“A Case of Identity”, or “That Time Sherlock Holmes Was an Idiot”

Before we get started, I should warn you: there will be spoilers in this post.  I’m going to spend the entirety of it talking about the end (because that’s where Holmes is an idiot) and have to spoil the plot in order to talk about it.  So, if you don’t want to know how this story ends, turn back now.

Well.  Now that that’s out of the way…

Sherlock Holmes is an idiot.  A well-meaning idiot, sure; one of the smartest idiots on the planet even.  Still, he’s an idiot.  He may know all there is to imagine about the science of crime, the overall workings of the human mind, and what kind of ash different tobaccos leave behind, but he’s still not all that good with people when it comes right down to it.  How he chooses to deal with Miss Mary Sutherland and the truth of her situation is definite proof of that.

Miss Sutherland has a very simple problem: her fiancé disappeared the day of their wedding and she’d like Holmes to find him.  Problem is, she has very little information on the man she plans to marry, beyond a name, a vague location of his place of employment, and a description that reads as a little suspect, even on first blush.  You don’t really have to be Sherlock Holmes to hear the whole sordid tale and start thinking the stepfather and Hosmer Angel are one in the same.  Miss Sutherland has an annual stipend that must be a very handy additional bit of income, seeing as she hands it over to the folks when she gets it.  If she met and married a real gentleman, Mummy and her young, handsome husband would lose it.

So, the ending’s no surprise to anyone with basic reading comprehension.  Holmes has it mostly figured out before Miss Sutherland leaves after their initial meeting, much like the reader.  He requests an audience with Mr. James Windibank, Miss Sutherland’s step-father, and lays it all out neatly for him:

“Now, her marriage would mean the loss of a hundred a year, so what does her stepfather do to prevent it?  He takes the obvious course of keeping her at home and forbidding her to seek the company of people of her own age.  But soon he found that that would not answer forever.  She became restive, insisted  upon her rights, and finally announced her positive intention of going to a certain ball.  What does her clever stepfather do then?  He conceives an idea more creditable to his head than to his heart.  With the connivance and assistance of his wife he disguised himself, covered those keen eyes with tinted glasses, masked the face with a mustache and a pair of bushy whiskers, sunk that clear voice into a insinuating whisper, and doubly secure on account of the girl’s short sight, he appears as Mr. Hosmer Angel, and keeps off other lovers by making love himself.”

Windibank doesn’t deny the accusation.  Why should he?  He hasn’t broken the law or done anything he could get into any real trouble for.  “It is unactionable,” as he tells Holmes.  Holmes threatens to give him a good wallop with his riding crop but the bastard takes a runner before he can get his just desserts.   It’s all fine and good, and you figure Holmes will next invite Miss Sutherland over, explain it all calmly and compassionately, and after some time working through the Five Stages, Mary will get on with her life, better off for having this miserable chapter over and done with.

Problem is, you figure wrong there.  Holmes takes it upon himself not to tell her.  Her mother and stepfather have manipulated her, abused her good nature, stomped all over her trust, and the man she came to for help decides that he’s…not going to inform her of any of it.  Why?  Well…

“And Miss Sutherland?”

“If I tell her she will not believe me.  You may remember the old Persian saying ‘There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.’  There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world.”

Sure, Mary Sutherland is a bit naïve, and she did fall quickly in love with the first man who paid her any sort of positive attention.  That doesn’t mean, however, that she’s incapable of understanding a rational argument when it’s presented to her.  It also doesn’t mean she loses the right to know about the people that are manipulating her or to have the opportunity to make an informed decision about what to do with her life.  Hiding this information from her essentially leaves her open to continued manipulation and mistreatment at the hands of her mother and stepfather.  Holmes is essentially leaving Mary open to continued victimization at their hands.

For all his protectiveness of women, his proclaimed respect for them, here Holmes decides to treat a woman as too fragile and delusional to handle the truth of her situation.  And he is very, very wrong.  Mary Sutherland deserves to know what is going on.  She deserves to know that the people she trusts are working against her – actively betraying her, in fact -and they likely will continue to do so despite being caught, because there are no consequences to their actions.  No legal ones, no personal ones considering the person they acted against is never going to be told what they did, not even any financial ones if Mary continues living there, giving them her monthly stipend and getting along herself on what she brings in doing piecemeal typing.

This bugs me.  It bugs me a lot.  The good guy isn’t supposed to leave the person asking for help in the same situation they start out the story in.  Holmes leaves Mary thinking the man she loves is missing, presumably to pine over him for the rest of her life and never find real love, while bank-rolling her mom and her boytoy to keep them in the lifestyle which they’ve become accustomed.  That isn’t what heroes do.  And while BBC Sherlock might tell John “Heroes don’t exist, and if they did, I wouldn’t be one of them,” that doesn’t mean canon Holmes should flout his responsibility here.  He has some duty of care to his client and this time, he failed.  Miserably, by my estimation.

So yes, this one time, Sherlock Holmes was an idiot.  It’s not a bad record, really, just getting called the dumbest smart person on the planet once in fifteen blog posts.  And it’s not entirely his fault.  Doyle did kind of make him that way.

You’d better bet this week’s story is going to be an attempt to fix what Doyle got wrong.

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