I think everyone knows who Professor Moriarty is. Perhaps a handful remember Colonel Sebastian Moran. But I wonder how many remember the other big villains. Dr. Roylott of Stoke Moran, Baron Gruner… there are a lot of good villains in the Sherlock Holmes canon. But perhaps the most despicable, most vile of all is the master blackmailer himself, Charles Augustus Milverton. He is a horrible man who makes his living by putting people in a bad spot and forcing them to pay him terrible sums. If they don’t, he makes an example of them and destroys their futures, all the while making a reputation for himself so others know not to defy him.
I don’t think this is much of a mystery. It’s a crime, to be sure, but one that defies easy prosecution. But to break this down might prove trickier than normal because Holmes knows the blackmailer but can do nothing about it. Even the law is unable to get involved. Coming in at nearly 2 hours, this story holds the attention remarkably well largely because of the incredible acting of Robert Hardy as Milverton; you can’t wait to see how Holmes will defeat him. But therein lies part of the joy of watching these episodes.
After Colonel Dorking (comically apt name though…) kills himself, a letter to Holmes is found in his possession. Dorking was engaged to a high society woman, but when his secret is revealed because he didn’t pay the “miserly” sum of 1200 pounds, he takes his own life. This sets Holmes on his course: finding and stopping Milverton from destroying others.
There’s only one motive for this criminal: money. I mean, what did you expect? The title said it all…
I watched this episode while my in-laws were visiting. They’ve been back and forth watching these with me, along with watching Columbo (the Junkyard’s other mystery series). One thing that struck me is that Columbo never loses; we know he’ll solve the case in the end. That’s not so for Holmes. His first outing was against the adventuress Irene Adler, wherein she beats him. Holmes manages to get into Milverton’s house and picks the lock to his safe, but before he can leave, Milverton walks in. Holmes and Watson hide, but someone else arrives who ends up murdering Milverton. After repeatedly shooting him in the chest, she then grinds her heel into his face. Holmes witnesses the whole event. When the lady leaves, Holmes quickly takes all the incriminating evidence out of the safe and throws it in the fire before leaving. He also notices a jewel that would incriminate the murderer, which he takes so she can be free of prosecution.
Through this adventure, Holmes also gets engaged simply to gain entry into Milverton’s estate. This is heartbreaking for Agatha, the maid who he gets engaged to, because she really seemed to love him. The look on her face when she meets Holmes, no longer in the disguise of a handy man, is devastating. (This is compounded by the fact that Agatha is played by Sophie Thompson, the wacky Sheila in Detectorists; someone impossible not to like!)
From the standpoint of a victory, the viewer feels great. The bad guy is defeated and never has there been a more worthy adversary to utterly crush, literally. But it’s not a real win for Holmes and again, one questions Watson’s releasing these stories. They do not paint Holmes in the best light. He not only would be convicted of breaking and entering but any number of other crimes too, including aiding a criminal and probably being considered an accessory to murder. In the end, Holmes asks Watson not to chronical this adventure, but alas, we have both read it and seen it, so… good old Watson, eh?
Holmes is described as having a “sense of justice” which does sum up what I love about him. Again, he doesn’t play by the rules, but clearly does have a strong moral compass. When Holmes and Watson discuss the plan to raid Milverton’s house, Holmes says it’s morally justifiable. Watson retorts by calling it “technically criminal”, but that’s what I love: he’s following the moral guideline, not the ascribed law of the land. At the end of the day, Holmes is protecting those who can’t protect themselves from those the law is powerless to do anything about.
“I expected you to do something clever!” This is a massively enjoyable episode that could have benefited from a slightly condensed format, but it never fails to be interesting. If there is a flaw, it’s not unlike The Illustrious Client: Holmes wins, but through luck more than anything. It’s the arrival of Lady Swinstead, the aunt of the latest victim, that takes the life of the evil opponent. It’s a testament to the role played by Hardy that he sold it so well. A good villain can define the hero, and Milverton is among the worst of the lot, or should that be best? This is not an episode I will soon forget! ML
Remembering a particularly big villain in a famous sleuth series would depend on how he or she personally impacts you I suppose, speaking from my own viewing experience. Naturally enough it’s often the actor or actress in the part. But it’s most profoundly the means of comeuppance for the villains as the sleuths finally close in, making you either cheer on the sleuths or feel sorry for the villains. With a title like The Master Blackmailer, knowing how disgusting most blackmailers can easily be in this genre, it can say a lot about how a villain at his or her worst helps to define a hero. Columbo was always at his best even when he had to make difficult choices. Though it can occasionally be different for Sherlock Holmes. Thanks, ML, for your review.
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