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Beppo's Idée Fixe

by Wanda Dow

In The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, Inspector Lestrade states at the beginning of the case that the smashing of the first three busts falls under Dr. Watson's line of work more so than Holmes' or his own. Watson, quite naturally asks "Disease?" to which Lestrade replies "Madness, anyhow. And a queer madness, too." No doubt the Inspector is indicating that because it is a madness for which he has no experience, rather than, say, the madness that causes one man to seek revenge on another rather than present his case for the laws of society to decide. It is an interesting side-note that Lestrade considers Watson a doctor of all trades, even though during this period in history, medicine was indeed branching off into specialties and had done so for some time. But let us consider this a complement to Watson's talents, rather than an indication of the Inspector's ignorance.

Watson, of course, steps up to the plate with some knowledge of monomania. He states, "There are no limits to the possibilities of monomania." The word "monomania" comes from the Greek − mono, meaning "one" and mania, meaning, well, mania or obsession. In psychiatry, monomania is a type of paranoia in which the patient has only one idea or type of idea. Intellectual monomania is that which is related to only one kind of delirious idea or ideas. It is also a term attached to subcultures that to the general public appear esoteric. Hence terms such as fanboy, nerd, geek, anorak, trekkie or, ahem, Sherlockians. The difference between monomania and passion can be very subtle and difficult to recognize. That said, we can easily ascertain from whence Watson's knowledge of monomania comes, since at the time of this case, he had quite a fan base himself with his writings of Holmes' cases.

Another writer of monomania subjects was Edgar Allen Poe. Many of his poems and stories were concerned with a man's passion, or monomania of certain subjects − a black cat ("The Black Cat"), a painting of a wife ("The Oval Portrait"), a cousin's teeth ("Berenice"), a disease ("The Red Death") and so on. Poe was also well known to Watson and the public.

The other expression used by Watson, an idée fixe, has come to mean an idea that dominates the mind; in other words, a fixed idea, an obsession. This can be good or bad, depending on your point of view. The French refer to an idée fixe as a mild obsession.

Thus the common act of fandom is actually a form of monomania. According to Wikipedia's explanation of the characteristics of a fan, a fan will focus on a specific area of interest, and will be insignificantly concerned if non-fans (read as friends and family) don't derive pleasure from the area of interest. Fans also wish to acquire material objects related to their area of interest. They may desire external involvement and social interaction. When a fan crosses the line, however, the mania is more severe and the fan becomes a fanatic. The difference between a fan and a fanatic is that while both have an overwhelming interest in a given subject, the behavior of a fanatic is viewed as violating prevailing social norms. Something Beppo did when his obsession not only resulted in burglary but murder.

Once the smashing of the busts results in a murder, however, everyone seems to toss away any idea of monomania, when in fact, Watson just may have hit the nail on the head from the very beginning. Once he had hidden the pearl, was not Beppo's obsession locating the busts of Napoleon? Did he not commit acts frowned upon by the normal public in order to obtain his subject? Was not the black pearl his idée fixe?

Yes, for the entire year that he was imprisoned for another crime our poor Beppo had nothing more to think about than the pearl. And upon his release, it would have been his only thought to recover it. Imagine his surprise when, in attempting to right the error he had made, he was attacked by his partner or employer (we're not sure which Venucci it was) and in defending himself, killed his attacker. What more was there to do but continue on his quest and present the pearl to his victim's sister, the woman that he loved? Or was she the mastermind of it all and he had to recover the pearl to save his own neck? Alas, we shall never know. Just as Watson will never get the credit he is due.