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1 - Stone into Money

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 April 2021

Andrew Glazzard
Affiliation:
Royal United Services Institute
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Summary

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, published in the bestselling Strand Magazine in 1891–2, shows Holmes investigating not just his clients’ problems, but the hidden wiring of Victorian Britain. The wires were the social and economic relationships that connected cab drivers to kings, pawnbrokers to bankers, and hotel attendants to countesses. In these stories Holmes detects not only the physical traces of those relationships, such as the bruises on a woman's wrist or the shiny patch on a man's cuff, but also the financial traces. Usually overlooked by readers and critics, Holmes's skill as an economist is fundamental to his detective method, and fundamental to the social function of Conan Doyle's detective fiction.

We can see this demonstrated in the first of the stories, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ (1891). The story begins with Holmes receiving a letter, unsigned, asking for his assistance on a matter of profound importance to one of the royal houses of Europe. Holmes examines the paper and concludes that it is from Bohemia, and that it is expensive. ‘Such paper could not be bought under half-a-crown. It is peculiarly strong and stiff’ (9). Holmes then observes the author of the note arriving at Baker Street in a ‘nice little brougham and a pair of beauties. A hundred and fifty guineas apiece. There's money in this case, Watson, if there is nothing else’ (9–10). Holmes can read this particular client even before meeting him: the clues he identifies point not only to the wealth but also to the character of the client, whom we later discover to be the King of Bohemia. Although he employs a rather unsuccessful disguise, this is a man who wishes to demonstrate to the world that he is wealthy. The king's behaviour anticipates one of the period's most influential economic theories, ‘conspicuous consumption’, set out by the American economist Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), his famous study of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Veblen argued that those who do not need to work display their wealth so as to maintain their status: by encouraging those beneath them to envy and emulate them (rather than, as Karl Marx predicted, to rise up in revolt), they cement their positions at the top of the hierarchy.

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The Case of Sherlock Holmes
Secrets and Lies in Conan Doyle's Detective Fiction
, pp. 11 - 19
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2018

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