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.