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. (more…)


The Sign of the Broken Sword and Persistent Lore of Empire: Chesterton’s knowing of colonialist immorality and his defence of postcolonial hypocrisy

Introductory remark: This is a reflection jotted down without much research – i.e. I have no claim whatsoever to any Chesterton scholarship and I have not checked whether anybody has not come up with a similar assessment of Chesterton’s story: a strong parable on Imperialist guilt and a highly problematic anticipation of the way the majoritarian postcolonials preserve Imperial nostalgia as a means to maintain a positive sense of self – also known as “doing a Gove”.
update: of course St Slavoj has used this story – how could I forget the notorious Defence of Lost Causes? Well – I’ve been trying to (mental economy: keep head clear from nonsense). And of course he affirms that it is precisely the immoral act of abandoning truth for the pursuit of a seemingly higher purpose that makes it interesting. This merits a few words, but really only very few, so I put some into a PS.

Strangely retrospective in style, Gilbert K. Chesterton’s Father-Brown story “The Sign of the Broken Sword” in which the crime to be solved is a historical one and the narration is that of a conversation between Father Brown and his companion, the ex-criminal turned private investigator, Flambeau, brings out the historically-investigative best and morally worst in the fictitious detective/priest. The crime (spoiler alert – if you want to enjoy what, despite being ideologically tinged – is an extremely well-constructed narrative – read it first here) is the following: the celebrated British General St Clare, celebrated for his role in the maintenance and extension of the Empire around the globe and very likely to be modelled on General Redvers Buller, murders one of his officers, Major Murray, while on campaign in Brazil. The Major had found out about the General’s immoral conduct and outright criminal activity. But while St Clare manages to kill him with a stab of his sword, the purpose of the crime is not achieved since the tip of the sword breaks off and remains in Murray’s body as evidence. St Clare ingenuously and callously covers up that crime by burying the corps in a forest of corpses, as Father Brown puts it:

“Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest?”

“Well, well,” cried Flambeau irritably, “what does he do?”

“He grows a forest to hide it in,” said the priest in an obscure voice. “A fearful sin.”