Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Six Napoleons


Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Six Napoleons in June of 1900.  Watson does reference the month of June, but does not give us a firm year.  As Watson's narrative is very suggestive of a later date (as, indeed, is Holmes and Watson's relationship) we have no reason to question Baring-Gould's date.  The story was first published in May of 1904.


Inspector Lestrade seeks Holmes' aid in solving a most unusual, if not entirely crucial, case.  It appears as though London has a madman on the loose, Scotland Yard unable to put together a motive for why any man should burgle several homes for the sole purpose of destroying busts of the former French dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte.  While initially uninterested in the case, Holmes does agree to look into it, automatically dismissing Watson's claim of an 'idee fixe' in favour of a more singular explanation.  Holmes' instinct soon proves correct, and after tracking down the sixth Napoleon bust, he is able to reveal what lies hidden within.

The Subtext:

The case begins with the arrival of Inspector Lestrade.  Lestrade is investigating several burglaries whose sole motive appears to be a madman's need to destroy busts of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Watson, upon hearing of these singular incidences, suggests that the man may be a monomaniac, and that his desire to destroy these busts stems from what Watson refers to as an 'idee fixe'.  Holmes, naturally, disagrees, stating:

"That won't do, my dear Watson," said Holmes, shaking his head.

We must point out Holmes' use of my dear here, for it is quite amusing that Holmes should so slip and use this term of endearment with Lestrade in the room.  One can well imagine that the habit was so ingrained that Holmes uttered the words by instinct alone.

Holmes has not yet formed his own theory, but the next morning he is more than eager to head out and begin his investigation.  Watson tells us:

I was still dressing in my bedroom next morning when there was a tap at the door and Holmes entered, a telegram in his hand.

Note that Holmes does not wait for Watson to reply to his knock, instead walking in while Watson is still half dressed.  Given the propriety of Victorians (even this late in the era) we should not expect to see such a thing; not without explanation, anyway. Fortunately, the explanation is quite simple: Watson's bedroom is also Holmes' bedroom, and so it is quite natural that Holmes should come and go as he pleases, unconcerned with Watson's state of dress.

We see further proof for this as evening roles around, Watson telling us:

Holmes spent the evening in rummaging among the files of the old daily papers with which one of our lumber-rooms was packed.

Note that Watson tells us that one of their lumber-rooms had been turned into storage.  As we cannot imagine Baker Street requiring more than one lumber-room, we must therefore deduce that Holmes' old bedroom has been turned into a storage room.

From this point, the case itself comes quickly to a close.  Holmes, having persuaded Lestrade to follow him out to Chiswick, is now prepared to apprehend the man responsible for destroying Napoleon's busts.  Arriving at the home of one of the men known to own a Napoleon bust (from a set of six), Holmes need not wait long before the arrival of his man.  Indeed, Watson soon tells us:

With the bound of a tiger Holmes was on his back.

Here, we cannot help but note Watson's language.  Indeed, we have no doubt that Holmes is capable of bounding like a tiger, and yet, that this is the phrase which comes to Watson's mind is quite suggestive.  We can only imagine what led to the inspiration for this particular phrase.

To Lestrade, it appears as though the case has been solved, and yet Holmes still has one trick up his sleeve.  This comes to a head in Baker Street, Lestrade arriving to share his notes on the case.  We soon see, however, that Holmes is less than interested in Lestrade's narrative, Watson telling us:

...but I, who knew him so well, could clearly see that his thoughts were elsewhere...

We have no doubt that to anyone else Holmes' attention must have seemed quite genuine.  Indeed, Lestrade does not once pause in his explanation, suggesting that he took no notice.  We must therefore suggest that the minute change in Holmes which gave him away was something only Watson, the only person to be intimately acquainted with Holmes, could perceive.

Holmes' mood lasts but a moment, his attention shifting noticeably with the ringing of the bell.  It is then that we are introduced to the final key in this most singular problem.  Indeed, it is the arrival of Mr. Sandeford, the owner of the sixth, and only remaining Napoleon bust, that sets Holmes up for his final achievement. 

Much to both Watson and Lestrade's surprise, Holmes purchases the bust from Mr. Sandeford, and, as soon as Mr. Sandeford has left, sets about smashing the bust with a riding crop.

From within the shattered remains, Holmes pulls out a round, dark object, which turns out to be none of then the famous, and thought to be lost, black pearl of the Borgias.  This move astounds both Lestrade and Watson; so much so that Watson tells us:

Lestrade and I sat silent for a moment, and then, with a spontaneous impulse, we both broke at clapping, as at the well-wrought crisis of a play.

While certainly amusing, it is Holmes' reaction to this ovation that warrants comment.

A flush of color sprang to Holmes's pale cheeks, and he bowed to us like the master dramatist who receives the homage of his audience. It was at such moments that for an instant he ceased to be a reasoning machine, and betrayed his human love for admiration and applause. The same singularly proud and reserved nature which turned away with disdain from popular notoriety was capable of being moved to its depths by spontaneous wonder and praise from a friend.

With the passing of years, we have seen more and more of Holmes' heart.  It appears here, too, in vivid detail, and yet it is still quite remarkable to note that Holmes should be so moved by the praise of a friend.  Watson's description of Holmes here, too, is quite telling, for he distinctly refers to Holmes' human side; a side which, until now, only Watson had been privy to.  We have been shown Holmes the man, and we cannot help but feel grateful, and privileged, that Watson should allow his public such a glimpse; such a gift.

The story does not, however, end here, for, after sketching out the chain of events which led Holmes to his conclusion, Lestrade pays our detective a great compliment, stating:

"We're not jealous of you at Scotland Yard. No, sir, we are very proud of you, and if you come down tomorrow, there's not a man, from the oldest inspector to the youngest constable, who wouldn't be glad to shake you by the hand."

To which Holmes replies:

"Thank you!" said Holmes. "Thank you!" and as he turned away, it seemed to me that he was more nearly moved by the softer human emotions than I had ever seen him.

One can well imagine the pride in Watson's heart as he wrote these words, for, although he knew the true depths of Holmes' heart, it must have been of great comfort to him to finally be permitted to share this aspect of Holmes' personality with the public.  That Holmes was capable of the softer human emotions is no longer in doubt, and we cannot help but feel that this is largely Watson's doing.  Truly, Holmes' relationship with Watson has opened his heart to the world.

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