Sherlock Holmes & the Left Hand of God


Does a natural explanation always disprove a supernatural one?

It is said that for many years the Abbey National Building Society employed a full-time secretary at 221B Baker Street in London to answer mail that was addressed to Sherlock Holmes, the legendary but fictional detective created by Arthur Conan Doyle. So real did Holmes seem to Doyle’s millions of readers that some of them thought he really existed.

In the face of the terrible popularity of Holmes among so many people, however, I must count myself in the minority. I confess: I have never been tempted to join the multitudes in singing his praises. But it is only recently that I was able to put my finger on why I did not share in the general enthusiasm.

True, Holmes was endowed with a formidable talent for solving crimes, yet every time I finished one of Doyle’s accounts of the great detective, I always felt some kind of moral emptiness. With Holmes, every mystery is a sort of intellectual autopsy where every organ is examined and accounted for. But, like all autopsies, the final product is a dead thing.
The mystery of existence never survives the rationalism of Holmes. Indeed, the assumption behind all the stories of Conan Doyle (who was an atheist when he wrote them) is that, ultimately, there is no mystery: Everything is a cog hidden in the vast machine of the world, which, through the application of the relevant scientific technique, can always be fully explained. Once the physical cause of something has been found, Doyle seems to suggest, there is simply nothing more to it.

Many of the Holmes stories begin with a mystery that appears supernatural, but further investigation reveals a purely natural cause which, because it is natural, is deemed to fully explain the facts. If we can find a natural explanation for some event, then we have automatically disproven any supernatural involvement in that event.  A natural explanation is always sufficient.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, for example, Holmes is presented with a myserious death. It is Sir Charles Baskerville, descendent of Hugo Baskerville who two centuries before had become enamored of a farmer’s daughter whom he had kidnapped and locked in a room. She had escaped, Baskerville had followed her, and they were both found dead on the moor. A giant spectral hound had been seen guarding Baskerville’s body, and his throat had been ripped out. The body of Sir Charles is also found dead on the grounds of the estate. He had lived in fear of the family curse, and there was evidence he had been running from something. Near his body are the tracks of a gigantic hellhound.

Holmes goes to work, and begins his deconstruction of these apparently supernatural events. In the end, he determines that Sir Charles has died of a heart attack running from the hound of Stapleton, who it turns out is heir to the Baskerville fortune and would benefit from Sir Charles’ death. The spectral appearance of the hound had been achieved by covering it with phosphorus. The case–and the mystery–is solved.

Contrast the Holmes stories with those of Melville Davisson Post, a popular early 20th century mystery writer. In Post’s “Doomdorf Mystery,” we  get a very different view of reality, one that casts a much more comprehensive light on the relationship between the natural and the supernatural.

Doomdorf was an early Virginia settler, a huge man with a black beard and broad, thick hands, who had slaves build him a stone house on the top of a sheer rock above a river valley. But he had built there also a log still, where he turned the first fruits of the garden “into a hell-brew.” “The idle and the vicious,” we are told, “came with their stone jugs, and violence and riot flowed out.” Doomdorf was a moonshiner.

Post writes of his Uncle Abner, a Virginia Marshall on what was then the frontier, who was sent to investigate Doomdorf and the discord he was sowing. Abner and his deputy Randolf ride over the mountains and arrive on a hot, early summer day to find much more than just illegal moonshine.

As they ride in on the mountain side of the house, they find Bronson, a gaunt old man with white hair, a circuit rider of the hills who “preached the invective of Isaiah as though he were the mouthpiece of a militant and avenging overlord; as though the government of Virginia were the awful theocracy of the Book of Kings.” The old man had been preaching a crusade against Doomdorf in the hills round about.

They ask the old man, sitting on his “horse of stone,” of the whereabouts of Doomdorf. Bronson replies with a cryptic quote from the King James Bible: “Surely he covereth his feet in his summer chamber.” A strange response to be sure.

When they knock at the front door, a little, faded foreign woman answers, and leads them to the Doomdorf’s locked room where, she says, she has been knocking all morning and been unable to wake him. When they break down the door, they find Doomdorf dead on his couch with a shotgun wound in his chest.

Abner looks for a weapon and finds, hanging on the wall, a fowling piece that had recently been fired. Just then, the woman, looking down on the dead body of her master, exclaims, “At last I have killed him!”

“Abner,” says Randolph, “this is murder! The woman took that gun down from the wall and shot Doomdorf while he slept.”

But Abner is not so sure.

They walk back out of the house, where the old circuit-rider, with an axe in his hand, is going to destroy the still. “Bronson,” he said, “who killed Doomdorf?” “I killed him,” replied the old man, and went on toward the still.

Two confessions, one murder.

They soon find out that the old man thinks he killed Doomdorf because he had prayed for his death: “Not by the hand of any man did I pray the Lord God to destroy Doomdorf, but with fire from heaven to destroy him.”

