Crimes of Conscience: Morality and Justice in Doyle and Christie

Gareth Watkins, University of Wales, Aberystwyth


As a genre, detective fiction is inescapably concerned with moral and legal issues; a crime must be committed and the person responsible discovered and brought to justice. Different kinds of justice often collide in the detective story, however. The police, of course, want to capture the criminal and see legal justice dispensed, whereas another character might seek retribution of their own. Literally any detective fiction could be used in exploring this topic, but I have chosen to focus on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, as two of the undisputed originators of the genre.

Ever since Sherlock Holmes first captured the nation’s imagination in 1887, detective fiction has remained one of, if not the most popular and enduring genres in literature. Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes at a time when confidence in the police was shaken, largely due to the scandal at Scotland Yard in the late 1870s, and he owes much of the series’ success to this. The police in the Holmes stories are portrayed as bumbling conventionalists, victims of their own orthodoxy, and it is up to Holmes, the eccentric, isolated genius, to save the day.1 Athelney Jones, the Scotland Yard detective in the second Holmes novel, The Sign of Four (1890), first makes his intrusive entrance as a

very stout, portly man in a grey suit…red-faced, burly, and plethoric, with a pair of very small twinkling eyes which looked keenly out from between swollen and puffy pouches.2

His physical appearance contrasts as dramatically with the tall, strong and graceful Holmes as do his methods of deduction. Jones then pronounces the murder of Bartholomew Sholto, on which he has entered, to be a ‘Bad business! Bad business! Stern facts here – no room for theories’3, and within minutes he has made his assumptions and arrested Thaddeus Sholto for the murder of his brother, leaving Holmes free to set about discovering the real solution to the crime.

Doyle was – at least in the early Holmes stories – playing on his readership’s fears, namely threats to the security of the middle and upper-middle class order. These threats, as Stephen Knight points out, often come ‘from within the family and the class, not from enemy criminals’4. In fact, as Dr Watson observes in ‘The Blue Carbuncle’, several of the early Holmes stories are ‘entirely free from any legal crime’5. Holmes claims that he chooses his cases based on their degree of unusualness and to what extent they would tax his skills; Doyle, on the other hand, was selecting his stories for their relevance to his audience. The crimes Holmes encounters commonly include blackmail, theft and revenge, often against the rich or famous, or members of the aristocracy. It is interesting to note the absence of any murders in the early stories, the ultimate crime which would soon become the staple of most other detective fiction, but also the one that Doyle’s middle-class readers were least likely to encounter. These crimes, as presented in the stories and novels, are of greater importance than the culprits or their immediate victims and, as Christopher Clausen points out, in solving them, Holmes does more than merely uphold the law, he ‘single-handedly defends an entire social order whose relatively fortunate members feel it to be deeply threatened by forces that only he is capable of overcoming’6.

It is order, then, if not always law, that is upheld in the Holmes stories. In several of the stories, Holmes even allows the criminal to escape, but always for reasons he believes to be decent. For example, at the end of ‘The Blue Carbuncle’, having let the thief go free convinced that he is not a criminal at heart, Holmes says, ‘I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul’7. Most often, it is the solving of the problem, rather than the apprehension of the criminal, which is important to Holmes. As such, his morality is often called into question. At the end of ‘The Speckled Band’, Holmes has solved the mystery with the not altogether unforeseen result of causing the snake to turn upon its (admittedly murderous) master, and he confesses ‘I am no doubt indirectly responsible for Dr Grimesby Roylott’s death, and I cannot say that it is likely to weigh very heavily upon my conscience’8.

Agatha Christie published her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) three years after the final Holmes story appeared in The Strand, and she soon established her reputation as the country’s favourite mystery writer. She is often referred to as the ‘Queen of Crime’ and is credited, along with Dorothy L. Sayers, with setting out the formula for the classical detective story, or ‘whodunit’.

