The Fear of the Foreign and the Allure of the Other in Detective Fiction

For as long as there has been diversity in the world, there has no doubt been divisions and cases of “othering” among the races. Perhaps this is caused by an inherent distrust of those dissimilar from ourselves, or perhaps it is a more innocuous inherent desire to connect only with those like us for issues of comfort. Regardless, this act of “othering” individuals based upon race has caused and will continue to cause much strife. Indeed, this idea of a foreign “other,” almost always portrayed by the dominant side, has been much explored in literature. As Edward Said notes in his book Orientalism, this can be seen in texts as early as The Iliad as the victorious “Western side” offers a depiction of the exotic, defeated and therefore weak “Eastern side” (56). In particular, features of this sort seem to be tailored to the genre of detective fiction. In fact, it seems that this feature is not just tailored to suit detective fiction but has become an essential aspect of the genre itself. Most commonly, this pattern of othering tends to be seen in the form of an ethnically different criminal. Essentially, making the criminal someone who is ethnically different from both the detective and the readers allows the readers to have a sense of safety in that they are unlike the criminal. While providing comfort, the portrayal of a foreign other can also instill xenophobic fears of foreign invaders within the readers. Furthermore, in certain cases it can also serve as propaganda to promote and justify colonialism (in the case of British detective fiction) or slavery (in the case of American detective fiction) by endorsing ideas of the inferiority of the other. Fortunately to the relief of the readers, at the close of many detective stories, the foreign aspect or “threat” is removed and life returns to normality.

On the other hand, uses of the foreign in detective fiction can be used in much less xenophobic, though still essential, ways. Often, the inclusion of a foreign or exotic aspect is simply used to create reader intrigue or interest which may not have existed otherwise if all elements of the story had only been from the reader’s homeland. Regardless of how the foreign is portrayed in detective fiction ranging from that of Poe’s Dupin to Doyle’s Sherlock to The Moonstone, it becomes clear that it is truly an essential part of detective fiction.

This discussion will become by examining the stories of Sherlock Holmes, arguably the most famous literary detective in history, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As literary critic Michael Cohen notes, “we do not have to go very far to find mystery fiction that is full of stereotypes, ethnic bias, and racial prejudice” (148). Despite his renown, even the most famous of detectives is guilty in this aspect. Although themes of the foreign are sprinkled throughout his numerous stories, for the sake of length the focus of this essay will be on Doyle’s novella The Sign of Four. The very core of this story is foreign, that of an exotic treasure looted from Agra, India, and can also be seen in Holmes’ use of foreign opium and in Tonga, the vicious and exotic islander. Before examining how exactly Doyles’ utilizes these aspects of the foreign, it is useful to examine the root causes of this use. As argued by Jinny Huh, “detective fiction occurred specifically as a response to the anxieties produced by modernity, such as the distrust and alienation caused by increased urbanization, mass migration, and immigration” which makes the “function of the detective…to restore stability” (558). With the advent both of urbanization (which naturally led to more crime), the blame for the explosion of crime was often placed not only on the poor but also on the advent of new immigrants. Indeed, with the advent of these new immigrants and the their potential to de-purify British culture and lifestyle, “The Sign of Four participates in the construction of race…[in] a historical moment when empire and patriarchy are perceived to be threatened” (Frank 74). In order words, the idea of race and using it as a means of othering creates a significant divide between “us” (the white British) and “them” (any darker foreigner). Indeed, this racial division in detective fiction is also a way in which “mysteries reassure us that the others [those racially different] are the bad guys” (Cohen 153).

Pushing this argument one step further and moving beyond just the perpetuity of this fear of the foreign, it could be argued that texts such as that of Sherlock Holmes (and other works of detective fiction that will be examined later) actually serve as propaganda by advocating for colonialism of the Orient (or more specifically, India). As Edward Said remarks, the development of Western ideas about the East are to encourage ideas of the “distinction between Western superiority and Oriental [or those who are clearly not British]) inferiority” (42). After all, if the British can be convinced of the inferiority and inherent “badness” of those who are ethnically different, what reason could they possibly have not to continue on in their imperial conquest?

