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…)