Yet one more from the notebooks.
New York City. Friday. January 15, 2016. Posted February 20.
Like I was saying, beautiful day here in the Mighty Metropolis. Too nice a day to stay cooped up in the B&N cafe. The Mannion guys and I decided to get out and enjoy the good weather until it was time to go meet Mrs M for lunch. Ken headed down to Forbidden Planet. Oliver and I browsed through the farmer’s market on the west side of Union Square. I tortured myself as we moseyed along by making a mental list of all the delicious-looking foodstuffs and drinkstuffs---breads, pies, pastries, cheeses, jams, jellies, wines, whiskies. Yep. Whiskies. At least one distillery has a stand.---I would buy if I was rich and not a diabetic and a much shorter list of things I didn’t have to be rich to buy and that wouldn’t play havoc with my blood sugar---mostly, boringly, fruits and vegetables. But, although we were looking for a snack, we passed it all up and like philistines bought pretzels from a push cart and sat down to eat them on the steps at the far end of the park while we alternated between watching the chess players off to our right and trying to figure out if what we took to be a giant digital clock on one of the buildings across East 14th Street was in fact a clock and what sort of time it was keeping.
On the left side of the display it was clearly telling the regular time but extremely precisely, to the hundredth of a second. At the other end, it appeared to be counting down to something. Numbers in-between changed in a blur, so fast I thought they might be measuring the passage of time in nanoseconds.
I Googled it later when we were having lunch. Turns out it’s an art installation. The point is to make observers think about “the nature of time. “ It didn’t work on me. I got bored silly and stopped thinking about the nature of anything until I happened to look lazily off to the right and remembered the chess players.
There were several games going on, but one would-be player had no one to play with and was looking for an opponent. He was a tall, lanky black man, standing---well, more like dancing in place, swaying and bouncing up and down on his toes---next to his board and table and singing out challenges to the passing crowds in hip-hop rhythms and rhymes. But it was the game and the players closest to me that caught my attention.
Actually, it was a backgammon game and the players were a middle-aged black man with a deeply furrowed brow and a slightly older white man, short and squat, wearing a camel-hair topcoat whose tails hung down to the ground, hiding his legs and feet, and a short-brimmed fedora, whom, for some reason I began to think of as the Russian.
I got to concentrating so intently on their game that I didn’t notice what was going on right in front of us until Oliver startled me with an elbow-nudge to my shoulder. I looked around and met the imploring gaze of a man in a high-backed, heavily padded motorized wheelchair.
He had a neuromuscular disease---Muscular dystrophy? Cerebral palsy?---His extremely thin legs were strapped to the chair, both his arms were pulled in tight to his torso and bent outward and upward at the elbows, and the fingers on both hands were curled towards his palms to the point his hands were practically fisted. He looked very young, possibly no more than twenty, but I couldn’t make a real guess at this age because his face was too contorted, his upper lip twisted far over and down to the left and his lower lip over and up to the right. Across his lap rested a rectangular handwritten cardboard sign requesting “donations” of $2.
I reached for my wallet but it was actually Oliver who gave him the money. I’d been about to hand the man just a single instead of the requested two dollars. Oliver grabbed my wallet and pulled out the second bill. I wasn’t being stingy. I just wasn’t thinking. My mind had run immediately to something else.
A Sherlock Holmes story.
You probably know it. It’s one of Conan Doyle’s best. A respectable country gentleman named Neville St Clair disappears on one of his regular business trips to London. Foul-play is presumed. The police suspect a beggar with a gruesome scar that twists his lip grotesquely and a penchant for quoting Shakespeare and bantering wittily with passersby as he begs is involved and take him in for questioning. Meanwhile, Holmes has been consulted by St Clair’s wife and has taken the case. He solves it in pretty much no time. He and Watson arrive at the jail where the beggar, who calls himself Boone, is being held, Holmes takes out a sponge from a bag, fetches a jug of water, and sets to work washing the sleeping Boone’s face. A coat of dirt and grime come off in the scrubbing but so does Boone’s scar and twisted lip. Holmes yanks the wig from the man’s head and introduces Watson and Inspector Bradstreet to...Neville St Clair.
Turns out St Clair has been making his living begging while letting his wife think it’s through investments he manages on his trips into the city. He’s an educated man, a former journalist, who learned, while investigating a story for his newspaper, that he could take in more money in a day by putting his hand out than by taking his pen in hand. His begging act is practically performance art and he’s a popular street character. People are glad to give him money as a reward for his being so industriously entertaining. He doesn’t take in enough that it’s made him rich. But it has been enough for him to support his family in middle-class comfort and style.