There are numerous aspects of The Sign of Four that support all of the above arguments. The representation of Tonga, perhaps, is the most obvious. When Holmes and his team first encounter Tonga, he is described as nearly non-human with a “face [that] was enough to give a man a sleepless night” as “his thick lips were writhed back from his teeth, which grinned and chattered at us with half animal fury” (161-2). Furthermore, as John McBranty notes, Tonga’s ruthless killing of Bartholomew is not out of any resentment for the British, but from “his race’s innate proclivity for monstrous aggression” (156).Undeniably, Tonga seems significantly more linked to the animal kingdom than the human world. This dehumanization of a racial “other” is something that will appear time and time again throughout detective fiction. No doubt, this is done with the ideals of “Europocentrism” in mind as described by Edward Said which suggest that a “white middle-class Westerner believes it is his human prerogative not only to manage the nonwhite world but also to own it, just because by definition ‘it’ [the East] is not quite as human as ‘we’ are” (108). This can be seen in Small’s description of the Indians as “black devils” who are “let loose” (Doyle 169). Naturally, this Europocentrism again links back to the idea of proving the barbarity and savagery of the other to justify colonialism within the East.

Lawrence Frank reminds us that ideas of this sort are born out of “the fantasy of the East” which is made all the more grand by an unfamiliarity with it (63). In this way, although the inclusion of foreign aspects in The Sign of Four are certainly a way to imply the necessity of racial othering, it is also a way to draw readers in and enhance interest as people are generally curious about the things they are unfamiliar with. Despite this briefly, positive outlook, the final implication of the tale is that all that is foreign is a threat to England and all that it stands for and therefore needs to be ejected from the country. In other words, in The Sign of Four and other works of detective fiction, there is a distinct “motif of invasion” from which there grows a mentality that creates the idea of the “English self” versus the “foreign invading other,” as these invaders are ultimately threatening the domestic sphere (Lightwalla 292). The Agra treasure, for example, threatens the domestic sphere in that Watston sees it as a barrier to his marriage with Mary Morstan. Furthermore, it is described as ill-omened and certainly dangerous in the fact that people are willing to kill in order to be in possession of it. Tonga, of course, also offers up a threat to the English with his ruthless violence and disregard for English law and custom. It could even be argued that Holmes’ smoking of opium (which is manufactured outside of England) provides a threat to English normalcy as well as health, as proved with Watson’s attempt to discourage Holmes from using it both from the perspective of a “comrade” and the perspective of a “medical man” (100). Eventually, as is expected of the genre, at the close of the tale, normalcy is returned (meaning a marriage for Watson and drugs for Holmes) with the elimination of the foreign threats (with the exception of Holmes’ opium) as both foreign Tonga and the foreign treasure are left to decay in the bottom of the Thames.

However, the presence of a foreign other and implication that it is a threat that must be removed are not only found in The Sign of Four. The Adventure of the Speckled Band, just as in The Sign of Four, offers up many xenophobic ideas about the East as well. Although Dr. Roylott, the murderer, is English, it is his heavy involvement with all things foreign that seem to criminalize and other him by making those around him fear him. Clearly, he becomes othered and incapable of blending in with the English society in that “he had no friends at all save the wandering gypsies” as well as “a passion Indian animals” (310). To the horror of those around him (no doubt caused by the time period’s fear of the foreign invasion), he allows both the foreign gypsies and the foreign animals to become a direct part of the English domestic sphere as they live on his very own English land. Certainly, this integration into the foreign makes approaching his land all the more ominous for both Watson and Holmes as they are unpleasantly surprised by the “hideous and distorted child” that is Roylott’s pet baboon (322). Indeed, Roylott even seems to prefer smoking Indian cigars instead of domestic ones. In this way, he appears more foreign than English which presumably makes his criminality easier and more comforting for the readers to believe.

