Return of the Greatest Sherlock #6 = Jack the Ripper and the Metaphors Behind The Six Napoleons
The Six Napoleons is a famous story published in The Strand in 1904, a few years after the murders by Jack the Ripper, which got me thinking about how he influenced this story. The background to this story relies heavily on references to history, crime and current events, such as Watson’s flimsy explanation for the crimes. Although Sherlock Holmes finds the REAL explanation for somebody shattering busts of Napoleon, I think there is a metaphorical explanation too, and Jack the Ripper’s crimes have a big influence on The Six Napoleons.
Why did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle choose Napoleon as his subject? Why not busts of Shakespeare or The Queen? This is not as curious as you might think, as Napoleon was as common a household bust as Beethoven, and you can see the bust itself holds no particular value, but using the dictator in this story might be a subtle jab at devaluing Napoleon himself or a lampooning of the French.
Granada’s TV adaptation closely follows the original story. You can see the busts treated in a very haphazard fashion as Beppo throws them around in one scene and launches them at police chasing after him. Clearly, the busts are commonplace, which makes the reveal of the Borgia’s pearl hidden in one of these pieces of crap very exciting and thrilling, like finding a quarter in the pants you about to throw in the laundry. Such a treat!
Watson suggests a mental condition to explain the obsessive destruction of the busts, which is the only time in the whole Canon I can remember where Watson was convinced that a psychological obsession had a large influence on the crime. This is perhaps the best evidence of the influence of Jack the Ripper, or more to the point, disturbed criminal psychology in law enforcement. In fact, Conan Doyle makes references to other grotesque and unusual things in this story, which again, might be because of real life events, such as Jack the Ripper’s crimes from 1888 to 1891. This story might be a precursor to other stories of the 20s and 30s, where Jack the Ripper was used a symbol for the boogeyman, but seems influenced by current events more than other Holmes stories.
Holmes makes it clear that there are many grisly things in the world, and he even quotes an unknown case, untold by Conan Doyle. The lack of detail in his explanation makes this mysterious case very alluring, as if something thrilling and dangerous happened along the way. That moment is used to parallel the case of The Six Napoleons, and also to reinforce the need to be detail-oriented, like Holmes is known to be. This may be Conan Doyle’s slight jab at police, who were not able to satisfactorily able to solve the Jack the Ripper murders.
Clearly, Conan Doyle builds his story around a mysterious obsessive-compulsive criminal, who is breaking all the Napoleon busts he can find to locate the pearl of the Borgias, but he throws in jabs at the conspiracy theorists, like Morse Hudson. It is not unusual to see lampooning and criticism in the media of current events, so it is not surprising Conan Doyle takes this tone when Holmes and Watson visit Mr. Morse Hudson. Morse Hudson is a metaphor for conspiracy theorists in general, like those who must have been feverishly trying to explain Jack the Ripper’s killings. Granada also takes an over-the-top approach to Morse Hudson, portraying him as a wacko who tries to warn Holmes with some frivolous theories about The Red Republicans.
Conan Doyle runs the gambit in his criticism, lampooning the insanity, madness and conspiracy theories behind Jack the Ripper. So which is it? Which does Conan Doyle really believe? That is not clear, although the story has a hint of organized crime to explain its plot. Mafia families living in Italy and Sicily were very common and became feared around 1900, although Doyle’s villain Vanucci comes from Naples, not Sicily.
Conan Doyle uses The Borgia Family of the Italian Renaissance to stand in for his ruthless political criminals of a generic mafia type. The Borgia Family were perhaps the most infamous and ruthless Italian of their time period. Conan Doyle uses the pearl in this story to symbolize their downfall, as he alludes to their decline as major villains of the 18th century. Conan Doyle uses characteristics of the historical Borgias for his own villains, such as he acts of in-fighting. I think the Italian characters used in this episode are supposed to be the reminiscent of the Italian mafia or the Borgias family. This point is emphasized by the introduction, which is done entirely in Italian, without translation.
Overall, Granada brings the Canon to life once again, and the supporting cast is great. Emil Wolk as Beppo, Marina Sirtis as Lucrezia, and Colin Jeavon as Lestrade are especially good. Like The Second Stain, there is another standout scene, which Jeremy Brett carries with his performance. It is when Lestrade offers him some high praise and says that all the men on the force are proud of him. Brett humanizes Holmes once again, and his emotional reaction is perfect. This episode, the Musgrave Ritual and the Resident Patient are probably my most watched episodes for the Jeremy Brett moments, but the stories are so well-adapted that it is easy for me to like every bit of these Canon productions.