The silence shrouding the display cases in the Museum of Criminology in Lyon in an afternoon in late October , 1913 was punctuated only by the footsteps of two English gentlemen. Now and then the steward coughed, wearily dragging himself to the end of his shift, and an old, slow attendant wiped a window up and down with a wet cloth. However, it was the din produced by the stories of old and new criminals displayed through weapons, newspaper clippings, mug shots and personal belongings that made the two visitors little inclined to speak. Suddenly, one of the two stopped in front of a display case and stared, trying not to laugh. “Arthur, come and look who’s here …” And there, facing them was none other than Jules Bonnot, anarchist, public enemy of France, who had died just a year earlier and was already notorious enough to be included in the museum collection . “Wasn’t he your chauffeur?” Arthur approached the case to view the display better, and his pipe, sprouting out from under his walrus moustache, accidentally knocked the glass.
The sound triggered a series of memories from the past, and the present. He recognized him. What a lot of afternoons spent together driving in his Lanchester Landaulette through the Sussex countryside, and what pleasant conversation he had had with the young Frenchman who was an expert mechanic. Jules had addressed him as just Sir Arthur and not the author of the famous detective that had started to make his life unbearable. On the other hand, it would be impossible to escape unscathed from a myth such as Sherlock Holmes, and even more so if you were his inventor. Such an obtrusive presence ended up taking you over, body and soul unless you were careful, and this is what had happened to Arthur Conan Doyle.
When he had decided he could bear it no longer and tried to kill off his hero, there was a public outcry. There were factory strikes, people wore black bands on their sleeves, not to mention the hundreds of indignant letters that he received. Thus, he was forced to bring back Sherlock Holmes from the dead. On the other hand, what could you expect from a character that had become flesh and bone, who constantly received letters of application from women to be his secretary or maid?
Those long drives with Jules were a breath of fresh air for Sir Arthur. Sometimes they would stay silent for hours, with only the sound of the car engine, one of the first on the roads in that era, which would mark the kilometers flying by. Sometimes they would chatter endlessly until they had arrived at their destination, which was always the houses of the poor who called Sir Arthur to solve cases of daily injustice. Indeed, the author had devoted himself to this project to distract himself from the “Holmes nightmare”, trying to put his much-loved brilliant deductive method to the service of real cases to clear the innocent. Yet, poverty proved to be a taint that was impossible to remove and justice was largely absent. This is just what Bonnot had said one evening when, after having driven for miles in the Southern Uplands, they had stayed overnight at a hotel in Carlisle and dined together at the same table. What had brought him to England? He had left France, maybe wishing to throw off this taint of poverty that had persecuted him since he was born, since his father had made him work in a factory instead of letting him go to school. Each time that he had sought to raise his head he had been forced to lower it again, unfairly. And the voice of truth, his truth and those of every other victim of poverty and injustice could not remain stifled for long. The topic of their conversation was almost always based on these ideas. Sir Arthur felt the same way, after having visited mothers of sons who had been imprisoned without any apparent reason, just because they were poor and thus excellent scapegoats, and though he was rich and famous, he still sympathized with them. Jules’ point of view also interested him, as he saw that the Frenchman was not stupid at all, quite the contrary. Indeed, it was this intelligence that had often got him into trouble. Because you cannot keep quiet when you know what is happening. Because the truth needs to be shouted out loud if people are not prepared to listen to it. Because the cry of pain of thousands of wrongfully condemned people cannot be stifled. Injustice generates sound and that sound should make people aware of what is happening. What happens in books and the much-loved Sherlock Holmes series is an excellent example, as justice always prevails, unlike in real life. However, here things happen differently. Sir Arthur remembered that the same evening he had agreed with Jules. Getting justice was not easy if you were born in the wrong place.
Still speechless in front of the display case as he read the newspaper articles that described his chauffeur as a ferocious bandit, Sir Arthur’s mind went back to that conversation and countless others on the same subject. How many times had he confessed to the Frenchman his frustration in failing to help clear poor, innocent people? Had that perhaps sparked off something that led Bonnot back to France and turned him into a criminal and leader of a gang of violent anarchists? Who knows. While Sir Arthur took a long puff of his pipe, his eyes caught a piece of paper among Jules’ personal items, maybe torn from an exercise book, on which his pleasant conversationalist had written by hand before being shot down by the police: “I must live my life. I have the right to live, for every man has the right to live and since your idiocy and criminal social scheme claim to prevent me from doing so, well so much the worse for society. So much the worse for you all. Should I regret what have done? Maybe. But I have no remorse. Regrets, yes, but certainly no remorse.”