Furthermore, Dr. Roylott uses yet another foreign element to commit his murders: the deadly Indian swamp adder. Certainly, it is interesting to note that the ultimate killer is not Dr. Roylott (who, although very linked to foreign is actually English in origin), but an exotic animal from the outside. The implication in the usage of this foreign animal is twofold: that an English entity or creature couldn’t possibly be held commit such a crime and that it is Dr. Roylott’s involvement with the foreign that caused his ultimate downfall. After all, it was his trip to India and subsequent killing of his Indian butler that landed him in jail. Furthermore, while describing her stepfather, Miss Stoner mentions that she believes that her stepfather’s temper had been “intensified by his long residence in the tropics” which lends itself to the depiction of India as a place that makes the moral go corrupt. Ultimately, Dr. Roylott is punished by his involvement in the foreign in that his snake turns on him and kills him. Strangely enough, this implies that perhaps foreign objects are not trustworthy and quite dangerous when introduced into the domestic sphere. Furthermore, the fact that Dr. Roylott keeps the snake locked in an iron safe suggests the British desire to control the foreign. As Said notes, many of the Western ideas about the East (or the Orient, as termed by Said) are influenced by a “will to govern over the Orient” (95).

Just as the most famous detective is not free from the inclusion of xenophobic stereotypes, neither is the first detective C. August Dupin, created by Edgar Allan Poe in The Murders in the Rue Morgue. As with the case of Tonga in The Sign of Four, the criminal in this story is also portrayed as an animalistic foreign being. However, not only is the murderer from the exotic location of Borneo, but he is literally an animal, not just described as such. As with the case of The Sign of Four, it is much easier for readers to tussle with the idea of something sub-human being the perpetrator of the horribly violent murders of these two women. In a way, it is comforting for readers to have a criminal that is completely unlike them both in ethnicity and in genetic makeup as there is then no implication that they could ever be criminals themselves. Furthermore, as we’ve seen in the works of Sherlock, the crime committed by a foreigner serves as a distinct reminder of the threat that foreigners bring by “invading” the country. Just as with the Sherlock stories, if all foreign elements of this story were eliminated, there simply wouldn’t be a crime. Indeed, one could argue that these two women would be alive if neither the sailor from Malta nor the orangutan from Borneo had never set foot in their homeland. After all, there is certainly no British animal in existence that could possibly commit this very same crime. Therefore, this once again suggests that the making of the criminal as ethnically different is essential to detective fiction by creating a link between criminality and the foreign. However, this story has an added layer to it in the fact that the criminal is literally an animal.

Considering this, it is interesting to note the choice of an orangutan; arguably one of the most humanlike animals in existence. This choice of animal was by no means random and inconsequential. While this animal is far enough from humans to be completely separated from the white British, it is close enough to humans that it can be seen as a representation of another, horribly dehumanized human group. Indeed, as Christopher Peterson notes, much “eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discourses…frequently equated apes with blacks” (157). Just as with the texts of Sherlock, it is clear that the use of the foreign other promotes various propagandas by showing the inferiority and barbarity of said other. However, unlike these texts, The Murders in the Rue Morgue is not promoting colonialism, as would seem strange for an American author like Poe. Instead, it appears that Poe’s tale renders itself as propaganda for an issue much closer to his home that was alive and prospering during Poe’s lifetime: slavery.

Once the reader is able to see the insinuation of the orangutan as a black individual, the negative manner in which Poe portrays this racial other as well as the references to slavery become very obvious. Clearly, in the way that the two women are murdered, the black orangutan is seen as horribly and ruthlessly violent. Worse yet, Peterson argues the entire story can also be seen as a reference to the stereotypically perceived “hypersexuality of black males” in that the orangutan climbs in through the window and lands directly on the headboard of the woman’s bed (159). According to Peterson, although The Murders in Rue Morgue “does not explicitly equate blacks with apes, a number of critics have read Poe’s story as a thinly disguised allegory for the doctrine of black animality” which naturally “created the perfect alibi for enslavement” (157). Indeed, Peterson remarks that it is Poe’s word choice that seems to support this agenda with terms such as “escaped,” “master,” and “whip” cropping up in the story which “reveal…slavery to be the story’s proper historical context” (159). Furthermore, if the orangutan can be seen as an escaped black slave, the sailor can certainly be seen as his master. This is further emphasized by the horrible and slavemaster-like way in which he treats the sailor treats his orangutan “slave” by confining him to a closet and as well as the sailor’s tendency to “quiet the creature…by the use of a whip” (Poe 47). In fact, the orangutan’s escape can be seen “as a reflection of white anxiety around the threat of slave rebellion” (Peterson 159). In the case of this story, it is clear that the “escape” of the “slave” proves to be disturbingly dangerous. Furthermore, as Teresa A. Goddu notes, Poe was “ever aware of market trends” and therefore “capitalized on the conventions of slavery” to “sell his own tales” (93). Although Poe’s inclusion of the racial other was certainly used to promote slavery propaganda, the quote above suggests that Poe was also aware of the capability of the other to create interest and intrigue among his readers.

