Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 April 2021
In a famous passage at the beginning of ‘A Case of Identity’, Holmes imagines surveying the inner workings of the households of London from the air:
If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the planning, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outré results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable. (Adventures, 30)
Besides the clear reference to Shakespeare's Hamlet, this passage alludes to a French reinterpretation of an ancient myth which, as Anthea Trodd and others have shown, fascinated Victorian writers: Alain-René Lesage's Le Diable boiteux (1707) takes the figure of Asmodeus from Hebrew myth and turns him into a satirical figure who leads ‘a favoured human companion on a roof-top excursion of Madrid, and lifts the roofs of the houses to expose the secret crimes habitually being enacted beneath’. Dickens, Thackeray and George Eliot all invoked Asmodeus in their writing, with the most celebrated instance coming in Dombey and Son (1848):
Oh for a good spirit who would take the house-tops off, with a more potent and benignant hand than the lame demon in the tale, and show a Christian people what dark shapes issue from amidst their homes, to swell the retinue of the Destroying Angel as he moves forth among them! For only one night's view of the pale phantoms rising from the scenes of our too-long neglect; and from the thick and sullen air where Vice and Fever propagate together, raining the tremendous social retributions which are ever pouring down, and ever coming thicker!
Dickens's concern is to expose the want and suffering of which Dombey is blithely ignorant, while Conan Doyle suggests that what lies beneath our rooftops is a more diverse set of mysteries and complications. But in both cases, Asmodeus's power is a metaphor for the revelation of domestic secrets and this, for Doyle as for his Victorian predecessors, was a major theme. The plots of the Holmes stories, like those of the Victorian novels with which Doyle was deeply familiar, turn again and again on a suppressed family history.