Of course perpetrating a fraud. If he’s not legally guilty of a crime, he’s guilty of a moral wrong. He’s a con artist, tricking people out of their money. And, although it’s not explicit in the story, he’s taking money that might have gone to those who really need the help and are deserving of charity. Essentially, he’s a kind of thief.
No way am I suggesting the man in the wheelchair in Union Square was faking or that I even suspected he was. I suppose he could have been. I’m sure there are some out there, Neville St Clairs masquerading as Boones. I’m sure that some of the “Vietnam vets” never wore a uniform, let alone spent time in country. I’m sure plenty of panhandlers are liars and cheats in smaller ways, begging money for a meal or a place to sleep they’re going to use to buy booze or drugs. I’m sure that many of the unemployed claiming to need a handout because they’re out of work and can’t find a job are without work because they don’t want to work. I’m sure that many of the bums on the street are in fact bums.
But I don’t know which of the thousands and thousands and thousands of people out there are bums, con artists, cheats, and frauds. And I don’t need to know. I don’t ask. I don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter to me, anyway, how someone wound up out on the street asking passing strangers for a few bucks to help them survive the day. I don’t care if it was through bad luck or bad character. However they came there, they’re in need of help and I try to give them the help that I can, which, sadly, isn’t much. I figure that when people tell me a hard luck story odds are way in favor of its being because they’ve had some hard luck.
Besides, I’ve needed help and had to ask for it myself and I’m sure I will again. It happens to everybody. And, as Jesus said, what goes around, comes around.
Or something like that.
So, no, when the man in the wheelchair asked for help, I didn’t think of “The Man With the Twisted Lip” because I thought he was faking.
Actually, what I first thought was how is it in the goddamn richest country in the world, a country that boasts it’s a Christian nation, a person with a disability has to beg for help making ends meet from his fellow Americans on the streets?
How is that anyone has to?
But the reason I thought of “The Man With The Twisted Lip” wasn’t just that this beggar had a twisted lip either or, I should, say my thinking of the story didn’t stop with being reminded by that.
I got to thinking further about what happens to Neville St Clair after his con is busted.
It’s not just that the police can’t think of a specific crime to charge him with, although Inspector Bradstreet jokes that he’s guilty of his own murder. They could arrest him for begging or vagrancy. There are laws against both, punishable by fines and a few days in jail. But charging him with him would require bringing him before a magistrate and that in itself would be a severe punishment for St Clair because his secret would become known to his wife and children. But the police in the person of Bradstreet agree, at Holmes’ suggestion, that as long as St Clair promises to give up being Boone, they’ll keep his secret from the public and, more important to St Clair, from his family. So he faces no public consequences for his fraud and he’s not privately shamed for his lies and his sins.
But something else doesn’t happen to him.
He doesn’t get judged.
Particularly not by the character whose judgment we readers would most respect.
Holmes has nothing to say about the wrong St Clair has done. He doesn’t acknowledge having taken part in any legal or moral reckoning. In the end he seems satisfied only in having solved another puzzle.
This is consistent with Holmes’ behavior throughout the stories and novels. He almost never judges. Often he out and out rejects the idea that it’s up to him to judge.
Watson doesn’t judge very often either.
Neither man’s feelings run that way.
When Watson’s emotions are engaged, it’s usually in sympathy with the victims. Holmes’ attitude towards their cases is almost purely intellectual---although he’s far from as cold-blooded as he’s sometimes portrayed---and he tends to view the mysteries he’s asked to solve as problems rather than crimes. When he does pronounce on the evil of the villains he’s out to thwart, it often sounds more like a clinical diagnosis than a moral judgment. When he considers the fiendishness of a criminal plot, he often sounds more impressed by the intelligence that went into the plotting rather than the wickedness. At least once he implies that he believes the only reason he himself isn’t a criminal is the pure luck of the draw.
(The only exception Holmes makes that I can come up with is the master blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton. Holmes manages some grudging admiration for even Moriarty. But he despises Milverton and is utterly contemptuous of him.)
Of course it’s not Watson and Holmes who aren’t judgmental. It’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle refusing to use them to be judgmental himself.
I can’t think of a story in which Doyle openly moralizes. Now, he thought of the Holmes stories as hack work and longed to be done with it, and it may simply have been that in his rush to complete a story and get it into print so he could get to back to work on the writing he thought of as his serious art, he couldn’t be bothered. But plenty of hack writers of detective stories and television shows can’t resist judging and moralizing, as if they don’t trust their readers and audiences to understand that criminals aren’t nice people. In fact, they often seem desperate to make sure we know that the bad guys are bad guys and even more desperate that we know that the good guys and gals aren’t just good but heroically so. I think some of this is due to their being hacks and they don’t have the talent to dramatize their moralizing and judging or the subtlety of thought and lightness of touch. But a lot of it is purely manipulative---also a sign of a hack at work. The object is to make us want to see the villain punished and punished violently, basically for the sadistic thrill of it. We’re meant to feel righteous in our bloodthirstiness.
