Watson’s account states that the date of this story should remain unknown. But you know the Sherlockians out there can’t leave well enough alone. William S. Baring-Gould is a name every aspiring Sherlockian should know, if only for his seminal biography of the Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street. Seriously, look him up. Baring-Gould marks this story as being set in 1899, nine years after the mysterious death of Charles Augustus Howell, a notorious blackmailer who served as the inspiration of this story’s odious title character.
As much as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle likes to poke fun at the upper crust of society, traveling in those circles himself allowed him to see some truly innocent souls, as well as some of the most loathsome. That dichotomy, as well as the tap dance between the letter of law and the spirit of justice, are on prominent display here.
By this point, Holmes has encountered more than 50 murderers in his career and, as we all know, has even come face to face with the Napoleon of Crime himself, Professor Moriarty. And yet, none of these, no matter how vile, has caused him more revulsion than Charles Augustus Milverton, aka “the king of the blackmailers.” The young debutante Lady Eva Blackwell hires Holmes to retrieve some letters from Milverton that, while they reveal minor indiscretions only, should end her engagement and cause her total ruin within her circles. It wasn’t until I read Edith Wharton that I got a total understanding of what this means. She can pay less than a third of what Milverton is demanding, and this is the offer Holmes puts forward on her behalf. For his part, Milverton seeks to use her as an example. In her ruination, future victims become more “open to reason” in the knowledge that he will destroy them otherwise. Holmes resolves to recover the letters by any means as Milverton has placed himself beyond any bounds of civility or morality.
Disguised as a plumber, Holmes visits his target’s Hampstead house so as to mark the layout and its occupant’s daily routine. Proving that you can never go too far in the pursuit of justice, he even strikes up a relationship with the housemaid and becomes engaged to marry her. Watson is naturally shocked, as any of his readers would be, and Holmes reveals he has a hated rival who will step in once the plumber disappears. Say what you will, but here we see that even Holmes has few scruples when it comes to the pursuit of justice. Not that scruples were ever his strongest point, but you see what I mean, right? *ahem*
In any case, Holmes has located where the blackmail letters are kept — a safe in the study, of course — and he is committed to steal them that night. Watson naturally tags along because he can. Entry is easily gained, but as Holmes opens the safe, Milverton enters the study. As noted, the mark should be asleep. Our heroes hide behind a curtain while Milverton conducts a midnight meeting with a maid offering to sell compromising letters about her mistress. The woman is, herself, one of Milverton’s victims. Her husband died of a broken heart when Milverton revealed her secret following a lack of payment. This setup is to avenge his death, which she does by shooting Milverton repeatedly and then stamping on his face. Take that, Milverton!
Watson’s instincts betray him as he starts to rush to help, but Holmes restrains him, and understanding dawns that justice has occurred. The woman escapes during the commotion as the household is roused by the shots. Holmes retrieves all of the blackmail papers and dumps them into the fire. They escape through the garden and over the wall, though Watson’s leg is grabbed in the pursuit. He has to kick himself free.
Inspector Lestrade comes to call the next morning to ask Holmes for aid in the Milverton investigation. The description of two men fleeing the scene are all he has to go by, and Holmes says it’s vague. “Why, it might be a description of Watson!” Nothing quite like hiding in plain sight, am I right? Lestrade is duly amused and dismisses the notion. Holmes refuses the case, stating that in this matter his sympathies lie with the criminals. It’s a conflict of conscience that he will not abide.
Holmes later recognizes the face of the woman who killed Milverton. Her photograph is displayed in a shop window along with those of other celebrities. Watson recognizes the name of her famous husband, but Holmes puts a finger to his lips, cautioning silence.
This is one of those stories that hits close to home for me in that it crosses another passion of mine: art. Milverton is inspired, as I mentioned at the top of this post, by the real life blackmailer Charles Augustus Howell. He was art dealer who menaced an unknown number of people, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti. To give you an idea of just how vile Howell was, it was he who persuaded Rossetti to exhume the body of his dead wife, Elizabeth Siddal, so as to retrieve the poems buried with her. And that wasn’t even the end of his dealings with the Rossetti family. He’s a real piece of work. Look him up if you ever feel the need to experience your flesh crawling. Conan Doyle often drew inspiration from real life for his stories, and having no tolerance for predators, he had little problem with further destroying a wretch like Howell even after his death. As icing on the proverbial cake, Howell’s death is as strange as anything to be found in a Sherlock Holmes story. According to the reports, his body was found near a public house in Chelsea, his throat cut posthumously. A half-Sovereign coin (or a full Sovereign, depending on the report) was found in his mouth, known at that time to be a criticism of those guilty of slander.
For those interested, this story has served as inspiration for other writers who have devised sequels. Of them, I’ve only read one myself, a long while back, but I remember enjoying the premise. Tying this back into the Pre-Raphaelites (of whom Rossetti was one of their number), author Donald Serrell Thomas has written a number of biographies and some fiction, in addition to editing volumes of Pre-Raphaelite poetry. Of his fiction, his most noted for these purposes is The Secret Cases of Sherlock Holmes. Within that collection of short stories, there is one, “The Execution of Sherlock Holmes,” that stands out. Thomas has Watson admit that Milverton was an alias for Howell, and the story revolves around Milverton’s brother Henry and several other relatives of those brought down by the Great Detective. This motley band kidnaps Holmes and stages a kangaroo court, putting him on trial for Milverton’s murder. One of these days I’ll have to revisit it myself and see if the tale holds up.
Regardless, “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” most certainly does hold up for me as one of the most satisfying reads in the canon.