The Man with the Twisted Lip

Holmes musing on an Eastern divan.
Illustration by Sidney Paget.

The Man with the Twisted Lip

Like birds to a lighthouse: Well, that’s nice. People in grief flock to see Watson’s wife. But I began to think about this simile. Do birds flock to lighthouses? Indeed, they do, attracted by the light, and they hit the buildings and die. Hmm. Is there something dangerous about Watson’s wife? Or at least boring? The story opens with Watson yawning in her presence. It’s a tender domestic scene in the Watsons’ sitting room, Watson in his armchair, his wife at her needlework, and yet where is the exciting repartee we get when Watson is with Holmes, or for that matter when Hugh Boone is plying his trade as a beggar?

Hugh Boone is good at being a beggar: There’s the witty repartee and the professionally done make-up, making him quite a character on the streets of the City, known to Sherlock Holmes even before his involvement in this case. And what a strange case it is: the disappearance of the respectable Neville St. Clair, thought to have been murdered by Hugh Boone, only for it to turn out that Neville St. Clair [SPOILER ALERT] is Hugh Boone. There is no murder, no disappearance – well, I guess a disappearance, a disappearance that takes place every day, as Neville St. Clair transforms himself into a hideous- looking beggar in an opium den (but usually transforms himself back every night, except not this time, because his wife intervenes, and the police, and Sherlock Holmes, and he is stuck in his secret identity: a Superman who can’t find a phone booth to change back into Clark Kent; instead he ends up in a jail cell in the guise of his alter ego).

So what are we to make of that? I am all in the dark, says Watson at the beginning, and so is Sherlock Holmes, who gets the wrong end of things altogether and keeps trying to figure out how a murder took place, dismissing any difficulties with the murder theory in the best manner of the slow-footed policemen he usually mocks. Only when he settles onto an Eastern divan, meditating and puffing smoke like a Zen Buddhist (or like someone in an opium den) does the real answer come to him. Is this a plea for intuition over logic? He does praise woman’s intuition over logic in this story, when Mrs. St. Clair says she just knows her husband is alive; she would feel it if he were dead. And of course she has a letter from him to encourage this knowledge, though Holmes at first tries to explain that away – because he has that murder theory to hold onto: very un-Holmesian. But then he smokes a little opium – sorry, tobacco – and he can see straight.

Can opium make you see straight? No, no, that was tobacco. We do see opium smokers, of course. The story opens in an opium den – well, scene two at least after the opening in which Watson’s yawning is interrupted by the arrival of Mrs. Whitney, whose husband Isa has gone off on a two-day bender to the Bar of Gold in Upper Swandam Lane. Mrs. Whitney, by the way, is dressed all in black, including a black veil: why? Is she in mourning? Her husband is an opium addict, and is in essence dead? Is that what this means? Is their marriage essentially dead? Because after all opium does not make you see straight; it makes you confused even about what day it is, and it means Isa Whitney cannot function properly: what would he be functioning at, by the way? What is his profession? His brother was the head of a theological college, and he read De Quincey at college (most men read Classics or Divinity, but there you go), but what does he do now? Nothing?

That opium den: Watson goes to the Bar of Gold to rescue Isa Whitney and bring him back to domesticity, and it is there that he runs into Holmes disguised as an addict, who is there looking for the vanished Neville St. Clair, last seen at an upper storey window. Why is all this taking place at an opium den? Why does Neville St. Clair make an opium den his dressing room? What has opium to do with it?

Evil opium: From the Far East, brought in by nefarious foreigners, like the “sallow Malay” and the “rascally Lascar” (a native of India) and, oddly, a Dane: something rotten there, perhaps. Anyway, in the late nineteenth century there was quite a panic about opium and the evils of the East, which some commentators see Doyle channelling, and perhaps he is. But there is always this doubleness in Doyle: the foreign can be dangerous, can in this case destroy you and your ability to pursue a livelihood, but it can be liberating too. Is opium liberating? Maybe, though we don’t quite see that here, unless the fact that Neville St. Clair uses an opium den as his base of operations indicates something liberating about it.