Doyle doesn’t go in for that.
He’s content to make us glad to see that the crime is prevented and the villain thwarted, which is what Holmes does as often as he solves a crime that’s already been committed. Rather than stories ending in violence, they end with the intended victims saved from violence and the villains in custody. Most of the exceptions are stories in which Doyle uses Holmes and Watson’s parts in them to frame the romantic adventure yarns of the type he would rather have been writing. But, generally, Doyle’s interest in the cases he invents for Holmes is, like Holmes’ interest in the cases within the stories, as intellectual problems. It’s a given that the criminal will be caught and punished and the fun is in following along as Holmes picks up the clues and puts them together not in looking forward to the villains getting a bloody comeuppance.
And it happens that many of the criminals in the stories are criminals in the technical sense only: they commit a crime but opportunistically. They are driven to it or they give into a temptation. And they are evil only in that they are doing others an evil. This is a way of saying they are sinners rather than devils, demons, or monsters. And sinners can be forgiven.
A good story that illustrates this, and another of my favorites, is “The Blue Carbuncle”.
In that one, Holmes tracks down and personally apprehends a jewel thief. The path he takes and the stratagems he uses are amusing and “The Blue Carbuncle” is really a comedy. In the end, the thief is shown to be a weak but normally honest man who gave into temptations, temptations that arise from his own weakness, but still his crime is opportunistic, an act of desperation rather than wickedness. When Holmes confronts him with the evidence, he breaks down and confesses and apologizes. And he begs for mercy.
And Holmes grants it.
He lets him go.
Watson doesn’t say anything, but Holmes seems to think he needs to explain what he’s done, and I have always loved his explanation and loved him for the explanation:
“After all, Watson,” said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies....I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to [jail] now, and you make him a [jail]-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness. Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward. If you will have the goodness to touch the bell, Doctor, we will begin another investigation, in which, also a bird will be the chief feature.”
Well, it is a Christmas story.
What Holmes says there at the end of “The Blue Carbuncle,” in the place where the moral goes in other types of stories, contains what’s essential to the character of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who is my Sherlock Holmes---I first got to know Holmes when I was a kid through the stories and to me none of the movie and TV Sherlock Holmeses have been the Sherlock Holmes, although Jeremy Brett comes closest and Benedict Cumberbatch is my sentimental favorite---including his coolly intellectual or, actually, scientific approach to his detective work, his emotional detachment, but also, in his looking forward to Christmas dinner with Watson, his humanity and his heart. He’s not a machine or an ascetic or without warmth. But it also includes an important statement about his professional ethics. He emphatically rejects the idea that he is an agent of the police.
One of the reasons I stopped watching Elementary is that their Holmes and Watson are agents of the police and aren’t just content with it. They’re enthusiastic about it. In fact, for all intents and purposes, they are the police. They’re cops. And pretty typical TV cops, at that. They’re as moralizing, judgmental, and self-righteous as any other TV cops.
But the real Sherlock Holmes would be insulted to be thought of as a kind of cop.
It’s not simply that he thinks of all policemen as incompetent blockheads and bumblers. He respects some of the detectives from Scotland Yard he works with, even Lestrade.
He doesn’t want to be bound by their codes and obligations. He doesn’t want his thinking about the nature of crime and notions of right and wrong limited by what’s merely legal. He’s not a cop. He’s not a judge or one-man jury either. He’s free to make up his mind according to his own lights. And because of that, he’s free to do something the Law and its official representatives can’t.
“The Man With the Twisted Lip” and “The Blue Carbuncle” are my favorites and I think the most exemplary---I also think it’s important they were published back to back in the first collection of stories, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes---but Holmes does this in several other stories, “The Abbey Grange” and “The Second Stain” being two of the best. He lets the “criminals” get away with it, and he does it without moralizing.
As long as they promise not to stray again and he’s convinced they mean it, he’s willing to look the other way.
What he says to Neville St Clair in “The Man With the Twisted Lip” pretty well sums it up:
“If you leave it to a court of law to clear the matter up,” said he, “of course you can hardly avoid publicity. On the other hand, if you convince the police authorities that there is no possible case against you, I do not know that there is any reason that the details should find their way into the papers. Inspector Bradstreet would, I am sure, make notes upon anything which you might tell us and submit it to the proper authorities. The case would then never go into court at all.”
There’s a more succinct way of putting this.