The Strange Case of Miss Violet Smith

I've always particularly liked The Solitary Cyclist. It took me a good long while fully to grasp why this was the case. Like The Speckled Band it is a seminal Sherlock Holmes story, indeed an essential one. Essential in the sense that in it we perceive quite clearly the essence of Sherlock's quest. To come to the aid of a damsel in distress, yes, but it isn't quite as straightforward as that. What Sherlock defends, in almost every single story in the Canon, is Family.

To Doyle family is the prime unit of socity, that which above all cannot be tampered with. Therefore every crime that is aimed at family is especially heinous. Very rarely in the Canon are there simple capers, jewel heists, gold robberies - things that are standard fare in crime fiction. No, that would be too simple, too childish. Doyle is far shrewder than that. Even when there are robberies there always are underlying reasons, most often pertaining to a familial situation of some kind. And that is precisely why his stories live and have such an exceptionally wide following, and such an immense impact on the reader: because the emotional and psychological core of the stories strikes a nerve with every reader. Probably a subconscious nerve but a nerve nevertheless. Because every crime concerns family, it concerns us personally. Crimes of that sort are never abstract or theoretical. They could happen anywhere in the world. In any period of time. To any one of us. They are international, timeless and ubiquitous.

The heart of family is the sacred bond of marriage. Yes, sacred bond. The complications arise because a marriage is also a finacial arrangement, more so in those Victorian days than today when women are liberated and control their own finances and fortunes. In The Solitary Cyclist it would be financially advantageous for the villain to marry Miss Smith because as her husband he would gain control over her fortune. In The Speckled Band it would be financially cataclysmic for Dr. Roylott to let his step-daughter Miss Stoner marry because as a married woman she would take her income with her. The theme recurs in A Case of Identity. The step-father creates the imaginary (and disappearing) suitor Hosmer Angel to prevent his step-daughter Miss Sutherland her from marrying anyone else. For, of course, financial reasons. In Charles Augustus Milverton, when the blackmailer threatens to expose the indiscretions of his victims, he poses a threat not merely to their reputation and social standing but primarily to their marriage.

The most shattering crimes are those perpetrated within the family circle, by one member against another. In the Cardboard Box the sailor Jim Browner murders his faithless wife and her lover, but the main culprit may be the younger Miss Cushing who has encouraged her sister to pursue the illicit affair and ruined Browner's marriage and happiness. In The Priory School the kidnapper of the son and heir of the Duke of Holdernesse is his own illegitimate son. In the The Golden Pince-Nez the true crime is the betrayal of the wife by her husband, not the murder which is merely an accident and a by-product of the original crime. In The Copper Beeches Jephro Rucastle imprisons his own daughter in order to prevent her from marrying and depriving the family of her income (yet another instance of the already familiar theme). In The Hound of the Baskervilles the son of the long lost black sheep of the family returns to his ancestral grounds to claim what he perceives to be his heritage - ready to kill off any and all members of the family who stand in his way.

The family. Family was very important to Doyle, it was also a very sensitive point with him. Probably because there was lot of trouble with his own family when he was growing up. The fons et origo of the family problems was his father's alcoholism. After a while his father lost the light of his sanity and was committed to an insane asylum. After that Doyle's mother was reduced to taking lodgers. One of them was called Bryan Waller. He was a doctor and quite possibly Doyle's mother's lover. There are certain theories that the story of the cardboard box and the gruesome severed ears in some way reflected the illicit love triangle of Waller and Doyle's parents.

These are murky and dangerous waters of which Doyle himself never writes a word. Not consciously, that is. But sometimes bits and pieces seep into his stories, perhaps without him even realising the fact. This because the Holmes stories are never meant to be taken seriously, nor are they written with quite the same care and trepidation which he applied to his other more ambitious tales - more like off the cuff and on the fly. He took what first came into his head and ran with it. That is precisely why they do betray so much about Doyle the man. He gives himself away, time and again. Perhaps writing his stories is also, for him, a way to deal with the things that eat away at him, as it is with any writer, consciously or not. The tragic fate of his father. The scandalous behaviour of his mother. These things never go away. How could they? In her later years Doyle's mother even went so far as to move in with Waller, residing in a cottage on his estate; much it seems, to the chagrin of Waller's wife. Upon this point also Doyle remains mysteriously silent.

Much is open to speculation. However, upon this we may rely: the wounds are deep and the scars life-long and eternally sore, as they tend to be when received whilst growing up.

When he writes about crimes against family and marriage, Doyle is in earnest, deadly earnest. For him there can be no greater crime than the crime against or within the holy family circle. All the rest is merely twaddle.

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