Liberating from what? Well, Neville St. Clair gets liberated from the arduous work of journalism and makes five times as much just sitting around. Holmes, too, just sits around, on his self-built Eastern divan: is that a better way to go than pursuing logic or journalism? Is begging better than a real job in the City? Is being a detective better? Or a writer of  detective stories? (Some, like Stephen Knight, see Neville St. Clair as a self-portrait of Arthur Conan Doyle slumming among the potboilers instead of being a serious author or eye doctor.)

And Neville St. Clair works with the rascally Lascar, so in a way he’s involved in the opium trade, making money through it, at least by association, and thus much like the British government and its involvement in the opium trade. Is this an indictment of British imperialism? Or praise of it?

Liberating from what, Part Two: Opium liberates Isa Whitney from his wife. The opium adventure also liberates Watson from his wife. Tell her you’ve thrown in your lot with me, says Sherlock Holmes in getting Watson to go off on the Hugh Boone expedition. So is it opium versus domesticity? Detective work versus domesticity? Which side are we supposed to be on?

But at the end Neville St. Clair is sternly told that there can be no more Hugh Boone. Of course, being Hugh Boone in itself was no threat to domesticity. It was only being caught in the midst of transformation that kept Hugh/Neville from his wife. You should have trusted your wife, Holmes tells Hugh/Neville, patting him on his arm. And then what would have happened? What will happen now? If Neville St. Clair renounces Hugh Boone, will he go back to a “normal” job? Should he? Will he be happier with his wife? Or will he yawn at her like Watson?

Is this a story about settling down? You can’t be a beggar (or a detective) forever? Why not? True, you can’t be an opium addict forever: in fact, being an opium addict is a bad thing already: Isa Whitney is a mess. But is Neville St. Clair a mess? Is Watson? It’s a conflict between respectability and adventure, and in fact aren’t a lot of the Holmes stories about that? At least they’re about respectability or reputation and the threats to it. Here you are, a respectable landowner or whatever, and someone shows up who blackmails you because you were a criminal in Australia; you can’t have that.

In this case there’s no Australia, just an opium den and playing a beggar, but again there’s a threat from a secret that may destroy a respectable appearance. And Neville St. Clair does want to keep up appearances; he doesn’t want shame visited on his children; he wants them to be able to build something proper with those building blocks he buys for them.

Well, then, he can’t keep on playing the beggar: That’s what the story says at the end, clearly. And yet what fun it was to do that. You can’t keep playing detective: is the story also saying that? There is a push all along in the canon to get Watson married and away from Sherlock Holmes. There’s even a push to kill Holmes off altogether. Enough of these childish adventures: you have to grow up, settle down, be an adult.

And yet who ends up really dead? Not Holmes, or not permanently, but Mrs. Watson. And whose bedroom do we see Watson in, even in this story: not the one he presumably shares with his wife but one he shares with Sherlock Holmes.

There are several couples in this story, but which one is the most likely to last? There’s Kate and Isa Whitney, but  Kate is already in mourning for her marriage because opium has killed it. The path of opium seems a mistake. There’s Watson and his wife, but that seems boring or deadly or both. There’s the St. Clair marriage, and that one does seem to involve real connection: Mrs. St. Clair can tell if her husband is still alive, and when she gets the note from him she dresses up in a seductive chiffon gown in eager anticipation of his arrival. But will that marriage survive if Neville can no longer go off on his Hugh Boone adventures?

And then there is Holmes and Watson: that’s the real couple in these stories, and they go on forever, continuing to satisfy our child-like interest in play, though partly we know this is just a game and we have to settle down – but not just yet.

Excerpted from my book of Sherlockian Musings, available at Amazon Canada, Amazon USA, and  Amazon UK. Also at MX Publishing.  The musings were originally written for the Stormy Petrels of British Columbia.

2 thoughts on “The Man with the Twisted Lip”

  1. “Why does Neville St. Clair make an opium den his dressing room? What has opium to do with it?”

    This seems plausibly explained in the story itself. The room is the sort of abode which a beggar may afford, and the proprietor of the opium den (who has a habit of passing dead bodies out the trap door into the river) is presumably willing to help him maintain the deception. Perhaps it’s also plausible that someone dressed like a businessman would enter such a place, allowing the daily costume changes to go unmarked?


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