I’ve just finished reading Anomalous by Samuel Williams Jr. It is, I believe, the first Sherlock Holmes novel written by an African American and features the characters of Al Capone and black American boxer Jack Johnson. It’s a very enjoyable, fast-paced read with excellent use of characters from the original works – boxer Steve Dixie and Lucy Hebron being the highlights.
Williams has cleverly taken the character of Lucy from The Yellow Face and worked her into this new adventure. In the original story, Lucy is a mixed-race child hidden away by her white mother who fears losing her new, white, husband if the truth is revealed. In this story, Doyle shows a very forward-thinking, sensitive view of interracial marriage and the result is a heart-warming tale which remains one of my favourites. Upon discovering the truth, the new husband scoops the child into his arms and accepts her completely.
The Yellow Face does seem to be a bit of an exception though. Throughout the rest of the canon, stereotypical views of ‘foreigners’ are largely upheld.
Upon meeting black ruffian Steve Dixie, Holmes has the following interaction with him:
“I’ve wanted to meet you for some time,” said Holmes. “I won’t ask you to sit down, for I don’t like the smell of you, but aren’t you Steve Dixie, the bruiser?”
“That’s my name, Masser Holmes, and you’ll get put through it for sure if you give me any lip.”
“It is certainly the last thing you need,” said Holmes, staring at our visitor’s hideous mouth’.
Reading this with modern eyes, the racism is clear. Likewise with Holmes’ description of Tonga and his people, aborigines from the Andaman Islands, taken from The Sign of Four –
‘They are naturally hideous, having large, misshapen heads, small fierce eyes and distorted features,’ continuing to add, ‘They have always been a terror to shipwrecked crews, braining their survivors with their stone headed clubs, or shooting them with their poisoned arrows. These massacres are invariably concluded by a cannibal feast’.
Of course, the reader must remember the times in which the stories were written, times which were far less enlightened than our own.
Anomalous cleverly examines these attitudes – with Watson clearly representing the traditional, colonial view. Lucy Hebron is now 35 years old and talks of her difficulties fitting in to such a rigid society. Steve Dixie is wonderfully fleshed-out and developed well beyond the stereotypical bruiser. If Doyle were writing today, perhaps this is more the direction he would have taken. He was certainly a free-thinker and able to explore beyond conventional ideas – his later devotion to spiritualism demonstrates that.
So was Doyle racist or simply a product of his time? I really don’t profess to be an expert on Doyle and there are many out there who are, so I’ll tread carefully here. He was certainly a colonialist and strong supporter of the Boer War. The conduct of the British was widely condemned around the world but Doyle wrote a pamphlet entitled – ‘The War In South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct’ to justify the United Kingdom’s role. Was he racist or perhaps just patriotic?
The two people who Doyle put his reputation on the line to protect from injustice were not white British. He took great personal risk to champion their cause and clearly saw only the pursuit of justice, not the ethnic background of the accused, as paramount. George Edalji was a half-Indian Lawyer wrongly accused of brutality towards animals and Oscar Slater a German Jew accused of battering an 82 year old woman. Thanks to Doyle’s efforts he was acquitted.
Could a truly racist man have risked so much to defend two men of such different backgrounds to his own? And could a truly racist man have written The Yellow Face with such touching sentimentality. Personally, I think not. Holder of some questionable racist attitudes, yes – a truly racist man through and through – not in my opinion.