The unnatural commonplace in “A Case of Identity” and the appeal of Sherlock Holmes in Victorian England

Sherlock Holmes is a Victorian gentleman who is learned and observational. He is a safe fictional figure, in that he does not compromise Victorian ideals using science, industrialization, or religious belief. He also does not introduce any controversial or otherwise otherworldly aspects that might challenge societal norms. Doyle created an entertaining character that lived and worked right beside his readers, an everyman with an extraordinary knack for solving crimes. Instead of challenging humanity and its place in the world or the Victorian Era’s religiosity, Holmes placed the human on a pedestal, taking man up as an active and precise study. He is a detective who relies on an extensive knowledge and profound understanding of human behavior. Holmes looks for clues in the everyday actions of the human object to solve cases. The appeal of Sherlock Holmes is therefore not in the oddity of his character or an intrigue into any supernatural element of Sherlock’s world, but rather the commonplace of the detective gentleman, worldly and immersed in his craft, deep in the daily subversions of urbanized Victorian London, seeing in the isolated lives of its populous the clues to thievery, corruption, and murder.

In the very beginning of “A Case of Identity”, Watson tells Sherlock the police reports he reads have a “realism” that is at “its extreme limits,” though adding that these reports are “neither fascinating nor artistic.” Sherlock is quick to respond that there is more importance placed on the “magistrate than upon the details, which to an observer contain the vital essence of the whole matter.” He says, “there is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace.” Herein lies the main message of this tale of Holmes, as well as the overall theme of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s series.

In “A Case of Identity”, Sherlock relies on simple body language, small observational clues, and a handful of hunches while listening to Miss Mary Sutherland’s story. Where in other instances Holmes must leave the comfort of 221B Baker Street to find suspects and track down clues, in this case all the evidence he needs to solve the mystery behind Mr. Angel comes to him. From his second-floor window, he watches Ms. Sutherland’s “oscillation” on the pavement, which he uses as evidence to correctly conclude that her issue has to do with an “affaire de coeur”. The mustache and spectacles that Mr. Angel wears, as well as his insistence on only meeting Ms. Sutherland after dusk, leads Sherlock to believe that he is hiding something. And Holmes is keen enough to notice that the typewritten message he receives from Ms. Sutherland’s stepfather was written on the same machine as the letters Mr. Angel had sent to Ms. Sutherland.

These minute breadcrumbs– commonplace descriptions, images, behaviors– accumulate to the discovery of an “identity”; Sherlock uncovers the true story behind a false character by seeing in the everyday an answer for the unexplainable.

Holmes upholds Victorian values, as well, especially at the end of “A Case of Identity” when he is reluctant to tell Ms. Sutherland the news about her Step-Father. In this case, Holmes’ inaction is striking. He deliberately keeps the woman uninformed, therefore powerless and incapable of seeking revenge or pressing charges against him. In Victorian England, women had practically no say in political affairs and even fewer rights in society. By keeping Ms. Sutherland in the dark, Sherlock perpetuates an already common belief that women cannot handle complex situations, or that they are too weak or too dumb to hear the truth. The Victorian woman is not to meddle in men’s affairs.  Even if she is privy to such shocking information, Sherlock withholds it, instead believing that Ms. Sutherland would not believe him, and that her step-father is bound to be caught in some other nefarious act in the future. He tells Watson, quoting a Persian epigram, “‘There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.”’” The misogyny is apparent, and Victorians would not have batted an eye.

The appeal of Sherlock Holmes for Victorian audiences was his contemporaneousness– he lived and breathed in their era, believed in the same ideals as they, and worked in such shadows and in such secrecy that the possibility of his existence flourished in the Victorian imagination. His cases were close to home, elaborated and exaggerated versions of reports written in the daily papers, only with the fascination and artistry that Watson says the true stories lacked. Mixed with the fantastic and the unbelievable, Holmes caught England’s eye because of his truth and domesticity. Though lofty in his practices, he was down to earth enough, gritty enough, pedestrian enough, doing exactly what everyone, Victorians and us alike, wish we could do; observe the obvious unseen, understand the human performance in relation to the soul’s intention, and discover the answers to our complex lives in the unnatural commonplace of the everyday.

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