The Illustrious Client
“In the mud with my foot on his cursed face”: That’s how Kitty Winter would like to see Baron Gruner. And I thought, Wait a minute, we’ve seen something like that before: Lady X grinding her heel into the face of Charles Augustus Milverton after shooting him. Grisly stuff, female revenge on the male. Is Conan Doyle just repeating himself?
Not entirely: For instance, in the earlier story a lady does the shooting and the heel grinding. In this one Kitty Winter is no lady; she’s what? A force of nature? A whirlwind, a flame, a she-devil, a leprous female Shinwell Johnson found in the “garbage” of the underworld? She lives in “Hell, London,” but wishes Gruner in a deeper one. And she doesn’t in the end go in for shooting and heel grinding, but for tossing acid in a man’s face. It seems almost more horrifying.
And what man? Baron Gruner, a suave aristocrat from the Continent, from Austria. The Austrian murderer (perhaps), but civilized, handsome – except for a murderous mouth (oh, Conan Doyle, how you still believe in physiognomy: the face tells us all). But if we’re looking at faces, there’s Shinwell Johnson’s coarse, scurvy-looking one, and Kitty Winter’s … we have delved into the underworld, the dregs, though Kitty Winter has a certain attractive liveliness about her. Maybe she represents the dark energies that we need to harness to avoid turning into frozen ethereal Violet de Mervilles. But still …
Aristocrat vs. Aristocrat: So what we have here is our heroes reaching into the gutter to find a weapon with which to attack the aristocratic Baron Gruner on behalf of Colonel Sir James Damery and his illustrious client (the King?) who has taken an interest in the prospective marriage of Violet to the Baron.
Now, earlier in the canon, aristocrats are not a favoured species. In “The Naval Treaty” we are told that it is uncommon for a nobleman to act nobly. But here the first nobleman we see is quite appealing. (Well, he is not a nobleman perhaps, only a Colonel Sir, but Watson calls him an aristocrat.) Anyway, Colonel Sir James Damery seems quite appealing. Pleasant, honest, delicate.
So for a change the English upper classes seem to come off fairly well here, but the German baron …
German baron? Okay, Gruner is Austrian, not German. We did have a German baron in “His Last Bow,” a story that is somewhat surprising for its lack of animus against the Germans. It was the middle of World War I, with Germany at war with England, but Holmes’s attitude (and Conan Doyle’s?) seemed to be, Pip, pip, good try, old boys, you’ve played well, only we have played better.
Austrian baron: The attitude to Baron Gruner is quite different. He is someone who must be stopped at all costs, even burglary and acid-throwing. And for what? What crime is he committing? Charles Augustus Milverton is in the midst of blackmailing when his life is brought short. Holmes wants to stop him and destroy his papers to save various marriages. In this story everything is inside out. Holmes wants to save papers (the “lust diary”) to prevent a marriage.
But again, what crime is the Baron committing? He simply wants to marry Violet de Merville.
Ah, but what will he do? He’s a murderer, we’re told. He killed his previous wife, so action must be taken now to prevent another wife-murder. Is this about that past murder, Holmes asks? No, says Colonel Sir James, this is not about revenge for that, but prevention of a repetition. (And a repetition here in our blessed England, one might add.)
Symbolism: It suddenly struck me that this desperate attempt to use the lower orders to attack a foreign aristocrat might actually have something to do with international politics. The leaders of Germany had fought one war with England. Was there fear they might launch another? Is this what lurks beneath this story? A return of the German threat?
Revenge? But in the early 1920’s was there such a threat? Maybe this is about revenge after all; maybe what is driving this story is what we might have expected to see in “His Last Bow”: anger against Germans. (Yes, I know, Baron Gruner is Austrian. Still …)
Ethereal Woman: And what are we to make of Violet de Merville? So angelic and remote, not realizing the danger she is in. It annoys Sherlock Holmes: you have to see the danger of the Baron, why can’t you? If I were to pursue the political allegory, I might see Violet as representing the wilfully ignorant leaders of Europe, not recognizing the dangers of a second European conflict.
Or is she just Woman? Women are the Other here: mysterious creatures no male can understand. Who can fathom their motives? Though Holmes (and Doyle) seem confident that a lust-diary will kill their interest. Maybe acid disfigurement too, though Holmes says that wouldn’t have been enough.
Secrecy: Then there is the theme of secrecy. Holmes doesn’t like Sir James’s secrecy surrounding the client, but he is quite willing to be secretive himself, even to Watson, which of course is sometimes necessary for the sake of the story, but is secrecy good or bad? Holmes is actually quite open and unsecretive towards Baron Gruner: he sends in his card to him and tells him exactly what he wants. Is it more important to keep your friends in the dark than your enemies? Maybe there are things your friends are better off not knowing.
In Milverton the idea is to protect secrets, the secrets of good people who’ve committed indiscretions. Here the idea is to expose secrets, the secrets of a bad person who poses a threat. Secrecy is neither good nor bad, but a tool? After all, Watson is always secretive to us: he knows the solutions when he sits down to write, but he keeps them from us till the end so we’ll be entertained.
And finally, insects: Why is Baron Gruner described as having “little waxed tips of hair under his nose, like the short antennae of an insect”? Is this an attempt to dehumanize him? What do antennae do anyway? They are feelers, sense organs? Baron Gruner’s “quivered with amusement” when he listened to Holmes. It seems quite monstrous somehow; is he being portrayed as a monster to justify the acid attack to come?
He’s also called an affable cat contemplating mice, and “some people’s affability is more deadly than the violence of coarser souls.”
In this story the threat is not from coarser souls like Shinwell Johnson. Shinwell Johnson can be used as an agent; Holmes uses him as an agent. The true threat is this smooth-talking foreign aristocrat who loves Chinese pottery. I was going to say it’s not 1895 anymore; there are snapshots and telephones. But even in the earlier stories the threat is from where? Not the lower classes. And here it’s creatures from below who can be used to fight the real threat – except maybe they get a little bit out of control. Maybe it’s dangerous to set a Kitty Winter loose. The result makes Holmes recoil in horror – and do we?