This type of detective novel is arguably the most morally ambiguous of any other within the genre. It presents crime – almost exclusively murder – as a puzzle, ‘a mystery to be solved’.9 It is, in John G. Cawelti’s words, the ‘aestheticizing of crime’10. Emotion does not figure greatly in the stories. The victim, for example, is very often an unpleasant character, or someone who will not be greatly missed or mourned. This is not entirely true of Emily Inglethorp, the victim in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, although Captain Hastings does observe that ‘there was an emotional lack in the atmosphere’ following her death; ‘The dead woman had not the gift of commanding love. Her death was a shock and a distress, but she would not be passionately regretted.’11 The other characters are indeed shocked and distressed, but more by the thought that there is a murderer amongst them, and that each of them will fall under suspicion, than by the death of Mrs Inglethorp. Heta Pyrhönen suggests some rules that the reader of detective fiction has to accept, the first being: ‘crime, even murder, evokes practically no other emotion than curiosity about the perpetrator’s identity’12. Similar to the Holmesian view of mystery-solving, it is the revelation of the culprit’s identity which is crucial, with their punishment only of secondary importance13. In fact, we are not even told what becomes of the killer in Styles. Poirot makes a show of announcing his identity:

Messieurs, mesdames,’ said Poirot, with a flourish, ‘let me introduce to you the murderer, Mr Alfred Inglethorp!’14

But there the chapter ends and the following one takes place ‘several hectic days’ later15 with no mention of what became of Alfred Inglethorp. The ‘flourish’ with which Poirot delivers the information, like a magician performing a trick, emphasises its importance and his evident self-satisfaction at having discovered it.

Crime, here in the whodunit, is a basis for the detective’s (and the criminal’s) ingenuity regarding its ‘planning, committing, covering-up, and solving’16, rather than moral indignation. Many critics have suggested that we, as readers, are as culpable as the two-dimensional characters of the whodunit when it comes to lack of morality. Perhaps even more so as we have made the choice to read the story, we want a crime to be committed and for there to be ‘an intellectually interesting or suspenseful, adventurous process of solving it’17, which leaves little time to dwell on the emotional impact a real murder would have on a family and a community. We are never really given the opportunity to identify with either the victim or the murderer – the victim being killed off usually at the beginning of the novel, and the murderer not being revealed until the end – which further helps to prevent the ‘characteristically emotional engagement of tragedy’18, which both we and the characters have to avoid in order for the novel to be enjoyable.

There is a certain ethic present in the whodunit, however; the notion that, however unrealistically free of emotion it may be presented, crime does matter and it must be solved. This, though, does seem to emphasise the importance of knowing the truth over considerations of justice, a key concept to the form.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles introduced Hercule Poirot, the eccentric Belgian and ‘quaint dandified little man’19, and perhaps now the world’s second most famous fictional detective. ‘Ah, my friend,’ he says at the scene of the crime in Styles, ‘one may live in a big house and yet have no comfort’20, neatly summing up the idea of society as represented in the classical detective story, and more particularly in the novels of Agatha Christie. The depiction of society in Christie’s novels is, of course, famously conservative, with upper-middle-class communities providing the closed-off societies required by her plots. Like Doyle’s, the crimes are more than just a basis for a criminal investigation, they represent a disruption in an otherwise harmonious world, and it is up to the detective to unmask the culprit and restore this harmony. There are no emotional or moral repercussions at the end of a Christie novel; Poirot (in this case) solves the case and everything and everyone returns to normal, simply minus one of their original number. Also like Doyle’s stories, Christie’s murderers are not criminals but other members of the community, of the same class, background, and often even of the same family as the victim and the other suspects. This means that no one in a Christie novel is ever above suspicion, even the most respected members of society. The culprit could be the family doctor or even the local vicar. And so Christie, again like Doyle, played on the fears of many of her readers, with the idea of such danger coming from within; ‘the butler did it’ was a genuine fear before it became a joke. The murderer in Styles, for example, turns out to be the person most suspected in the first place; the victim’s new husband.

This notion of anyone and everyone being capable of murder would be very worrying if it were not for the fact that her characters do not operate within the rules of the real world. Christie’s world has its own set of rules and her criminals transgress according to them, often, for example, killing for reasons that even the coldest-blooded of murderers in the real world would think laughable. They want just the things that their version of society prevents them from pursuing.21 It seems to me that Poirot is so effortlessly successful because he has such an intimate knowledge of the rules that govern Christie’s world. He knows what everyone is thinking and feeling, whether they are telling the truth, lying, or covering for someone else and, most importantly, why. It is impossible to keep a secret from him. In the majority of the Poirot stories, he realises who is guilty fairly early on and spends the remainder of the novel attempting to prove it. This is the case in Styles when we discover at the end that he has known who the murder was all along and, in true Holmes style, simply kept the information from his Watson, Captain Hastings, allegedly to encourage him to work it out for himself. ‘I did not deceive you, mon ami. At most, I permitted you to deceive yourself’22 Poirot tells Hastings in the final pages of Styles, though he could just as easily be talking to us, the reader.

