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Mr Athelney Jones

We find the crime fiction trope of the bumbling police officer in the Sherlock Holmes novels in the form of Mr Athelney Jones.
In this video, I want to look at a minor character in The Sign of Four - the Police Inspector, Mr. Athelney Jones. He’s not a particularly important character and in a sense he couldn’t be. His main function is to serve as a foil for Sherlock Holmes and make Sherlock Holmes look all the more brilliant. In that sense, he’s not contributing to the resolution of the mystery. But he’s nevertheless interesting, both in terms of the characterisation of Holmes and in terms of the social dynamics of The Sign of Four which is what we’re interested in this week. In terms of narrative, he plays the role, as I said, as a foil for Sherlock Holmes.
In this sense, he’s similar to Watson in that he’s there and Watson is there to make Holmes look better, specifically to look more superhuman. Watson, on numerous occasions in this novel, says things like - this is an insoluble mystery and this is just too difficult for me to comprehend and I can’t see any possible solution here. And all of that makes Holmes look more powerful as a detective. And by the same token, Athelney Jones is there to offer a counterpoint to Holmes. He’s the dim-witted Police Officer something that later became a stock character in detective fiction and his main function is to frame Sherlock Holmes as a brilliant, superhuman detective.
So I propose that we simply look at a couple of quotes from the text and analyse them in a little bit of detail to understand how this logic of the foil and the social class distinctions work in the text.
So this is Sherlock Holmes at the beginning of the novel saying I’m “the only unofficial consulting detective”. “I am the last and highest court of appeal in detection. When Gregson or Lestrade or Athelney Jones are out of their depths - which, by the way, is their normal state - the matter is laid before me”. So this is Holmes presenting himself in contradistinction to Police Officers who are no good at their work and have no real talent as detectives. So that’s one example. The main example is this one. This is Athelney Jones coming into the room. It says he is “..a very stout, portly man in a grey suit strode heavily into the room.
He was red-faced, burly and plethoric, with a pair of very small twinkling eyes which looked keenly out from between swollen puffy pouches”. So this looks like a description of Athelney Jones and in that sense, it’s meant to give us some kind of visual impression of him. But there’s a number of coded messages contained in this short description. And first of all, his physical appearance and one might say his physicalness in the sense that he is big and it’s underlined several times - stout, portly, he strode heavily into the room, he’s red-faced, he’s burly, he’s plethoric and all of that suggests a certain physicalness, a certain materiality of sorts, a certain givenness to the sensual pleasures, food, drink, etc.
And that’s something that’s continued in a sense with a swollen and puffy pouches as well. So, you know, the standard representations of Sherlock Holmes as a tall, somewhat lanky person who’s ascetic as well as opposed to materialistic in his way of life and way of thinking. Athelney Jones is the opposite. He represents materialism. He represents the good life as it were, whereas Holmes represents the intellectual side of things and a life devoted to intellectual pursuits and to thinking essentially. So materialism versus intellectualism, you might say. That’s underlined as well by his small, twinkling eyes - twinkling suggests confusion. It might suggest the dim-wittedness I talked about before.
But more than anything and you know, of course, eye is referred to as the window to the soul and the mirror of the soul. They suggest the smallness of the eyes - suggests that he has a small soul that his mind / mental capacity is not particularly strong. What is important as well is that this is a class distinction. It’s not simply a philosophical distinction between materialism and intellectualism. It’s also a distinction between a sort of heavy set, sort of working class Englishman and an upper class tall guy, as we saw in the social classes sketch earlier in this week’s programme.
It’s a class distinction and that’s what is being highlighted here. So Athelney Jones serves as a different kind of foil to Holmes than Watson. And Watson is, of course, of the same class as Sherlock Holmes. Let’s move on. This is Athelney Jones offering his common place - common sense, sensical explanation of what has happened. “‘You see!’ said Athelney Jones.. ‘Facts are better than mere theories, after all. My view of the case is confirmed. There is a trap-door communicating with the roof, and it is partly open’”. So Athelney Jones has hit upon a common sensical explanation for what has happened. He thinks he solved the mystery, but of course, he’s only scratching the surface. He hasn’t understood anything.
He’s making a distinction between facts and theories, claiming that Holmes represents theories. But of course, this view is deluded in the sense that only Holmes has the power of reasoning and observation to solve a mystery as complex as this one. And then towards the end, Holmes is vindicated, as it were. And you get that a surprising number of times in this novel - flattery of Holmes -
you know, emphasis on his amazing powers of deduction, etc., something you see very frequently and it’s part of the style that Arthur Conan Doyle has created here. “‘…to my surprise’” (Watson says), “no less a person than Mr. Athelney Jones was shown up to me. Very different was he, however, from the brusque and masterful professor of common sense who had taken over the case so confidently at Upper Norwood.” This is what we saw in the earlier slide. “His expression was downcast, and his bearing meek and even apologetic”.
So he’s realising here that he has been defeated and not only has he been defeated, but his commitment to common sense and easy solutions, as it were, has been completely overshadowed by Holmes’ brilliance. So a character who serves as a foil for Holmes, who underlines Holmes as
superhuman capabilities, but also a character who shows a social distinction between the common man and then the sort of refined, sophisticated Holmes.

Athelney Jones exemplifies the crime fiction trope of the bumbling police officer, and in this sense he features in the novel as a way of making Holmes looker smarter and more modern. But Jones is also described using varous class markers. In this video, I take a close look at Jones, focusing on his looks, his philosophy and his social position.

What’s all this then?

What other examples of “bumbling police officers” in crime fiction books or tv can you think of?

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Classic Detective Fiction

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