Five of the Best Villains and Victims in Sherlock Holmes Stories
People love the Sherlock Holmes stories for lots of reasons, but one of the joys for me is the secondary characters Conan Doyle creates. The best of them are drawn vividly and economically, using a few short lines to bring them to life. Sometimes the characters are memorable because they’re dreadfully evil, sometimes because they’re mysterious and tragic, and sometimes because they’re grotesque. But it’s not just who they are that make them special; it’s also how Doyle uses them dramatically and how they illustrate the social beliefs and controversies of the time. If you’re a Holmes fan, you’ll have your own favorites and will no doubt disagree with mine. But there’s enough in those stories for everyone. Here are my five favorites:
5) Professor Pressbury. The Victorians loved a story where the main character is a monstrous half-human. The best known are Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Stoker’s Dracula, and Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. Conan Doyle also drew on this idea, memorably in The Sussex Vampire, where a mother is caught sucking blood from her baby’s neck. In The Creeping Man, the famous scientist Professor Pressbury is reduced to an ape. Doyle loved to expose human weakness, and in this story it’s the professor’s own fault. He’s fallen in love with a younger woman and, in order to regain his vigor and youth, has been injecting himself with a serum made from monkeys. But the potion he’s been buying is too strong, and the professor finds himself out at night, compelled to climb the vines that cover his house. Watson describes the sight: “With his dressing gown flapping on each side of him he looked like some huge bat glued against the side of his own house.” After his climb, the good prof jumps down, crawls on all fours over to his wolfhound, and proceeds to taunt it by throwing pebbles in its face and prodding it with a stick. The irony of reducing the distinguished scientist to a mischievous ape is a delight, but Doyle goes further. He draws on widespread Victorian beliefs in eugenics and race sciences to warn against the pursuit of cures for aging. At the end of the case, Holmes argues that it wouldn’t be the “spiritual” who tried to avoid death, but rather “the material, the sensual, the worldly would all prolong their worthless existence…. It would be the survival of the least fit. What sort of cesspool may not our poor world become?” Steady on, Sherlock!
4) The Child with the Yellow Face. This character is wonderful, not because we see much of her but because she allows Doyle to show us Victorian attitudes to race. Mr. Munro has discovered that his wife, Effie, is secretly visiting the new neighbors’ house, but she refuses to tell him why. When he investigates, he sees a mysterious, inhuman face watching him from the dark upper window: “It was neither man nor woman, of a livid, dead yellow, and with something set and rigid about it.” The description sets up a nice mystery, but The Child with the Yellow Face is one of those cases that Holmes gets wrong. It’s only solved when Munro pushes his way into the house to discover the creature is a little girl wearing a mask. Holmes peels the mask off to reveal “a little coal-black negress with all her white teeth flashing in amusement at our amazed faces.” Effie confesses her secret: her previous marriage, in the U.S., was to a black man. Believing her new husband would reject her and the child if he knew the little girl was black, she hid her daughter with a trusted servant in the cottage next door, visiting her only when her husband was out or asleep. When Mr. Munro hears this, he takes up the child, kisses her, and takes her home, replying with one of my favorite lines from the Holmes stories: “I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think that I am a better one than you have given me credit for being.” This child with the yellow mask shows us that while white Victorian society had negative views of other races, there were at least some who were more open-minded.
3) Mrs. Ronder. The Veiled Lodger is not a typical case, as Holmes does no sleuthing. It’s more of a confession, where Mrs. Ronder, the wife of a brutal lion tamer, explains to Holmes how she killed her husband and in the process had half of her face eaten off by a lion. Since that awful day, she’s been living as a recluse in a secluded house in Brixton, never going out, never removing her veil. She’s a wonderful character. But it isn’t just her plight that makes her so compelling; it’s the extraordinary exchange between her and Holmes at the end of the story, after she has unburdened her soul to him. Holmes detects something in her eyes and from this knows she’s thinking of killing herself: ‘“Your life is not your own,” he said. “Keep your hands off it.”’ She replies by asking if he would bear it, then raises her veil to show him her face. As Watson describes, “It was horrible. No words can describe the framework of a face when the face itself is gone. Two living and beautiful brown eyes looking sadly out from that grisly ruin did but make the view more awful.” At that, they leave her in her seclusion, and we’re left wondering what this poor woman will do. Two days later, a bottle of poison arrives at Baker Street with a card. The message reads “I send you my temptation. I will follow your advice.” Mrs. Ronder: brave, monstrous, tragic. It still gives me shivers to think of her.
2) Charles Augustus Milverton. This “king of the blackmailers” is so diabolical that the story is called after him, an honor Doyle rarely gives a character. This villain buys compromising letters from servants and con men and uses them to blackmail wealthy Londoners, making them pay out year after year. Holmes calls him the worst man in London because of the number of his victims and the pleasure he takes in ruining them. He says to Watson: “Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation 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. I’ve had to do with fifty murderers in my career, but the worst of them never gave me the repulsion I have for this fellow.” Milverton has such brazen confidence that he even calls at Baker Street to negotiate with Holmes for a blackmail payment from Lady Brackwell. When the cad arrives, he doesn’t disappoint. He insults Watson by pointing at him and asking Holmes, “This gentleman. Is it discreet?”, as if he is talking about a piece of furniture. When Holmes tries to negotiate with him, Milverton tells him he would be happy to expose Lady Brackwell as he has “eight or ten similar cases maturing”—a lovely touch, as if he’s talking about a carefully nurtured wine cellar. The story ends when Holmes and Watson, concealed in Milverton’s house, see a young woman unload her gun into his chest. Watson’s about to intervene when Holmes stops him. Then we have an unexpected touch of noir. As Milverton lies dying, the mystery woman grinds her heel into his face. Take that, you fiend!
1) Thaddeus Sholto. I love this grotesque, jerking hypochondriac more than any other from the Holmes stories. Doyle introduces him in The Sign of Four by this wonderful description: “a small man with a very high head, a bristle of red hair all round the fringe of it, and a bald, shining scalp which shot out from among it like a mountain-peak from fir-trees.” On top of this, “his features were in a perpetual jerk,” and he had a “pendulous lip and a too visible line of yellow and irregular teeth” which he tries to conceal by constantly passing his hand over his mouth. The physical description is good enough, but it also turns out Sholto’s a hypochondriac, and, discovering Watson’s a doctor, he delivers one of the funniest lines in the Holmes stories: “A doctor, eh? Have you your stethoscope? Might I ask—would you have the kindness? I have grave doubts as to my mitral valve, if you would be so very good. The aortic I may rely on, but I should value your opinion on the mitral.” Here we see Doyle’s medical training coming out, but it’s the precision of Sholto’s self-diagnosis that provides the humor—the idea that he might be able to distinguish the health of his mitral valve from his aortic is a master-stroke. Mr. Sholto, sir, I take my hat off to you!
Mick Finlay’s debut novel Arrowood is published in July by Mira, Harper Collins.
Mick Finlay was born in Glasgow but left as a young boy to live in Canada and then England. Before becoming an academic, he ran a market stall on Portobello Road and has worked as a tent hand in a traveling circus, a butcher’s boy, a hotel porter, and in various jobs in the NHS and social services. He teaches in a psychology department, and has published research on political violence and persuasion, verbal and nonverbal communication, and disability. He now lives in Brighton with his family.