The police make a brief appearance in Styles and, sure enough, are presented as orthodox and quick to assumptions, pronouncing the case as ‘pretty clear’ and observing Poirot with ‘comical perplexity’23. Christie does, however, give Poirot a regular official counterpart throughout the series in the form of Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard. He is presented as cheerful and slightly bumbling but not without merit, as well as – in contrast to Holmes’ police acquaintances – willing to accept Poirot’s usefulness, ‘there’s no man’s judgement I’d sooner take than his’24. However, the police do not play a part in the solving of the crime. Unusually for the whodunit, though, Styles does feature a formal court inquest, at which Poirot is present but silent. We also learn, though, at the end of the book that he could have prevented the trial from taking place at all by proving John Cavendish innocent, rendering the only police action in the novel pointless.

It could be said that the figure of the detective brings the ethical view lacking in the other areas of the books. He is the one responsible for solving the crime and exposing the criminal and, in Christie’s world, these are ‘important for the moral well-being of the fictional community’25. He is also responsible for the alleviating any worry on the part of the reader, prioritising as he does the ‘technical sense of guilt without placing it in a wider context’26 enabling us to close the book with the same sense of ease that the characters feel knowing that everything is back to normal.

Fictional detectives have always upheld private and public codes of justice, although some favour one over the other. They always succeed because a solved mystery is reassuring to readers, asserting the triumph of reason over instinct and of order over anarchy.27 It is a famous theory that detective and crime fiction owes much of its popularity to certain latent desires within each of us, and that the projection of guilt upon one person, as is almost always the way of the detective story, also serves to alleviate our own inherent guilt. Pyrhönen sees this as a healthy way of dealing with such desires, suggesting that readers can, for the duration of the story, ‘enjoy the attractive caprices of evil, while knowing that it will eventually be subordinated to good.’ As W. H. Auden suggested in his essay ‘The Guilty Vicarage’, ‘the typical reader of detective stories is, like myself, a person who suffers from a sense of sin.’28

Copyright © 2007 Gareth Watkins

1 Clausen, Christopher, ‘Sherlock Holmes, Order, and the Late-Victorian Mind’ in Georgia Review, Vol. 38 (1984) p. 112

2 Conan Doyle, Arthur, The Sign of Four (London: Penguin Classics, 2001) p. 45

3 Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four, p. 45

4 Knight, Stephen, ‘The Case of the Great Detective’ in Conan Doyle, Arthur, Ed. Hodgson, John A., Sherlock Holmes: The Major Stories with Contemporary Critical Essays (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1994) p. 370

5 Conan Doyle, Arthur, ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ in Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Illustrated Short Stories (London: Chancellor Press, 1992) p. 120

6 Clausen, Christopher, ‘Sherlock Holmes, Order, and the Late-Victorian Mind’ in Georgia Review, Vol. 38 (1984) p. 112

7 Conan Doyle, Arthur, ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ in Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Illustrated Short Stories (London: Chancellor Press, 1992) p. 136

8 Conan Doyle, Arthur, ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’ in Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Illustrated Short Stories (London: Chancellor Press, 1992) p. 136

9 Pyrhönen, Heta, Mayhem and Murder: Narrative and Moral Problems in the Detective Story (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999) p. 21

10 Cawelti, John G., Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976) p. 99

11 Christie, Agatha, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (London: Harper Collins, 2005) p. 51

12 Pyrhönen, p. 164

13 Cawelti, p. 87

14 Christie, Agatha, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, p. 278

15 Christie, Agatha, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, p. 279

16 Pyrhönen, p. 164

17 Pyrhönen, p. 155

18 Grella, George, ‘Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel’ in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 4, No. 1. (Autumn, 1970), p. 33

19 Christie, Agatha, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, p. 35

20 Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, p. 63

21 Pyrhönen, p. 175

22 Christie, Agatha, The Mysterious Affair at Styles,  p. 279

23 Christie, Agatha, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, p. 148

24 Christie, Agatha, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, p. 148

25 Pyrhönen, p. 171

26 Pyrhönen, p. 171

27 Lodge, David, The Art of Fiction (London: Penguin, 1992) p. 103

28 Auden, W. H., ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ as quoted in Grella, George, ‘Murder and Manners: The Formal Detective Novel’ in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 4, No. 1. (Autumn, 1970), p. 33