Monday, August 6, 2012

Holmes Project: The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton

Conan Doyle opens this story with one of his efforts to make it look like this is something that really happened. To wit:
"The reader will excuse me if I conceal the date or any other fact by which he might trace the actual occurrence."
Duly noted, Dr. Watson.

"Charles Augustus Milverton" is unusual in that there's not much of a mystery to solve here. It's more about Holmes' ethical system, and the crimes which he considers beyond the pale.

Holmes is not a fan of the title character, as he makes abundantly clear early on:
"Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation, Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the Zoo, and see the slithering, gliding, venomous creatures, with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that's how Milverton impresses me."
Yeah, ugh.

Milverton, it turns out, is "the king of all blackmailers," and the only reason Holmes is bothering to notice him at all is that he's been hired to recover some potentially embarrassing letters ("imprudent, Watson, nothing worse") on behalf of the woman who wrote them.

When the gentleman in question turns up at Baker Street, Watson gives the reader a rundown of his appearance, and it's not a flattering portrait:
"There was something of Mr. Pickwick's benevolence in his appearance, marred only by the insincerity of the fixed smile and by the hard glitter of those restless and penetrating eyes."
He's pretty much a caricature of a villain, but let's overlook that a bit, because Conan Doyle gives him some rather good lines. Like this one, suggesting that the woman's friends come up with his ransom as a wedding present:
"this little bundle of letters would give more joy than all the candelabra and butter-dishes in London"
This, of course, doesn't sit well with Holmes, who gives up on negotiations and tries to just take the letters back by force. Milverton points out that this is somewhat ineffective since he's not actually carrying the letters -- he has foresight, this one. And then he leaves.

So Holmes has failed in the negotiations he was hired for, but because he has such an antipathy against blackmailers, he's not giving up. Also, it's an excuse for him to trot out one of his disguises.
"Then, with the gesture of a man who has taken his decision, he sprang to his feet and passed into his bedroom. A little later a rakish young workman, with a goatee beard and a swagger, lit his clay pipe at the lamp before descending into the street."
His plan, as it turns out, is to cajole the necessary information from Milverton's housemaid and then steal the letters from the safe. He's not concerned about things going wrong, but Watson is:
"As a flash of lightning in the night shows up in an instant every detail of a wild landscape, so at one glance I seemed to see every possible result of such an action -- the detection, the capture, the honored career ended in irreparable failure and disgrace, my friend himself lying at the mercy of the odious Milverton."
But after a brief discussion, Watson comes to the conclusion Holmes has already reached:
"it is morally justifiable so long as our object is to take no articles save those which are used for an illegal purpose"
And besides that, it's kind of fun:
"The high object of our mission, the consciousness that it was unselfish and chivalrous, the villainous character of our opponent, all added to the sporting interest of the endeavour."
Well, that settles it.

So Holmes and Watson set off to break into Milverton's safe, but they have to duck into hiding when it turns out Milverton's still up, waiting for an appointment. And then this is where things turn either sublime or absurd, depending on your response to lines like "'It is I,' she said, 'the woman whose life you have ruined.'"

This, of course, is the problem all blackmailers face, though most don't have Holmes and Watson watching from behind a curtain when they're shot by past victims. Holmes figures justice is being served, so he hangs back until the woman's done, burns all the letters in Milverton's safe, and skips off back to Baker Street.

And when the police come around the next morning to get his opinion on recent events, he's not all that inclined to help out:
"'Dear me!' said Holmes. 'What was that?'
He has some fun with the fact that he and Watson managed to leave behind a few traces of their presence, and makes it clear that he's not going to offer any material support to the investigation.

But there's one minor mystery left to clear up in the story, and Holmes spends the last paragraph taking care of that one: Among the portraits of "professional beauties" in a photographer's window, he locates the one of the woman at Milverton's house. Her identity, of course, is never revealed.

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