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Sherlock: Was Murder Justified?


By David Selby

The one indisputable fact of Sherlock is that the protagonist is a genius. His character has been defined by his intelligence – often coupled with arrogance and inhumanity – since he was originally conceived by Arthur Conan Doyle. Over time he has progressed into a man who is distinguished – and in part, weakened – by his friends. His compassion, whilst veiled by a façade of cunning and egotism, is a prominent aspect of the character.

Yet as he states himself in the Series Two finale, his moral beliefs (“on the side of the angels”) do not have a bearing over his conduct or sense of justice. In some measure, his benevolence towards those he does hold dear can lead to unconventional responses – i.e. revenge. This was the dénouement at the end of His Last Vow. Sherlock had spent the entire episode in conflict with the despicable antagonist Charles Augustus Magnussen, a man with influence over the British government and a plethora of information about everyone through which he exploits their vulnerabilities to carry out his abhorrent deeds. When the climax was reached and Magnussen was to be found innocent – and thus able to continue with his schemes – Sherlock murdered him by pumping a single bullet into his head. The question which has plagued forums and debates since airing: was he justified?

Firstly we must look at motive. Magnussen had a power-plan to gain control over the most potent man in the country: Mycroft Holmes (“he’s what I’m getting for Christmas”). Magnussen’s only weakness – and thus Sherlock’s only way of defeating him – was his information. Like Sherlock (and me), Magnussen’s way of storing information was via the Mind Palace technique – a theory that, if you can visualise a room (or an entire palace for that matter), you can place memories and data where you can later return to them. As the knowledge is abstract, the only way of eliminating the material – and, consequently, stopping Magnussen – was to kill him. Logically, Sherlock’s decision makes sense. He was protecting the general public.

The second motive is an emotional one. Sherlock has transgressed from a narcissistic loner to someone who lives for his friends. His decisions were drastically influenced by Magnussen’s taunting of John. ‘CAM’ was a character with the potential to push anyone to their limits; he lacked respect and common decency and didn’t need to be charismatic (unlike Moriarty) because he already had what he wanted. When it comes to the moment, Sherlock doesn’t have the time to contemplate pulling the trigger. He knows Magnussen will go with impunity, and he has been psychologically pushed by the twisted man’s endeavours to ruin his life. To Sherlock, the idea is merely a form of justice. His religious beliefs are clarified in The Sign of Three; he thinks religion is a fantasy – his moral beliefs in The Reichenbach Fall; he strives for good but achieves it by any means. He sees a danger to society over personal consequence; justice over sin, if you will – it is his one and only chance to defeat Magnussen and he takes it.

Sherlock Holmes isn’t a hero. Do your research. He is a high-functioning sociopath. There is a reason for the classic stories being told through the eyes of John Watson and that is because Sherlock himself is “the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant and all-round obnoxious arsehole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet”. He is redeemed by his friends and esteemed from his work in the crime industry and his exceptional intellect. Yet, in short, he is human in the loosest sense of the word. The fact is that, whether you do or do not think that Sherlock’s actions are justified, it’s not about always about relating to him – just understanding him. The fact that he did something on behalf of a friend, in my eyes, shows that he is slowly opening up about his emotions.

The fundamental complaint that I wish to address is that Sherlock should have found a ‘clever’ or resourceful alternate solution. Yet that seems to completely miss the point of the ending. On that one occasion, there was none. It turned out that it was Magnussen who had made the mistake, and he was condemned to death from the moment he opened the vault and compromised his greatest secret in front of his most formidable enemy.

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  • Calebxy

    You use the mind palace technique as well, David?

    • David Selby

      Yes. I have done for several years now. I suffer from severe memory loss so it’s my only way of keeping track of things.

      • Calebxy

        And you find that works?

        • David Selby

          Yup. It’s enormous now! I’ve got memories, reminders, facts, figures…

          • Calebxy

            Excellent. I’ve just started to employ it myself. I’ve only got a few things in there, though. I’m using my own house, and Noah’s ark is floating in the middle of the living room (with the measurements floating beside it Sherlock-style), and a few scriptures hanging like paintings on one of the walls.

          • David Selby

            You should try lucid dreaming – you can have a proper wander then!

