The news that New York City had its first ebola case last night, coming during the season when many a Sherlockian is planning their January trip to that metropolis, brings up an interesting aspect of the Sherlock Holmes stories.
The recent ebola epidemic has brought the fear of disease back to our culture big-time, with both serious concerns and over-reactions, strategies implemented and snake-oil frauds taking advantage. We don't often fear disease as our Victorian counterparts did, as something bringing a sure death sentence, so it shines a different light on those stories we probably don't read with the full feeling that their contemporaries did.
"The Adventure of the Dying Detective."
"The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier."
". . . his arrest of Wilson, the notorious canary-trainer, which removed a plague-spot from the East End of London."
The first two revolved around fears of a disease that prove false. Sherlock Holmes is dying of "an out-of-the-way Asiatic disease" that's a sure killer, having just brought a strong man down in a mere four days. Holmes is faking, of course, no surprise to the modern reader.
The second of the two involves a hidden leper, whose secret quarantine has ruined his life to the point where everyone thinks he's dead. Only . . . spoiler alert! . . . he doesn't really have leprosy at all, but some more benign ailment.
Consider this for a moment: Watson wrote one of those tales, Holmes the other, but both were published for the enjoyment of readers of The Strand Magazine.
That business with Wilson and the actual London plague spot? Never published.
Because that disease was real, and in the heart of London. There was no entertainment value in Watson and the folks at Strand selling Londoners a magazine with a story about their city actually having a plague spot. Sure, Holmes obviously stopped it from spreading, but that was just containment, as the world is trying to do with ebola right now. There's no joy in reading of victims whose murderer cannot be stopped, only caged for a while, no catharsis where the villain gets bit by his own snake or falls into quicksand.
As ebola concerns rise, it's worth considering the minds of those Victorian readers who got their hands on the Holmes stories first. It was a very different experience for them, one we may have been blessed to be without.