Reflections on ‘The Six Napoleons’

By Robin Rowles

The Six Napoleons shares certain themes with ‘The Blue Carbuncle’. Within their respective chronologies, each adventure starts relatively slowly. In the case of ‘The Blue Carbuncle’, the framing story, the theft of the jewel takes place just before Christmas and the investigation takes place after Christmas. By comparison, the Black Pearl of the Borgias was stolen over a year before the Holmes and Watson become involved. Both adventures share the plot of a thief reconstructing the course of a peripatetic jewel. One man was taking part in a wild-goose chase and the other was literally having a smashing time. However, neither man recovered what he sought and both jewels arrived in Baker Street.

‘But in my opinion it comes more in Dr Watson’s line than ours.’

Lestrade, supported by Watson, initially supports the notion that the criminal is obsessed with Napoleon Bonaparte. Watson takes on the role of expert witness and expounds the theory of the idee fixe, or monomania, relating to all things Napoleonic. In this, Watson is half right. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, the deposed Emperor was exiled, under guard, on St Helena. However, if anybody thought that was the end of Napoleon, they were mistaken. After his exile and death, the cult of Napoleon sprung up, which endures to this day and manifests itself in politics, history, art and literature. It is acknowledged that Napoleon is one those controversial historical figures who is either liked or disliked, but difficult to ignore.

‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in it’ (Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2)

Of course, Holmes uses logic to challenge Lestrade’s theory and Watson’s explanation. Of all the statues of Napoleon in London, why should the criminal smash busts from a small batch of just six made?  As the quote above illustrates there is more to this than meets the eye and what Holmes spots is the method. To Lestrade it’s just a case of petty vandalism, to Watson it’s a symptom of monomania, but Holmes has seen beyond the apparent madness. He cites the different ways the two busts owned by Dr Barnicot were destroyed. The first was removed from the hall in the doctor’s house and smashed outside. The second bust was broken in the empty surgery, where he would be undisturbed. The criminal was aware of his surroundings and where he could carry out his work without fear of discovery. Holmes also draws attention to the fact that each bust was broken under a lamp. Inference: the perpetrator needed light to work by and inspect the remains. Deduction: They were not admiring their handiwork; they were looking for something inside the bust

‘The Press, Watson, is a most valuable institution, if you only know how to use it.’

Iconoclasm escalates to murder in this story. The reader feels for Mr Horace Harker of the Central Press Syndicate, possibly a smokescreen for the Central Press Agency, who discovers the corpse of Pietro Venucci on his doorstep and is too shaken to write up what might have been a scoop.  However, a few pages later, Mr Harker has belatedly published his account. According to Mr Harker, Holmes and Lestrade have agreed that the breaking of the busts is the action of a lunatic. Holmes’ throwaway comment implies that part of Mr Harker’s article was suggested by Holmes to Harker.

‘I suggest you go on your line and I on mine.’

By this stage of the investigation, everybody has their own theories. The red-faced Mr Morse Hudson, proprietor of the shop where the busts were sold, blames Nihilists, Anarchists and Red republicans. Like Watson, Morse Hudson is half right. The latter nineteenth century and early twentieth century saw an upsurge in attacks by anarchists and a rise in crime generally. However, Morse Hudson is also half wrong. Attacks on the ‘Establishment’ were carried out by groups like the Irish Fenians and the Dynamiters and these were of the explosive variety. Shattering plaster busts worth a few shillings was hardly in their line.

Meanwhile, Lestrade has abandoned interest in the busts and is following up a Mafia connection to the murdered man. Indeed, now Lestrade suspects Holmes of developing an obsessionwith the broken busts:

“The busts! You never can get those busts out of your head. After all, that is nothing; petty larceny, six months at the most. It is the murder that we are really investigating, and I tell you that I am gathering all the threads into my hands.”

Holmes, of course, neatly avoids the tempting, but erroneous, theories that the criminal is a monomaniac or an anarchist. He has identified the piece worker Beppo, who worked at Morse Hudson and Gelder & Co, where the busts were made, as the common factor in this mystery. However, Lestrade accepts Holmes’ invitation to a night vigil in Chiswick and a staged break-in.

‘The chances were exactly as I told you – two to one against the pearl being inside it.’

Holmes, the card player, gambled that Beppo would make his next attempt at Chiswick, rather than Reading. Beppo may have been a thief and murderer, but he was clearly intelligent and logical. Chiswick is nearer to London than Reading and if the bust was there, his quest would be over. Once again, Holmes puts himself into the mind of the criminal and imagines what they would do in the circumstances.  The capture of Beppo is not the end of the case, however, nor the drama. There is one more bust of Napoleon to be accounted for.

Holmes purchases this from Mr Sandeford of Reading for £10 (approximately £1,000 today) despite the latter protesting he only paid fifteen shillings (estimated £75 to £90 in 2020). Holmes obtains Mr Sandeford’s witnessed waiver of any possible right to the statuette, which in the BBC Douglas Wilmer episode is described as ‘more like an international treaty than a sale’. Holmes, to the amazement of Watson and Lestrade, then proceeds to smash his new acquisition. However, Holmes demonstrates there is method in his madness when the Black Pearl, stolen by Beppo and hurriedly concealed in the drying model at Gelder & Co, is revealed.

With thanks to Martin Lancaster and Sebastien le Page for information on the cult of Napoleon.