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BMJ. 2007 June 23; 334(7607): 1325.
PMCID: PMC1895631
Between the Lines

Sheer delight in doing evil

Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Resident Patient, a doctor called Trevelyan comes to see Sherlock Holmes about a little problem. Dr Watson recognises him as the author of “a monograph on obscure nervous lesions.” Dr Trevelyan is delighted, naturally enough: “I so seldom hear of the work that I thought it was quite dead. My publishers give me a most discouraging account of its sale.”

This, the common lot of all authors, or at least the lot of all the authors known to me in person (though this, I admit, may be a reflection merely on the nature of my literary acquaintance and therefore indirectly on me), is not the problem about which Dr Trevelyan comes to consult Holmes.

Trevelyan is in an unusual situation. He has been set up in practice by a stranger called Blessington, on condition that he, Blessington, continues to live in Trevelyan's house and takes three quarters of his fees. Trevelyan, who has no capital to start a practice of his own, agrees.

This arrangement works until one day Blessington seems to have been agitated by some news and becomes fearful for his safety. A little while later, Trevelyan is consulted by a man who is supposedly a Russian aristocrat, accompanied by his son; the man is suffering from catalepsy, a condition in which Trevelyan is a specialist.

During the visit, the man has one of his attacks, but he and his son disappear from the house while Dr Trevelyan searches for amyl nitrite (the inhalation of which has produced good results in such cases). Later, Holmes replies to Watson's question about the cataleptic attack: “A fraudulent imitation, Watson, though I should hardly dare to hint as much to our specialist. It is a very easy complaint to imitate. I have done it myself.”

To cut a short story even shorter, Blessington is not really Blessington, but Sutton, the worst of a gang who committed a bank robbery that, in the words of our current chief constables, “went tragically wrong,” and in which the caretaker, Tobin, was killed. Sutton/Blessington subsequently turned Queen's evidence, and one of the gang was hanged. The others (apart from Sutton/Blessington) were sent to prison for 15 years. Sutton/Blessington disguised himself by means of living with Trevelyan. Hearing that the other gang members had been released early (some things never change) he becomes fearful for his life. The Russian aristocrat and his son are really members of the gang, and eventually they manage to get into Sutton/Blessington's room, where they hold a mock trial and then hang him, trying to make it look like suicide. They are never caught.

Oddly enough, I was once involved as a witness in a similar case: a man hanged another and tried to make it look like suicide. Apparently he gave his victim, whom he had intimidated into obedience, a choice: to have his throat cut or be hanged.

The main difference between the cases was this: that in the case in which I was involved the man was not motivated by revenge, but (as far as I could tell) by sheer unadulterated malignity, by sheer delight in doing evil. This delight is one of the great puzzles of human nature.

In the case in which I was involved the man was not motivated by revenge, but (as far as I could tell) by sheer unadulterated malignity


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