          • Calebxy

            You can’t just choose to lucid dream though, can you?

            Also, how exactly have you done your mind palace? What form do you keep the information in? Files, like Magnussen? Or more visual things, like objects?

          • David Selby

            No. It’s an art. Truthfully, I don’t sleep enough to do it.

            It depends. It started off as just one room, with objects placed in it. Some are like files, others are different. Then there’s a staircase, with loads and loads of rooms branching off. Each room is for something different. I’ve stored the entirety of my science coursework in one room so that I can reference it in the exam.

            But I do find it requires concentration – complete silence, or appropriate noise – to access it properly.

          • Calebxy

            So your information is in written form, in files/books, like how Magnussen did it?

          • David Selby

            Some and some. A lot of pictures – because visual aid is better for certain things.

          • Calebxy

            Ah, I see. That’s very interesting.

          • extermin8or2

            I have narcolepsy-lucid dreaming is incredibly easy for me todo and very common :p

          • The Grey Ghost

            I’m starting to make one as well, but I’m finding it difficult to actually put things in there. Do you have any advice?

  • 4th Jack

    I loved how Sherlock didn’t use his intelligence. He was forced into a corner and had no escape, so he reverted to murder. Murder is so simple to a man who is so clever. I just thought the simplicity of it all was really intelligent. Really dramatic. He lost all the humanity that he gained in Series 3 in that one second. How frightening! He vowed he would always look after the Watson family in the ‘Sign of Three’, and this is him fulfilling that promise. Brilliant writing.

  • The Administrator

    An excellent article David that explores the truth. Sherlock is not a hero. People should stop expecting him to be one.

  • David Havers

    It’s never justified murder is murder. But Sherlock had to do what he thought best. Know Moffat i am sure Magnussen will be back from the dead in the next series.

    • David Selby

      But that’s your philosophy. As I said, Sherlock’s an atheist. Therefore he doesn’t have a religious moral code to follow, and therefore ‘justice’ becomes a subjective term. Weighing the pros against the cons, from his viewpoint at least, perhaps it was.

      That would be disappointing. I’d have loved another series with Magnussen, but now it would just undermine the ending.

      • David Havers

        The trouble with i have with the character Magnussen is that we never heard anything about him before in the series if we had, I could understand Sherlock’s disliking him so much,

        • David Selby

          Except he was saving Mary’s life too. Because he had names of people who wanted Mary dead, and he vowed to protect his best friends. I’d have done the same.

      • Sharaz_Jek

        While I agree with you that it was Sherlock’s understandable decision, I wish to add that being an atheist doesn’t equal with having no moral code. Morality and religion are seperate from each other.

        • David Selby

          It’s not no moral code, but it’s a different moral code. He doesn’t believe in a higher force, therefore he believes his moral beliefs and gut instinct is just as accurate as any old ‘rule book’. There’s not the same distinction between good and bad.

          • Sharaz_Jek

            You’re right, of course. Sherlock followed his own code in killing Magnussen to protect the lives of John and Molly (and the baby). I just thought that you said that Sherlock didn’t follow any morality at all because he holds atheistic views.

  • TardisBoy

    An amazing article David and I agree with every single word. Magnussen had all the files and information stored within his own mind, and he also had numbers of all the people who want Mary dead, and so the only way to stop all the information he has being used for blackmail and to save John and Mary was for Magnussen to die. The ONLY solution to this was for Sherlock to kill him.

    • David Selby

      His Last Vow. Sherlock promised to protect Mary, and he did. By any means.

      • TardisBoy

        Exactly. With Magnussen alive, Mary, John and the baby would have been threatened.

  • Who Fan No 565

    Fantastic article!

  • Deus Ex Machina

    I agree. He murdered him not because of lazy writing, but because Moffat wanted to show that he had no other options. His wits weren’t enough this time. I wish more people could see that.

    The other thing people keep complaining about that I disagree with is about that girl he dated just to get into Magnuseen’s office. Of course that’s something that Sherlock would do without so much as a second thought, but people seem to disagree and think it’s out of character for him for some reason.

  • Baker Street

    It was completely justified and unavoidable in my view. And keeping John and Mary safe was his last vow.

