A Study of Fear

Yes, I’ve conflated the titles of two Sherlock Holmes novellas here (“conflated” – did I really write that word?).

I confess to not having read The Valley of Fear for a long time, and it’s been some time since I read A Study in Scarlet. There are some real similarities, though. Both involve a murder of a particularly unusual kind, and both involve a flashback sequence to an American past.

What is really striking about the central portion of both books is the attitude of Conan Doyle to American society.

Is it possible that the same man who could write:

I am one of those who believe that the folly of a monarch and the blundering of a minister in far-gone years will not prevent our children frombeing some day citizens of the same world-wide country under a flag which shall be a quartering of the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes

could also write about America (twice) as a place where justice and the law have no place – or at least where there is extreme difficulty in enforcing the law?

Valley portrays a society which would bring a chill of horror to the solid British citizens (the Watsons of Holmes’ world) who could no more imagine a  world in which respectable factory owners and managers were regularly gunned down without fear of retribution than they could envisage flying across the Atlantic in a few hours. Of course, what criminals did to each other in the East End of London and the back streets of Birmingham was another matter, but these were not incidents that affected the mass of Doyle’s readers.

Study likewise took its readers to a world where the comfortable middle classes could shudder vicariously at the description of a polygamous society (Richard Burton had already whetted the appetite of Victorians some decades earlier with his The City of the Saints and Across the Rocky Mountains to California (1861)) ruled by an autocratic theocracy where the rule of law was non-existent.

These attitudes to American society: a belief that it was a rough, tough land, where civilisation (in the form of an effective and incorruptible law enforcement and judicial system) did not exist, and where might was right, seem to have been common among many novelists of this period. It is also more than likely that some Americans themselves encouraged this belief, setting them apart from the effete decadent Europeans.

But on the whole, given what we know of Conan Doyle, it is more than likely that he was writing to satisfy the desire of his fellow-countrymen for entertainment, and to encourage them to feel morally superior to those uncouth Americans. The trans-Atlantic readers might even have seen all of this as a compliment, of course!

Has much changed?

Actually, I fear not. However hypocritical and inaccurate it may be, British media still often portrays the USA as a nation with more than its fair share of gun-toting ignorant semi-savages, whose corrupt political system relies on money more than principles, where the welfare of the people is sacrificed on the altar of corporate interests, and where power is wielded in an absolute manner, to the detriment of law and order.

As I say, this is a very hypocritical attitude to take on the part of the British press, considering how many stones have been turned over in the past few years, and how many slimy things have slithered out from beneath them into the cold light of day. Maybe my time spent living abroad has helped me to see these things a little more clearly, but it is still true that the UK media’s slant on the USA continues to provide Britons with their daily fix of faux-nationalism (“thank God we’re not Americans”), just as it did in Conan Doyle’s day.

2 Replies to “A Study of Fear

  1. Just to make it clear, more than half of the population across the pond is appalled by the actions and attitudes of our Commander-In-Chief and cannot wait for his departure from office. I think of it as Trexit.

    • I am sure you are correct and I am glad to hear you say this. However, this doesn’t stop the British sensationalist media from implicitly categorising the USA as a whole as having hardly evolved (socially) from the days of the Wild West.

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