Tuesday, 6 October 2009

A case of identity: Sherlock Holmes, the worn typewriter and the hidden signature of the Persian poet Hafez.

The “Case of identity” by Arthur Conan Doyle first appeared in the Strand Magazine in 1891 and it is considered to be, despite its evasive and “dry” title, a corner stone in detective novel history. It is appreciated not only by the admirers of this unappreciated genre and Sherlock Holmes devotees, but by specialists of crime detection and forensic science as well. The latter pay tribute to the inductive way of thought and to the use of traces and imprints left by a criminal action initiated by this story. One can find references to it in Criminology and Police Science papers nowadays as well. (1)
The reader is amazed by the multiplicity of meaning and interpretations of “identities” revealed (or concealed) in a masterly manner in this story. One of them, I believe, is the Identity of the legendary hero himself, who is merged with its double, Hafez, the Persian lyric poet of the 14th century.

But first things first.

The “Case of Identity” appears to be a common Sherlock Holmes story. The client who pays Sherlock Holmes a visit, and whose identity as a person who is short sighted due to “so much typewriting” is revealed at a first glance by the detective, is Miss Mary Sunderland. Miss Sunderland is a woman, who despite the substantial income from the interest of a fund set up for her by her father, carries on earning a living by practising the profession of the typist.
In spite of the close supervision of her stepfather, she gets engaged to a quiet office clerk from London that has captivated her affections. Nevertheless, the fiancé disappears mysteriously before their wedding.

Miss Sunderland, full of anxiety turns for help to the brilliant detective, in order to find her fiancé.
At the end, it expires that the missing fiancé is the “double” of her stepfather, Mr. Windibank. Driven by the fervent desire to prevent his stepdaughter from marrying so that he can carry on exploiting her income, Mr. Windibank disguises himself into a bespectacled man with a moustache, and pretends to be Mr. Hosmer Angel, the would – be fiancé. The fact that Mr. Angel shows up when the stepfather is absent, the glasses and the moustache that cover his face and his strange voice make the discerning reader suspicious for a trap set by the author. The traces are clearly marked in order to highlight the gullibility of Dr. Watson, who cannot see through them.

The metaphorical meaning of the “Case of Identity” is not exhausted in the Identification of the fiancé with the stepfather, but it extends to the Identification of the letters that the unfortunate Miss Sunderland receives from him.

"they are very commonplace. Absolutely no clue in them to Mr. Angel, save that he quotes Balzac once”
The absence of personal style and the typewritten signature conceal the identity of the author of the letters which is found in the identity of the prints of the typewriter: A revolutionary idea in forensic science

“ In each case”,
Sherlock Holmes proudly declares,
“not only are the "e's" slurred and the "r's" tailless, but you will observe, if you care to use my magnifying lens, that the fourteen other characteristics to which I have alluded, are there as well."

Tracing and identifying the typewriter on which the alleged suicide note is typed is a common element of the plot in subsequent detective novels. Nevertheless, in the “Case of Identity” it is introduced for the first time.

There is one more reason for which the “Case of Identity” will go down in history. Although Sherlock Holmes solves the mystery, he chooses not to tell his client the truth about the “missing” fiancé, because he does not want to deprive her of her delusion.

“You may remember the old Persian saying, "There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for who snatches a delusion from a woman." There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world."

The enigmatic reference to the Persian lyric poet of the 14th century Šamsu d-Dīn Muhammad Hāfez-e Šīrāzī (2) at the end of the story is unexpected to those familiar with the prosaic nature of the detective. Nevertheless, Hafez is not a common poet. He is the one that knew the Qu’ran by heart. That is in fact the meaning of the name Hafez, and this was the name that the poet had chosen for himself. He had not only memorized the Qu’ran, but he also knew by heart the verses of his beloved poets Jalal ad-Din Rumi and Saadi.
The relation between Sherlock Holmes’ extraordinary capacity for memorizing and Hafez emerges. “Neither fascinating nor artistic” is the reference made to the police reports, in the beginning of the story, when the method of inquiry of the detective is mentionned: the search of the analogy of relevant elements of a case with corresponding aspects from other cases, that he has already solved and registered in his memory or can be found in police records. However his is a a meticulous job, done with style. A metaphor for poetry perhaps.

If the allusion to poetry as mnemonics is not yet convincing for the identification of Hafez as the “double” Sherlock Holmes/Hafez, let us take one more step towards poetry. Let us remember how the story begins. There is an unusual poetic mood of the hero, when Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes are in a reverie and discuss the mysteries of life. That mood puts quoting Hafez quite in the spirit of the time. After all, it was at that time that Gertrude Bell had translated the poems of Hafez in English. These poems were well received in the literary circles of Great Britain and Europe. Carlyle used to read them as well as the friends of Virginia Woolf’s father, as she writes in her diary.

This is how the Case of Identity starts, and it is in a poetic mood indeed:

"…life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generation, and leading to the most outre results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable."

Nevertheless, there is more that in my opinion, points in the direction of a hidden signature, of a key that embraces all the identities/identifications in the story: The identification of Mrs. Sunderland as a typist, the identity of Mr. Windibank as Mr. Hosmer, the identity of his commonplace letters, and at the end the identity of the worn typewriter through the detailed examination of the imprints of the letters, the final imprint of the criminal, his real signature.

The multiplicity of identities revealed with intellect and style is the core of the story. They are characteristic of the masterly manner in which Sherlock Holmes solves the case and the author weaves the plot.

Similarly, Hafez, the poet, signs his poems with a nom de plume, in his priestly capacity. He has, as the poets of his era have, the habit of weaving his name into the last verses of the poems that he composes, like a unique signature. The identity of the poet is hidden in his verses, just like the slurred e's" and the tailless "r's" of a worn typewriter :

Am I a sinner or a saint,
Which one shall it be?
Hafez holds the secret
of his own mystery...


I said, happiness and joy
Passing time will destroy.
Said, Hafez, silence employ
Sorrows too will end my friend.

“Fascinating and artistic” I believe.

(1) Stanton O. Berg, Sherlock Holmes: Father of Scientific Crime Detection, Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science, Vol. 61, No 3, p. 446 – 460
(2) http://www.hafizofshiraz.com/hafizinfluence2.html
(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hafez
(4) The excerpts were from the electronic edition: http://sherlock-holmes.classic-literature.co.uk/a-case-of-identity



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