  • lp229

    I personally think murder is unjustifiable regardless of whether the victim was a despicable character. I don’t think that we were expected to comfortably agree or disagree with Sherlock, but merely to be placed in the dilemma that the protagonists were in, and no doubt, has been replicated in real life situations: is murder justified when it can prevent acts of evil? The ending, emphasises Sherlock as a complex hero and naturally one that we are not always going to agree with.

    My only issue is whether this kind of action would have fitted the character originally conceived by Conan-Doyle. We know that Sherlock Holmes has always been flexible morally, but I find it difficult to accept that he would kill someone with no sign of remorse. I think if he was shown to be purely forced by circumstance and subsequently was shaken by his actions afterwards, I would have less of a problem with it. It is clear,however, that the outlandish aspects of Holmes’ character have been emphasised in ‘Sherlock’, so what may be out of character in more traditional interpretations isn’t perhaps in this one.

    • A_Persom

      Sherlock is high functioning sociopath! He doesn’t feel things the same way normal people do. And remember that BBC Sherlock is not forced to conform to Doyle’s original books. Frankly I would find appalling if Sherlock was remorseful. He is not meant to be remorseful, he has his own moral code different from everyone else’s.

    • TheOtherDoctor

      I refer you to this passage from a latter Holmes story by Doyle in which Watson is shot:

      I felt a sudden hot sear as if a red-hot iron had been pressed to my thigh. There was a crash as Holmes’s pistol came down on the man’s head. I had a vision of him sprawling upon the floor with blood running down his face while Holmes rummaged him for weapons. Then my friend’s wiry arms were round me, and he was leading me to a chair.

      “You’re not hurt, Watson? For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!”

      It was worth a wound — it was worth many wounds — to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.

      “It’s nothing, Holmes. It’s a mere scratch.”

      He had ripped up my trousers with his pocket-knife.

      “You are right,” he cried with an immense sigh of relief. “It is quite superficial.” His face set like flint as he glared at our prisoner, who was sitting up with a dazed face. “By the Lord, it is as well for you. If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive.

  • The Doctor, Islington

    It wasn’t nice. It wasn’t good.

    But sometimes, you don’t get to be good. Sometimes you have to take the lesser evil – and killing a man who held the world in his hands was so. That power is simply far too dangerous for one such as Magnussen.

  • Muttlee2

    It occurs to me that Holmes might altruistically think his own life imprisonment or death is a good exchange for the benefit to his friends and the world in general that killing Magnusson would achieve.

    ‘It is a far,far better thing I do,than I have ever done before…’

  • Declan McCarthy

    I have no issue with him killing Magnussen. I have an issue with the fact that it doesn’t really go anywhere. There aren’t really any repercussions for his actions. They can’t send him to prison, so they decide the send him to Serbia but then Moriarty turns up so he comes back. Wouldn’t it have been far more interesting to make Season Four “The Trial of Sherlock Holmes”, great idea but poorly executed.

  • Uniquified

    The whole point of Sherlock Holmes is that he’s the smartest man in the room, able to outwit anyone else. The fact that he couldn’t figure out what was happening and resorted to murder to solve his dilemma defeats the reason for his being.

  • Ruth

    For me, killing Magnusson doesn’t change the Holmes character. He sees
    what this man is capable of doing, see the future of his friends, his
    loved ones, his family in jeopardy just from what this man is capable of
    doing. And having talked with the woman at the beginning, knows how far
    this man’s reach can go. Holmes said that he may be on the side of the
    angels, but that he is not one of them. Also, in the Scandal of
    Belgravia, he went to lengths to save Irene Adler. I am sure he didn’t
    leave her capturers without a taste of his blade nor was he polite
    enough to say “Oh, my dear chap, I give you the first blow and then we
    fight.” No, this Holmes is a man of action, loyal to his friends without
    saying so much towards it, but would fight for them, even to the death
    to keep them safe. He could not think of any alternative at that time,
    for that matter. And who is to say that Magnusson is actually dead.
    Perhaps he clipped him and Mycroft has him somewhere under sedation just
    to keep him out of the way. We didn’t see a body after all. :)


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