Sherlock Holmes & Jaycee Dugard

Paul Doiron here —

I’m a diehard Sherlock Holmes fan. Arthur Conan Doyle was one of the first authors to spark my teenaged imagination, and I don’t think I’ve ever outgrown his singular, hawk-nosed contribution to world literature. I especially enjoy the early stories and novels, and one of these, “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” includes a passage that always resonates with me whenever I read that delightfully perverse tale. My response is partly a matter of living in Maine — where isolated homes are all too frequently the sites of stomach-churning horrors — and realizing that Holmes’ observation about the difference between urban and rural crime isn’t some throwaway line but actually a profound insight.

It was an ideal spring day, a light blue sky, flecked with little fleecy white clouds drifting across from west to east. The sun was shining very brightly, and yet there was an exhilarating nip in the air, which set an edge to a man’s energy. All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and gray roofs of the farm-steadings peeped out from amid the light green of the new foliage.

“Are they not fresh and beautiful?” I cried with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street.

But Holmes shook his head gravely.

“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”

“Good heavens!” I cried. Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”

“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

“You horrify me!”

But the reason is very obvious. The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.

Then again, I don’t think Holmes (or Doyle) would have been at all surprised by A Stolen Life, Jaycee Dugard’s bestselling account of being abducted and held captive for eighteen years by rapist Phillip Garrido. In America we seem to have created the worst of both worlds: sprawling cities and towns, where neighbors are content to remain strangers, and no one dares listen for the screams of a tortured child echoing in the night.

Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which went on, year in, year out, in Contra Costa County, California, and none the wiser.

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5 Responses to Sherlock Holmes & Jaycee Dugard

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Well played, Paul! Well played! I didn’t remember that passage from Holmes … but I’m glad you reminded me. He was, as he almost always was, spot on. Lea

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Paul…my husband’s favorite quote from Sherlock Holmes.

    Riding around on Monday and Tuesday with a retired warden, I was made very aware of how dangerous the woods, the lakes, and the back roads are. And of course, people of our ilk, like Holmes, view things with a very different eye. It used to be, I could pass a parked car with the doors and open and wonder if the battery would run down. Now, I wonder: who was in that car? Where are they now and what is happening?

    What is most dangerous? Going out there with our writer’s imaginations. Every farm implement is a weapon. Every person a danger.

    But California is a bit more wacko.

    • Paul Doiron says:

      That’s one of the reasons I wanted to write about Maine game wardens. So often it’s just one of those guys alone in his truck out there. It takes guts to do what they do.
      As to your other point, it’s definitely true that thinking about crime all the time causes you to notice it everywhere—even when it’s just a potential crime.

      • MCWriTers says:

        Funny that there are three of us who write Portland cops. Two of us who write wardens. Julia definitely gets into the great outdoors. And now Sarah is adding a cop to her slate.

        I think we need a cops and writers blog.

        But the ride-along with the warden was amazing! (Can you call two 8 hour days a ride-along?)

  3. I’ve always liked that passage from Holmes you quoted, Paul. It always amazes me when friends move to the country, expecting peace and safety and are surprised to find so much drugs and violence. How can they not be aware that there’s a huge meth explosion in rural areas, not to mention extreme poverty?

    Of course, the city is hardly any better now, as you point out. My heart went out to Jaycee and I wondered how people could live next door and never be curious about the child living in the backyard buildings? That kind of takes apathy to a new level.

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