Want to read this along with me? This essay is part of The Return of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1905. I used the epub version found on Feedbooks.com.
Right up front, Watson is clear about the fact that he’s concealing the date and the facts to help place this “absolutely unique experience”. This just encourages me to dig in even more than usual to try to place it.
First off, we’re in the iconic situation of Watson living as a bachelor with Holmes, so we know it’s not during Watson’s marriage or the Great Hiatus. Holmes at one point claims that he’s had to deal with “fifty murderers” in his career at this point, which could indicate it’s right before Watson’s marriage, but more likely it’s post-Great Hiatus. There’s a reference to electric light switches, but they were invented in 1884, so that doesn’t help much.
Turning to history, though, we get more information. There was a real-life blackmailer named Charles Augustus Howell who died in 1890. If we assume that “Milverton” was simply a very clumsy cover for “Howell,” then we have a year – 1890, right before the Great Hiatus. However, many Sherlockians (including Baring-Gould) place the case in 1899. The big question is: is this case before or after he learns of Moriarty?
Let’s look to the tension between Holmes and Milverton. Holmes considers Milverton to be “the worst man in London”, a description he usually reserves for Professor Moriarty. I think that points it to something closer to before the Great Hiatus, myself. But it does seem that Holmes has a particular hatred of blackmailers – he is quite passionate on the subject. It opens up some interesting speculations about Holmes’ past. Was Holmes or someone in his past blackmailed? Regardless, there’s a great battle of wits between Holmes and Milverton, and Milverton turns out to be quite clever and well-prepared. He’s a great villain, perhaps on par with Moriarty himself. In fact, his outrage with blackmailers in general and Milverton in specific leads Holmes to take drastic actions. He fakes an engagement to a housemaid to get information, and his comment about a “hated rival” in her affections seems like justification for his blatant manipulation. He hates blackmailers, but he’s happy to toy with a woman’s affections in pursuit of his case.
Even worse, he’s willing to break and enter into Milverton’s home, which he also attempts to justify:
“I suppose that you will admit that the action is morally justifiable, though technically criminal. To burgle his house is no more than to forcibly take his pocket-book — an action in which you were prepared to aid me.”
Further, he tries to claim that he’s willing to do it because “a lady is in the most desperate need of his help”. And yet, he certainly had no problems toying with another woman’s emotions. Because, in reality, it’s all about Holmes’ pride:
“Between ourselves, Watson, it’s a sporting duel between this fellow Milverton and me. He had, as you saw, the best of the first exchanges; but my self-respect and my reputation are concerned to fight it to a finish.”
Watson seems strangely reluctant to have Holmes break the law here, even though he wasn’t at all resistant to breaking into a house in “The Bruce-Partington Plans”. But despite this inconsistency, it leads to a great exchange between Holmes and Watson, possibly one of my favorites:
“Well, I don’t like it; but I suppose it must be,” said I. “When do we start?”
“You are not coming.”
“Then you are not going,” said I. “I give you my word of honour – and I never broke it in my life – that I will take a cab straight to the police-station and give you away unless you let me share this adventure with you.”
“You can’t help me.”
“How do you know that? You can’t tell what may happen. Anyway, my resolution is taken. Other people beside you have self-respect and even reputations.”
Holmes had looked annoyed, but his brow cleared, and he clapped me on the shoulder.
“Well, well, my dear fellow, be it so. We have shared the same room for some years, and it would be amusing if we ended by sharing the same cell.”
There are other interesting bits to learn in this story. Holmes has a particular hobby of opening safes, and as a result has a state-of-the-art burgling kit on hand. He can see in the dark, and has “quicker senses” than Watson. Watson is strangely thrilled by the law-breaking, even when he tries to justify it by going on about the “high object of our mission.” Watson seems to understand a lot of Holmes’ ideas from a handshake and a grasp of his wrist; they are very much in sync. Watson also owns tennis shoes, and runs for two miles – looks like his days of his leg injury are long behind him. And it’s implied that Lestrade is learning a lot from Holmes, not taking Holmes’ pat explanation of Watson’s break-in at face value.
There are some problems with the story. There isn’t really a mystery here – Holmes and Watson are really just observers and vigilantes, and we never really learn who the “noble stateman” whose wife murdered Milverton was. But it is a great story, both in general and as another example of Doyle’s dry wit mixed with grisly situations.