonial guilt, the still precious souvenirs of the spoils – a chaplet of pearls – can be retained by the heiress (and Watson’s wife to be) Mary Morstan just as the Koh-i Noor remains with the Crown Jewels after the end of British rule over India.

[4] Of course they have not! Pernambuco has been first colonised by the Portuguese, later occupied by the Dutch West Indian Company and recaptured by the Portuguese before it became part of independent Brazil

[5] “Mrs Hudson leave Baker Street? England would fall!”

[6] But there is a paradox here – not only is the whole thing laced with irony and anti-establishment defiance (ashtrays…) to make it palatable for the anti-Royalist cosmopolitan. The makers of the new Sherlock are certainly not a bunch of Brexiteering neo-imperialists and Little Englanders. A much more decisive influence which encourages anachronistic imageries may actually (and ironically) be the dependence of British media production on European and American markets. And to a German audience, for example, Black Britain does not sell. Germany’s image of England is still informed by a focus on the Royal Family and those dreadful feature-length TV adaptations of the Rosamunde Pilcher novels (with an all-German cast) in which gentlemen sip their afternoon teas against the back drop of rolling green hills dotted with sheep and manors. We Continentals like our English served cricket-playing, tea-sipping, stiff-upper-lipped, tweedy, and if possible in dated head-gear (crowns, bowler hats, deer stalkers, wide-rimmed flower arrangements…)… and mostly White. And the British culture industry obeys and plays to the expectations represented by Charles Gustav Magnusson after all..

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  1. I have chapters from an edited volume titled “Multicultural Detective Fiction” sitting on my desk – this will be a very interesting read while I work on those (I have the introduction, chapters 2, 12 & 16 if you’re interested 😉 )

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  2. thanks, yes, definitely 🙂 – i’m planning to read up on this a bit more when i finally get to fusing the postcolonial anxiety into what is to be chapter 4 of the ghosts book (initially i wanted to make this mainly fair trade, but now veering towards sci fi and detective fiction… more fun). i’m already aware of not having read boltanski on crime fiction while writing on sherlock is a bit cavalier… hence the defensive note at the start.


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