The woman too has employed an unorthodox methodology: “I have try to kill him many times—oh, very many times!,” she says, in her pidgin English, “with witch words which I have remember; but always they fail. Then, at last, I make him in wax, and I put a needle through his heart; and I kill him very quickly.”

She has killed him, she thinks, through a voodoo curse.

Upon further investigation, Abner realizes that no one could have even gotten into the room, since it was locked from the inside, and the one window was above a sheer cliff no one could have gotten in. Nor could it have been suicide, since the gun was still hanging on the wall.

“Here’s a mad old preacher who thinks that he killed Doomdorf with fire from Heaven, like Elijah the Tishbite;” says the perplexed Randolf, “and here is a simple child of a woman who thinks she killed him with a piece of magic of the Middle Ages—each as innocent of his death as I am. And, yet, by the eternal, the beast is dead!”

Who killed Doomdorf?

Throughout the course of the investigation, Randolf seeks for a purely naturalistic explanation for the crime, but when the only two suspects are eliminated from consideration, he is left without any explanation at all. It is Abner, who has not ruled out anything, who finds both a natural—and a supernatural—explanation.

“The thing is impossible!” protests Randolf. “Men are not killed today in Virginia by black art or a curse of God.”

“By black art, no,” replies Abner; “but by the curse of God, yes. I think they are … When he comes back tomorrow I will show you the assassin who killed Doomdorf.”

The next day, Abner reloads the rifle and mounts it again on the wall. He places the blood stained coat, stuffed with a pillow, where Doomdorf’s body had lain, and waited.

“Look you, Randolph…We will trick the murderer…We will catch him in the act.” They sit and watch, and soon, a tiny circle of light appears, and then moves across the wall. “He that killeth with the sword,” says Abner, “must be killed with the sword.” “It is the water bottle,” he obseves, “full of Doomdorf’s liquid, focusing the sun … And look, Randolph, how Bronson’s prayer was answered!”

Slowly, the circle of light approaches the bottle, and is magnified through the moonshine. It strikes the plate of the lock and the gun fires, filling the pillow-stuffed shirt with shot.

“It is fire from heaven!” announces Abner—the very words the circuit rider had used.

The astonished Randolf sees what has happened, but he still does not understand: “It is a world,” he says, “filled with the mysterious joinder of accident!”

“It is a world,” replies Abner, “filled with the mysterious justice of God!”

Randolf, restricted by his narrow materialistic assumptions, has cut himself off not only from a supernatural explanation, but, in the case before him, from a natural one. Abner, however is able to find two explanations: a supernatural and a natural one.

How was Doomdorf killed? By the sun coming in through the window, being magnified through the glass, and striking the plate of the gun. Why was Doomdorf killed? Because Bronson prayed for it. It was the “mysterious justice of God.”

The idea that we can only have one kind of explanation—either natural or supernatural—is a very modern idea. In the Bible too we see no artificial barrier between these two worlds. In fact, let us return to the words of Bronson, the curcuit-rider.

Before he has figured out what has happened, Abner asks him, “A little while ago, when we came, I asked you where Doomdorf was, and you answered me in the language of the third chapter of the Book of Judges. Why did you answer me like that, Bronson?—‘Surely he covereth his feet in his summer chamber.’”

“The woman told me that he had not come down from the room where he had gone up to sleep,” replied the old man, “and that the door was locked. And then I knew that he was dead in his summer chamber like Eglon, King of Moab.” He extended his arm toward the south. “I came here from the Great Valley,” he said, “to cut down these groves of Baal and to empty out this abomination; but I did not know that the Lord had heard my prayer and visited His wrath on Doomdorf until I was come up into these mountains to his door. When the woman spoke I knew it.” And he strode toward his horse, leaving the ax among the ruined barrels.

Just as God used Ehud to exact judgment on corrupt Eglon through natural means, so here God has used natural means to bring about His justice. “God has,” says Matthew Henry, “a variety of rods wherewith to chastise” the unjust.

And there is one more thing.

Over and over again, the Bible makes reference to the “right hand of God.” It is a metaphor of power and authority, a symbol of official act. But, although Ehud, who slays Eglon because of his evil, is of the tribe of Benjamin (a name which means “Son of the Right Hand”), the Book of Kings makes a point to tell us that Ehud is himself left-handed.

The knife which fells the Moabite King is not wielded in the hand of power and authority. It is as if the action is an unofficial act of God, accomplished as it is through merely natural means. In the case of Doomdorf, we have a similar situation. It is not that it isn’t an act of God; it is simply that God has used an unofficial means of accomplishing his purpose.

God uses his right hand–and his left. It is a secret that Melville Davisson Post knows, and Arthur Conan Doyle does not.

Originally published in The Classical Teacher Winter 2012 edition.

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