According to Claire Wells, these stereotypes and the idea of a threatening black other are something that have been perpetuated in detective fiction today. After interviewing black author Mike Philips, she argues that it is significantly more difficult for detective fiction in which a main detective is black (instead of a typical “white” detective) to be successful. Indeed, Philips notes that his initial assumption when beginning to write detective fiction was that he simply “needed…to reproduce the conventions of genre, substituting his own black persona for that of a white person.” However, he mentions that “an initial uneasiness…soon developed into a certainty that, ‘this genre was a genre whose conventions were part of a racist polemic about society’” (206). With this quote, it is clear that Philips recognizes the importance of a racial other within the genre of detective fiction, as well as why it simply doesn’t work to have the detective be a racial other. Wells furthers this idea by remarking that “what crime fiction has traditionally dealt in is racial stereotypes shaped by white structures of power and these stereotypes have become versions of definitions of what it means to be a criminal that even now have social and cultural reverberations” (210). The implication here is that the negative stereotypes of the racial other as being “evil” and “criminal” simply make it impossible for a racial other to take the place of a detective. In taking a look at the early stereotyping found in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, it is only to be expected that this is to be the case. After all, if the black ape is initially portrayed as the criminal in one of the very first detective stories, whose to accept its weird role reversal to the detective in the future?

Jumping back to a detective fiction text in which the British colonialist and orientalist themes are woven (as seen in the texts of Sherlock), is The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Like the mysteries of Sherlock and Dupin, in many instances The Moonstone also seems to be promoting racist propaganda and offer a xenophobic discourse due to its “racialist representations of the Brahmins” (Thomas 73). However, these ideas are complicated in the way that Collins incorporates them into his text. Very unlike we’ve seen with the other texts, Collins’ portrayal of the foreign is surprisingly positive. However, much of it is mixed in with xenophobic stereotypes which require a close reading to decipher.

The initial elements of xenophobia can be seen in Murthwaite’s description of the three Brahmins, noting that they are from a country in which “they care just as much about killing a man…as you care about emptying the ashes out of your pipe” (73). Although these three Brahmins are not portrayed as completely animalistic as in the stories of Dupin and Holmes, the lack of morals associated with their disregard for human life still seems to place them well below the English on the scale of developed societies. Naturally, as with the above texts, this presentation of the Indians as dangerous and a threat is used as a method to further promote colonialist propaganda. Indeed, in many instances throughout the text the reader can see the implication of the Indians (and things associated with India) as invaders as, according to Lyn Pykett, it has a “plot…focusing on the implosion or disruption of domestic stability” (54). Just as with the other texts, the mystery and fear seem to come from the fact that the foreign has essentially infiltrated a country that is not its own. This can be seen in Betteredge’s remark that “here was our quiet English house suddenly invaded by a devilish Indian Diamond” (33). As with the case of The Sign of Four, these foreign treasures (the Agra treasure and the moonstone) and the foreign characters (Tonga and the three Brahmins) certainly appear as a looming and problematic threat to all. Indeed, the three Brahmins are a frightening threat in their apparent propensity to kill as mentioned above. Furthermore, they are ominous in their mystical dealings and fortunetelling in the beginning of the novel which gives the reader an initial and immediate unease as to their real intentions. Arguably, this lends itself to the idea of a fear of the foreign which is spurred by a fear of the unknown. Just as frightening to the English characters as the three Brahmins is the moonstone, which Betteredge calls “the devil” (69) and believes that it was the “cursed diamond” that “cast a blight on the whole company” (66) during Rachel’s strange birthday party. Furthermore, just as in the case of Watson and Mary Morstan in The Sign of Four, the moonstone becomes a clear barrier to the potentially happy marriage of Franklin Blake and Rachel Verinder. Moreover, the moonstone is frightening in the lengths that people are willing to go to attain it; ranging from trickery to theft to even murder.

