We Sherlock Holmes fanatics are suckers for references (direct or indirect, even vague nods, some of us aren’t terribly picky) to the original stories. John Watson suffered one, possibly two, wounds in Afghanistan. Sherlock Holmes keeps tobacco in his Persian slipper. The dog in the nighttime was innocent of any wrongdoing—or action, for that matter. Sherlock Holmes is a jackass, but a jackass whom we love. He solves crimes, yes, but he also determines via the electric intuition of his own (and sometimes John Watson’s) conscience whether or not the criminal should be punished for the crime. Examples, should one choose to doubt this assertion:
- Is a father-in-law determined to carry on his false relationship with his daughter-by-marriage so he can keep her inheritance a man who deserves to horsewhipped? (Holmes says: yes.)
- Is a man who stole a goose for profit likely to go wrong again if you scare the trousers off his mealy little arse? (Holmes says: no.)
- Is a man who killed a wife-beater and sadist—a sadist who incidentally set his spouse’s dog on fire and killed it to teach her a lesson—guilty of murder when he murders that sadist in arguable self-defense? (Holmes says: no.)
The Sherlock episode “His Last Vow” has absolutely everything to do with this issue of independent moral standing and justice execution. I would argue that the extent to which the characters in the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes justify their own questionable actions is very important, and I would likewise posit that nowhere is this conundrum better exemplified canonically than in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton.”
Sherlock Holmes greatly enjoys categorizing things. Tobacco ash, for a start. Mud. The man is a virtuoso in mud studies. Probably also twigs. And pigeon feces. (I am merely extrapolating from known data, and should be clear this is unconfirmed in the canon—but Sherlock Holmes could probably glance at pigeon crap and determine the whereabouts of the bird’s last meal.) Additionally, however, he adores categorizing humans, and I sometimes wonder if he is so very deeply fond of John Watson because John Watson cannot ever be definitively categorized. The smartest men in London, the wickedest men in London, the most beautiful women and the most charitable of ugly men—Holmes has certain standards and systems, and he lives by these rules.
Charles Augustus Milverton? He is “the worst man in London.” The most nefarious, you might wonder, the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that in undetected in the great metropolis? No, that was James (or Jim, as the BBC would have him) Moriarty, with whom Holmes always shared a special something.
The worst man in London is another kettle of snakes.
Editor's note: Spoilers and slitherers ahead, you know.