Friday, December 30, 2011

Sherlock Holmes and Justice

While I was reading over my Christmas blog on the Sherlock Holmes story, The Blue Carbuncle, I was struck by the fact that after tracking down the jewel thief, the great detective allowed the culprit to go free. Holmes justified his actions by stating that if the man went to prison, it would make him a repeat offender, and Holmes also states that it was the season of forgiveness.

In looking over the original Sherlock Holmes adventures written by Conan Doyle, I found Holmes’ leniency with certain criminals was not exactly rare. According to Mr. Robert Keith Leavitt: “In the 60 cases in the Writings, there are 37 definite felonies where the criminal was known to Mr. Sherlock Holmes. In no less than 14 of these cases did the celebrated detective take the law into his own hands and free the guilty person.

I decided to look up some of these cases. Besides The Blue Carbuncle, there was The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, in which Holmes and Watson investigate the brutal murder of Sir Eustace Brackenstall. Holmes naturally finds the murderer and invites him to his Baker Street rooms where the entire story is laid out. Holmes appoints himself judge and Watson the jury and when Watson declares the man is not guilty, Holmes declares, Vox populi, vox Dei, and declares the man acquitted.

In The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot Holmes and Watson encounter three strange deaths (2 men and a woman) while on a Cornish holiday. A fourth murder, similar to the first three is discovered. Holmes finds the perpetrator of the fourth murder and listens to his fantastic tale. The man explains how he had killed the man who murdered the first three, one being is true love. Again Holmes lets the man go free. He explains to Watson: "I have never loved, Watson, but if I did and the woman I loved met such an end, I might act even as our lawless lion-hunter has done."

It is a bit unsettling to think of anyone taking the law in their own hands whether it is punishing a criminal or allowing one to go free of punishment. In a free and open society we put law enforcement organizations in place to protect society. These people are trained and are appointed by the public. It is their job and responsibility to apprehend and punish lawbreakers. It is not the job of the public to make such decisions on an individual basis.

Does the public have some responsibilities toward law enforcement? Yes, we do. At least that is what I teach to my grade ten Civics classes. When we are called, it is our duty to sit on juries to meet out justice. We should always cooperate with authorities and report any wrongdoing. “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies...” Holmes tells Watson in The Blue Carbuncle. But it is our duty as good citizens to assist the authorities wherever we may and thus be a part of society. I would never advocate withholding information from the police. Here in Canada we value peace, order and good government, which are societal values (whereas life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are individual values). So we all must do our part in the protection of society for the good of society, and not for our own personal opinions or feelings.

I do not know if I could rank Sherlock Holmes as an ideal citizen.

For other stories where Holmes was privy to a criminal act, but played fast and loose with law, check out:
Charles Augustus Milverton
The Second Stain
The Bascombe Valley Mystery
The Crooked Man

Stephen Gaspar's books can be found on Amazon

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