Krishna Manavalli certainly seems to agree with the above as she notes that in The Moonstone “Collins…draws on the prevalent English imaginings of India as a prehistoric locus of terror” (81). Certainly, as with the other texts above, there is a definite divide between the superior “us” and the inferior “them.” This divide can be seen in the description of Jennings (a mysterious half-English and half-Indian man that resides in England) in that he seems to resemble the “ancient people of the East” instead of the “newer people of the West” (319). The dichotomy of appearance here certainly seems to place the West and the East in two different spheres entirely with physically different people. Furthermore, this description of the “West” as “new” certainly carries the connotation of it being modern and progressive as opposed to this perhaps undeveloped “ancient East.” However, Manavalli believes that just as connected to the novel as “colonial terror,” is the “loss of English character” (81). In this way (and not unlike the ill effects on Dr. Roylott’s morals after his exposure to the foreign in The Speckled Band), the foreign moonstone provides a threat to British morality. Manavalli remarks that “it seems only consistent that the ‘invasion’ of the Verinder’s country house by the stolen Indian diamond should cast a shadow of doubt and dishonor on the name of virtually every key middle-class figure in the narrative” (81). In this way, the entire narrative of The Moonstone suggests that involvement with the foreign (and not involvement with its own domestic sphere) will be the key to English moral downfall. After all, if the Indians had not created this moonstone, John Herncastle would not have committed murder, Rachel Verinder would not have refused Franklin Blake’s hand, and Ablewhite Godrey, the epitome of an English gentleman, would not have been tempted to steal. Certainly, it becomes clear that normalcy in the Verinder household cannot return until both the moonstone and the three Brahmins have returned to their native India.

However, it is the circumstances in which the moonstone and the three Brahmins return to India as well as the conclusion of the novel that seem to question Collins’ true motive in writing The Moonstone. Although he without question presents a number of pro-colonialist ideas, woven within the plot line are discrete aspects that seem to contradict and complicate said ideas, or, at the very least, lighten their potency. Indeed, altogether it is quite difficult to place Collins’ position on this issue. Unlike many of the other texts we have examined, the literal criminal of the novel is actually an Englishman. Although this is also true of The Speckled Band, Godfrey is different from Dr. Roylott in that he had minimal contact and interaction with that which seemed to corrupt Dr. Roylott: the foreign.

However, in continuing with the colonialist agenda, it could also be argued that the true criminals in this novel are the foreign moonstone and the foreign opium as they influenced two English gentlemen, Godfrey Ablewhite and Franklin Blake, to commit crimes that they wouldn’t have committed otherwise. In looking at the criminality this way, it becomes clear that these crimes would not have been committed if foreign elements had never been introduced to these characters. Despite this, Godfrey, a man that has had minimal contact with all things foreign, is the thief. As with many other works previously discussed, the main problem that needs to be solved in detective fiction offers a threat to the domestic sphere. In many ways, Godrey as the criminal is actually much more frightening in that he seems so unexpected (essentially, he is the embodiment of perfect English gentleman) and very similar to the readers. After all, if the readers have the expectation of the foreign as criminal, they will always know who not to trust. However, The Moonstone really seems to be complicating this idea with the disconcerting reminder that yes, it is possible for a criminal to be just like you. This reminder offers a massive contrast to the other texts which tended to use the racial other as a criminal to reassure its readers of their difference from the law-breaker. In fact, in The Moonstone there doesn’t seem to be a single foreigner that actually did anything wrong. Certainly, all the criminals appear to be English: John Herncastle murdered, Franklin Blake stole (albeit unconsciously), and Godfrey Ablewhite was the ultimate criminal.

