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The Ideology Behind The Sorceress of the Strand: Gender, Race, and Criminal Witchcraft Jennifer A. Halloran University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill READERS TAKING UP the Strand magazine from October 1902 to March 1903 would find a peculiar series of six short stories by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace, which was later collected in a volume entitled The Sorceress of the Strand (1903). * The most striking of the oddities these tales possessed was the central character Madame Sara, a female and foreign manifestation of the arch-villain, so diabolically clever that, as the writing duo known as Ellery Queen state, she "made [traditional] rogues like Colonel Clay and Raffles look like sissies."2 Through the course of the series Madame Sara emerges as a versatile and cunning criminal whose machinations thwart the attempts of sleuths Dixon Druce and Eric Vandeleur to bring her to justice for blackmail , murder, and other crimes presumably too fiendish for the texts to explicate fully. She triumphs throughout the series, escaping capture at the end of each tale only to reappear and engage in her criminal activities at the beginning of the next. These stories establish that Madame Sara's femininity and foreignness —she is half-Indian and half-Italian—enable her to completely baffle Dixon and Vandeleur, since she circumvents the ideals of justice upheld by all the Holmesian heroes of popular detective fiction. In Meade and Eustace's creation, we also find a character who defies the wellentrenched conventions of nineteenth-century detective fiction. Unlike traditional detective stories, where the detective's foregone defeat of the criminal offers readers a narrative of social order and control, the Madame Sara stories provide a dystopic view of a society in which the aberrant criminal can be contained only provisionally. To illustrate how these stories subvert more traditional portrayals of the relationship between detective and criminal, this essay contrasts 176 HALLORAN : SORCERESS OF THE STRAND them with the masculinist detective stories written by Meade's and Eustace's contemporary, Arthur Conan Doyle. With the advent of Sherlock Holmes and his imitators at the turn of the century, the figures of the detective and the criminal became powerful symbolic forces, upholding the distinctions between good and evil. These detectives often stood as a last bastion between the vulnerable English populace and underworld chaos; they stepped in when ordinary protections like the police and the judicial system fell short. Again and again in the stories Holmes, assuming the role of justice personified, frees those who may be technically guilty of a crime but who acted under severe provocation, and punishes those who have not broken any laws but who subvert a higher code of justice.3 Holmes takes on the role of police, judge, and jury in most of his cases, arbitrating not only guilt and innocence, but appropriate punishment . Moreover, as Rosemary Jann states, Holmes's solutions rely on "quite deterministic codes of class, gender, and ethnicity. .. . An important effect of Doyle's fictional project is to reassure readers of the reliability of such codes and to render logical the social order that they imply."4 Thus, the detective's reification of social codes and his dispensing of justice work together to establish normative ideas of Englishness and masculinity which separate law-abiding British citizens from "barbarous " foreigners, predatory females, and their criminal kin. The ongoing battle between detective and criminal creates a grand narrative, in which masculinity and a type of noble idealism converge into what these texts present as a uniquely British character—the detective.5 Whereas the detective is thoroughly masculine and British, the arch-criminal, while representing a debased version of those same ideals , usually mirrors the detective in social status, education, and background . Professor Moriarty, for example, is merely Holmes's depraved doppelgänger, a construct that emphasizes the moral choices each character has made while binding them in a battle in which good and evil play by mutually acknowledged rules. This same construct renders utterly unknowable a master criminal like Madame Sara, who falls outside this structure of identity. If, as Pascale Krumm asserts, a female criminal like Irene Adler is "by virtue of her gender, behaviorally and genetically other...


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pp. 176-194
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Will Be Archived 2021
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