How Sherlock Holmes Took on the Capitalists

New books and a blockbuster are updating the Victorian detective, but says Ian Klaus what’s most modern about him might be how he became an antidote to the rapacious capitalism of his day—and that’s what we should celebrate.

12.21.11 4:44 AM ET

Harry Potter’s gone, last seen grizzled and liver-spotted, tending to his own affairs at King’s Cross Railway Station. Bella Swan is about to lose her virginity and maybe even become a vampire. Aren’t we ever in need of hero. Fortunately for us, and just in time for the holiday season, Sherlock Holmes is on the case. The timing couldn’t be better, comfortable as the great detective would be in a world of Bernie Madoffs, Raj Rajaratnams and the men and women who ran MF Global into the ground.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous hero is suddenly everywhere. The eminent critic Michael Dirda has produced a lovely portrait of reading Conan Doyle, while the English novelist Andy Horowitz has given us the first new Holmes novel, House of Silk, ever sanctioned by Conan Doyle’s estate. The BBC has produced a new series based on Holmes, Sherlock, that is set on Baker Street in today’s London of misbehaving soccer players and Russian oligarchs. And, as if we could forget, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law are set to once again take Victorian Britain by storm, flexing their muscles, blowing things up, and bedding the ladies.

Amid some of the new versions of the great detective available, it would be easy to relegate the old Holmes, so popular in Conan Doyle’s time, to the dustbin of boring history. Pipes, deerstalker hats, and walking sticks, they can all seem so antiquated now, charming at best, clichéd at worst. As with Holmes’s gear, so too with the detective. His unease around women and with sexuality, his cold rationality, his certainty about truth, all seem relics of Victorian London better left underground in its sewers.

But all this is fantastically wrong. Conan Doyle made Holmes, and to a degree even Watson, much darker than they are remembered in the popular imagination. Yes, Holmes was the quintessence of the Victorian rationalism, “the most perfect and reasoning machine that the world had seen.” But modernity, its machines, objectivity and industry, produced its counterfoil within Holmes as well. With a taut, shrunken face, a penchant for cocaine injections, and a fondness for disguise and deception, Holmes is his own Hyde. “He disappeared into his bedroom, and returned in a few minutes in the character of an amiable and simple-minded Non-conformist clergyman,” described Watson in a “Scandal in Bohemia,” one of the Conan Doyle’s earliest stories. “It was not merely that Holmes had changed his costume. His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed.” Such malleability and shiftiness hardly corresponds with the detective’s famous eye for facts and material evidence. He carried with him the insecurities, foibles, and morose visions of fin de siècle Europe.

Perhaps even more important, the London and Britain in which the pair operated was far from the staid world of morality, fragility, and decorum that we now see on the stage at Wilde productions. A Sherlock Holmes is not necessary in world of honest representation, restraint, and responsibility. But that was not the world in which he lived. Late Victorians may have been quickly shocked in the parlor, but at their markets, in their streets, and in their stock exchange and empire, they were rapacious capitalists.

Today’s bulls are mere bullocks in comparison. The Victorians sold shares to fake mines and railways, duped investors with fraudulent prospectuses. In the 1880s there were at least three mining bubbles. Near century’s end there was a bubble in bicycle shares (what one wit called the fin de cycle). Anthony Trollope did not invent such reckless capitalists, he merely brought real life to the page. Consider his contemporary description of one of Britain’s great stock-promoters: “Everything was swagger, swagger directors, swagger offices, swagger bankers, a swagger house at the West End, a swagger palace down at Surrey, a swagger yacht down at Cowes, swagger entertainments—all matched each other. The whole thing was a gorgeous vulgarity—a magnificent burlesque of business.” Sound familiar?

In 1884, a guide to the press of London listed 32 finance and investment papers in Britain and Ireland. By 1904 there were nearly one hundred papers covering the world of capitalism.  The next year, one such journal, the Financial Review of Reviews, offered dividend results for more than 3,500 investments quoted on British stock exchanges, amounting to 132 pages of statistical records. This was complex, virtually unchecked capitalism, where falsehoods in prospectuses and newspapers were rarely prosecuted. It should come as no surprise that it was at the end of this period that Thorstein Veblen, the American economist and sociologist, would coin his famous phrase “conspicuous consumption.”

It was in this world that Holmes operated. Conan Doyle did not merely describe dogs that did not bark, but also the intense and fraud filled concern for money that defined his time.  He treaded the avenues of the capital of global finance and pursued leads and represented clients overleveraged, overstretched in their mortgages, marrying for money, falsifying their sources of income, and misleading their employees. In “The Man With the Twisted Lip,” Holmes discovers a man posing as a beggar to keep up his gentlemanly lifestyle, including his country home. In “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet,” a banker is nearly deceived by his own niece to the tune of £50,000 and his good name.

Holmes’ answer to such malfeasance and deception is of course legendary. “You did not know where to look,” he tells Watson, “and so you missed all that was important. I can never bring you to realize the importance of sleeves, the suggestiveness of thumb-nails, or the great issues that may hang from a bootlace.” This is Holmes the cold “thinking machine.”  Such attention to detail was not merely a display in logic, but an answer to the moral failures and excess of the day. Insurance firms hired medical examiners, of which Conan Doyle was briefly one. Imperial agents and London police began fingerprinting. Clerks and managers were instructed in how to examine checks and each other for fraud.

Holmes may not have typically concerned himself with commercial cases, but his was a heroism forged in many ways in contrast to the defining features of a period filled with fraud and greed. Connecting the dots between Conan Doyle’s numerous heroes, Michael Dirda describes the author’s concerns: “What counts is that books be thrilling lessons in heroism, sacrifice, and virtuous action.” So we get a Holmes with a penchant for cocaine and costume, but possessing loyalty, reason, moderation, and a sense of duty.

So let’s update Holmes—stripping him of totems of the past that remind us now of a supposedly staid yesteryear—to make sure he also gets a new audience. But that old Holmes, he was a beacon of humility, virtuous behavior, and ethics amid one of the most shambolic and greed-filled free markets in the history of capitalism. The old Sherlock Holmes is indeed a hero for our time.