The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Theme of Justice and Judgment
Sherlock Holmes is no Dark Knight: he's not zooming around London dispensing vigilante justice. But he is a private detective, which means that he too doesn't have to obey the rigid rules of police work. For all of Holmes's talk about being unemotional and so on, he makes judgments based on feelings all the time, as when he lets James Ryder go at the end of "The Blue Carbuncle" or when he releases John Turner at the conclusion of "The Boscombe Valley Mystery." Once he's solved a case, Holmes has a lot of leeway to decide whether the wrongdoer deserves mercy or not. And his decisions are not always the purely logical choices he might have us believe.
Questions About Justice and Judgment
- What are some examples of cases in which Holmes takes direct action either to punish or to release a criminal? How do these cases compare with one another? What kinds of reasons does Holmes give for his decisions, and do you find them compelling?
- Several of the stories in this collection don't involve crime at all, including "The Man With the Twisted Lip" and "A Case of Identity." Why include them in this collection at all? What do these stories allow Holmes to do that other, more serious criminal cases might not?
- Chance occasionally intervenes to ruin Holmes's plans. Even though he solves the case, he's not able to rescue John Openshaw in "The Five Orange Pips," and the gang of counterfeiters in "The Engineer's Thumb" manages to get away before he can catch them. How does the knowledge that Holmes is still subject to chance and to error change your sense of his character? In other words, why might it be important or useful to Conan Doyle to allow Holmes to make mistakes?
Chew on This
Smaller problems such as Mary Sutherland's exploitation by her parents in "A Case of Identity" give Conan Doyle a chance to think about the place of morality outside of its strict legal definitions.
By making Holmes subject to error and to accident sometimes, Conan Doyle inserts an additional layer of suspense into his detective story formula.