Holmes, Coase & Blackmail
Green Bag 2d, Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 93-104, Autumn 2014
13 Pages Posted: 8 Dec 2014 Last revised: 11 Dec 2014
Date Written: December 8, 2014
From beginning to end, the Holmes-versus-Milverton story is peppered with law. At the start, for example, law determines when Watson can tell the story at all. And it is a legal document that Milverton – an infamous blackmailer – is reading moments before his timely end. The story also features a distinctive type of lawlessness – at least by modern standards – that runs through the “Canon” (the 60 Holmes stories with an Arthur Conan Doyle byline): a blackmailer is almost always confronted by, and is often killed by, a blackmail victim exerting deadly force. Holmes has no objection to victims (at least some of them) killing their blackmailers, as he explains when asked by Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard to help search for suspects in the Milverton killing: “Well, I am afraid I can’t help you, Lestrade,” said Holmes. “The fact is that I knew this fellow Milverton, that I considered him one of the most dangerous men in London, and that I think there are certain crimes which the law cannot touch, and which therefore, to some extent, justify private revenge. No, it’s no use arguing. I have made up my mind. My sympathies are with the criminals rather than with the victim, and I will not handle this case.” Holmes is endorsing vigilantism, a dubious stance for a sophisticated proponent of justice. Had he had access to the scholarship of economist-to-be Ronald Coase, and had he been more mindful of judicial opinion about blackmail in his own day, Holmes might have described the Milverton killing differently.
Keywords: Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, Arthur Conan Doyle, blackmail, criminal law, moral murder, Sherlock Holmes, New York World, Ronald Coase, Victorian England, vigilantism
JEL Classification: K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation