Analysis of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Yellow Face

A detective story first published in the Strand Magazine in February 1893 and subsequently in the collection The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894).

Holmes is consulted by Mr. Grant Munro, on the subject of his wife’s mysterious behavior. Munro met his wife, Effie, after the death of her first husband and her child from yellow fever in America. The Munros live at a villa near the South London suburb of Norbury, where one of the few nearby buildings is a cottage. One night, Munro wakes to find his wife leaving the villa and discovers that she has visited the cottage on a number of occasions. When questioned about her secretive visits, Effie pleads with Munro to drop the subject, as the truth will threaten their marriage. During an investigation of the cottage, Munro sees a person in the upstairs window, an “unnatural and inhuman” figure with a yellow face. Holmes surmises that Effie is being blackmailed with a bigamous secret by her first husband, who did not die of fever but has been confined to the cottage with leprosy. Holmes, Watson, and Munro travel to Norbury and force their way into the cottage. They discover that the face at the window was that of a black child wearing a yellow mask in order not to raise suspicion of a black face in rural England. The child is Effie’s, and her late husband is revealed to have been African- American. Munro, contrary to his wife’s expectations, is happy to adopt the child. Holmes and Watson leave, Holmes fully aware that his detection has been a failure.

The story is notable for two reasons: its emphasis on Holmes’s failure to solve the case and its treatment of race. Part of the story’s mystery is located in the refusal of the three investigators (all white) to consider that Effie Munro’s first husband might be black. This interracial marriage (or, in Victorian terms, metissage) combines with the placement of black characters in a white society to produce the narrative’s mystery. The child is disguised with a yellow mask so that “those who might see her at the window might should not gossip about there being a black child in the neighbourhood,” although this raises the question why such an “unnatural” yellow disguise was chosen and suggests that any skin tone other than black would be acceptable. Similarly, Watson describes a portrait of Effie’s first husband as being of “a man, strikingly handsome and intelligent, but bearing unmistakable signs upon his features of his African descent” (emphasis added). The story thus illustrates a frequent trope of late Victorian detective fiction, in which mystery is created by the incursion of foreign elements into England (see A Study in Scarlet). Such anxieties are developed in the story by references to disease and degeneration: the death of Effie’s husband from yellow fever and Holmes’s incorrect surmise that her husband may have contracted leprosy. The thematic link between interracial marriage and disease addresses contemporary concern that such marriages would lead to a kind of hereditary impurity, and the use of yellow in the story is also significant in the context of an 1890s association of the color with decadence and moral degeneration (in, for instance, the controversial periodical The Yellow Book), allusions that would have been lost had Doyle kept the story’s original title, “The Livid Face.” Such references are complicated, however, by the ending, in which Holmes’s degenerationist theories are discredited and the foreign becomes accepted; Munro adopts his stepchild with the admonition that “I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think that I am a better one than you have given me credit for being.” The final image provided by Sidney Paget for the story’s publication in the Strand illustrates this scene, showing Munro holding his stepdaughter while Holmes looks on approvingly.

Carr, John Dickson. The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. London: John Murray, 1949.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. London: Newnes, 1894.
McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context. London: Routledge, 1995.
Thomas, Ronald D. Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Categories: British Literature, Detective Novels, Literature, Short Story

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