There are a million ways for an English teacher to ignite the creative sparks in her students. But perhaps the greatest gift she could give them is the ability to re-write the past.
In a short story titled “The Man Behind the Mask”, Jack London brings readers into the world of Sherlock Holmes, the famous consulting detective. The tale begins with a scene that any Sherlock Holmes enthusiast will recognize: the great detective is seated in a private study, surrounded by his books and his pipes. He has just finished a case and is contemplating a future one.
Holmes is a man of science, not a man of sentiment. He is a rational thinker, whose primary method of analyzing crime is through the application of logic and reason. For Holmes, the past is a foreign country; he has no connection to it and he does not acknowledge it as an influence in his life.
So what would a man of logic make of this enigmatic passage?
The Hidden Motive
Although Holmes does not specifically state that he is being blackmailed, the mystery surrounding him in this story is clearly tied to his past. This is a reference to something that happened before the events of the story took place, but it also draws attention to something that happened later, which was the catalyst for his great change in career.
He was asked to investigate the disappearance of Irene Adler, a woman whose company he had previously admired. While searching for her, he came upon a dead body, its head severed from its body. He noticed that the face of the corpse was not entirely covered, as there was a small triangle of exposed flesh on the right side, which he suspected was the area where the brain would be. He examined this body more closely and noticed bite-like marks on the neck. It was clear that the victim had been savagely murdered. However, Holmes could not identify the murderer.
This was something that he had never experienced before, so he decided to apply his scientific method of investigating to the case. Since the evidence pointed to a woman, perhaps the murderer was someone that Irene had previously dated and then discarded. The most likely scenario, in Holmes’ mind, would be that she had been murdered by a rival for her affections. The question is, who was this rival?
Based on the evidence, he concluded that there was only one reasonable answer: the man in the yellow dressing gown. Since Holmes had been hired to investigate her disappearance, he surmised that this must be the man who had taken her on a date and then disappeared with her. So far, so good – except for one thing.
Holmes came to this conclusion because he applied his understanding of women to explain away the evidence. This is not unusual for the great detective; throughout his career, he frequently refers to his ‘special knowledge’ of women. For example, in the story titled “A Case of Identity”, he notes that the “most unusual thing” about this young woman is that she has no family, “one of the most unusual things about this case, in fact”.
This is in reference to the absence of a family history; his reasoning is that since this is “a case of identity” and not a crime of passion, then it must be a case of hired help. In this context, he implies that this young woman is either a stage actress or a professional thief. He has no way to know for sure.
The Turning Point
What makes this story so great is not that Holmes solves the case (although he does), nor is it even the fascinating details of the investigation (although these are amazing as well).
Rather, it is London’s beautiful and evocative writing that makes this story so special. The way that he weaves the narrative brings the past to life, transporting his readers to an era when logic and reason reigned supreme, and the great detectives like Sherlock Holmes solved the cases that society could not.
Holmes could be a cold blooded killer, but he is a great detective because he applies his scientific method of deduction to solve the cases that stumped even the most accomplished police officers of the time. It is this quality that makes him so interesting and memorable.
But what is the turning point for Sherlock Holmes in this story? A turning point is something that changed his life forever, something that caused him to take a different path and adopt a new set of values. In this story, it was the dead body that changed everything for him.
As previously stated, he comes upon the body of a murdered woman while searching for her missing lover. But this is not the kind of case that he had initially been hired to solve. In fact, he specifically refers to the murder as “an unusual case”, which would make most detectives think twice about accepting it. But that is not Sherlock Holmes’ style; he is a man of science and not a man of sentiment, so he is more likely to examine it rationally and set about solving the puzzle. In this case, that meant identifying the woman’s (supposed) lover, who had no qualms about killing her to get his hands on her money and status.
Sherlock Holmes examines the body, notices the bite-like marks on the neck (which he attributes to a dog), and decides that it is the work of a madman or a rabid animal. At this point, he finally acknowledges that he is being blackmailed and decides to pay the ransom in order to save his own life. This is his ‘Aha!’ moment and the moment when he fully understands the gravity of the situation. From this point on, he deduces all of the other relevant facts about the case: the woman’s severed head, the missing man, the dead man’s identity etc.
The great mystery that Sherlock Holmes and John Watson uncover in “The Man Behind the Mask” is not the identity of the Yellow Dressing Gown Man (as it has become known because of the short story), but rather the identity of the headless body. It is this mystery that they set out to solve, and it is the great mystery that makes the story so compelling – because until they unravel it, they will never know who the man behind the mask actually is.