This story first appeared in the Strand Magazine in the set of stories called The Return of Sherlock Holmes. It is one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and focuses on the power of the master blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton. Since Milverton’s victims are afraid of the public revelations police involvement will bring, they turn to Holmes instead. Milverton threatens to publish compromising letters from Lady Eva Blackwell to a man in whom she was once interested. Holmes agrees to help her by trying to purchase the letters from Milverton, but Milverton’s price is too high. To find a way to steal the letters from Milverton’s home, Holmes goes undercover as a plumber. Watson accompanies him, but the two of them are surprised when Milverton returns. A woman then arrives and accuses Milverton of having caused her husband’s death by sending him letters of hers. She then shoots the blackmailer dead and leaves the house. Holmes takes the opportunity to burn all the incriminating documents. He and Watson agree that they will not do anything to help the authorities find Milverton’s killer, even though they know her identity.
This is a classic example of Holmes intervening to assist a woman in trouble because a corrupt man threatens her. Holmes’s obvious disgust at Milverton— he calls him “the worst man in London” (791)—fuels his desire to thwart the master blackmailer. On the one hand, Holmes is helping a potential victim of a criminal; on the other hand, he assists a woman in keeping a secret from her fiancé . Holmes thwarts the potential power of public opinion and social scandal as he takes the side of Lady Eva and her secret. Her letters are described as merely imprudent, which highlights the injustice Victorian society would visit on a woman and her reputation for even a small infraction. The story, with its tension between private errors and vices and public exposure, is also typical of the way Holmes often works. He plays the role of judge and jury, and he is willing to break the law to bring a morally just conclusion to a case. In other stories he impersonates a clergyman (“A Scandal in Bohemia”), causes a person’s death (“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”), and decides to let a thief go without punishment (“The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”).
Conan Doyle, Arthur. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories. Vol. 1. New York: Bantam Books, 1986. Linsenmeyer, John. “Why Charles Augustus Milverton Should Be Canonized and Not Cannon-Balled,” Baker Street Journal: An Irregular Quarterly of Sherlockiana 50, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 36–40.