Interestingly enough, not only are all the foreigners free from guilt, but as Manavalli remarks, “the novel concedes victory to the Brahmins over the English police” (67). Indeed, this certainly seems to go against all that has been implied in the other texts. After all, in The Sign of Four Tonga is killed and the treasure stays in England (although at the bottom of the Thames), and in The Murders in the Rue Morgue both the foreign sailor and the foreign orangutan are discovered to be guilty. In a way, the return of the moonstone to India seems to offer up some sort of consolation to the fact that this moonstone, an incredibly important Indian relic, was violently stolen from its rightful owners. Although this was also the case with the Agra treasure in The Sign of Four, it seems that Watson and Holmes completed neglect and ignore the fact that it was obtained through violent and unjust means. Indeed, they never even consider it to belong to any Indian and are instead concerned with returning it to Mary Morstan, who in reality has no legitimate claim to it. Furthermore, in The Sign of Four, there seems to be no sign of remorse or punishment for those who killed to obtain the treasure. In The Moonstone, on the other hand, the entire family seemed to recognize the immorality of Herncastle’s theft and therefore “refuse [him] the right hand of friendship” (1). In this way, the mere fact that the moonstone was returned to its rightful owners seems to hint at several of the problems with colonialism; the unjust violence and the British tendency to forget that those from whom they are stealing are just as human as they are.

Aside from this reconciliation, although in many cases the three Brahmins are portrayed as savages, in others they are portrayed as surprisingly respectable characters. Certainly, their religious devotion is admirable as “they have doubly sacrificed their caste” in their efforts to recover their stolen moonstone (71). Throughout these efforts, they prove to be peaceful characters and never once become violent. Furthermore, they are not nearly as othered and different from the British as one would expect. Indeed, in their dealings with Bruff, they are capable of negotiating and nearly blending in with Westerners (Manavalli 78). This is nearly the same as Jennings, the strange racial half-breed. Although initially he seems suspicious with his bizarre, half-Indian appearance, it is ultimately his intelligence that allows him to be the hero that solves the crime by beating out all the Englishmen also working to solve the crime. Furthermore, a clear admiration for the foreign is seen in the character of Murthwaite. Although Murthwaite is English in origin, he still seems to prefer Indian culture over British culture as he speaks their language just as fluently as his own and spends a large amount of his time overseas. Certainly, if a rational-minded gentleman such as Murthwaite appreciates the Indian culture to this extent, the implication is that there must be plenty of which to be appreciative.

Indeed, although certain aspects of colonialism and racial stereotypes are inscribed within the text, it is clear that this was not Collins’ prime use in including the foreign. In fact, he appears to be discretely offering up an anti-colonialism propaganda by reminding his readers that the foreign Brahmins are just as human as they are. What then is the purpose of contrasting these positive images of the foreign with the negative? The answer to this can be found in Edward Said’s book, Orientalism. Although Collins’ intentions may be genuine, Said remarks that this fear of the foreign has essentially become ingrained within society, reaching all the way back to the fear of foreign Islam in Europe in the Middle Ages (56). Following this argument, it could be said that the stereotypes and impressions offered by Collins are perhaps a matter of his subconscious impressions of the East, which have been created not by a body of empirical facts, but by the general thoughts shared by society on the Orient (Said 69). As Said explains, this general body of thought about the East (which Said terms “orientalism”) tends to “overr[ide] the Orient” itself (96). Indeed, in reading this text and the others above (written by authors who do not have direct interaction with the foreign of which they are including in their texts) it is clear that the author’s perceptions of the foreign vary from the reality of the foreign.

Overall, it is quite clear that the inclusion of the foreign and all of the stereotypes associated with it have become an essential part of the detective fiction genre. Indeed, the stories of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe, and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins simply could not exist without one or several foreign others. Frequently, this inclusion of the foreign is utilized to offer a racial other as a criminal, often including numerous xenophobic stereotypes. Generally, this was done to promote ideas of colonialism (in Doyle and Collins) or slavery (in Poe) by showing the racial other as inferior and animal-like. Furthermore, it also provided comfort to the readers by showing them that the criminals were different from themselves which meant that the readers could never be the criminals themselves. In other ways still, it promoted fears of foreign invasion and offered the implication that the foreign needed to be removed. However, such negative depictions were sometimes contradicted. Indeed, The Moonstone seems to challenge many of the above assumptions in its admirable descriptions of foreign characters as well as the return of the moonstone to its native land. Despite this, there are still a number of stereotypical depictions in the novel which, according to Said, are merely reflections of the societal perception of the oriental other. Furthermore, the authors were aware of the intrigue and reader interest that the foreign constructed and could therefore utilize this as a selling point. Ideally, this intrigue and interest in the foreign will one day dissipate and detective fiction will be able to operate without xenophobic depictions. Until then, however, the popularity of the genre will no doubt continue.

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