Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

The root of all evil…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

our-mutual-friendOld Mr Harmon has been a tyrannical father to his children, so that the odd terms of his will are in keeping with his character. He has left the bulk of his fortune to his one surviving son, John, on condition that he marries a girl his father has chosen for him – a girl he has never met. Bella Wilfer is a mercenary young lady, quite willing to go along with this scheme. But when John drowns on his way home from foreign parts, Bella finds herself in the unsatisfactory position of having to go into mourning for a man she didn’t know, without the benefit of receiving any of the wealth she was expecting. The money passes to the Boffins, who decide it is their duty to do something to help Bella.

Jesse Hexam is the man who dragged the body identified as John Harmon from the Thames. This is how he makes his living, rowing up and down the river looking for corpses, often taking his daughter Lizzie along to row for him. But during the identification of this corpse, Lizzie catches the eye of a young and rather unscrupulous lawyer, Eugene Wrayburn. Eugene’s pursuit of Lizzie will affect many people around them, leading to jealousy, resentment and dark deeds. But, as always with Dickens, there are possibilities for redemption too…

It was a foggy day in London, and the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, and choking; inanimate London was a sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither. Gaslights flared in the shops with a haggard and unblest air, as knowing themselves to be night-creatures that had no business abroad under the sun; while the sun itself, when it was for a few moments dimly indicated through circling eddies of fog, showed as if it had gone out, and were collapsing flat and cold.

Hexam and Lizzie look for corpses
Hexam and Lizzie look for corpses

Much though I love Dickens, considering him the greatest writer of all time, I’ve never been blind to his faults. It’s always been a balancing act for me – the anger beneath the social satire, the wonderfully created and unforgettably caricatured minor characters, the brilliantly atmospheric descriptive writing; all offset against the parade of nauseatingly saccharin heroines, the occasional descent into an archness I try hard not to call twee, and the fact that sometimes the plots don’t quite gel – a result of them being serialised, I assume, and Dickens not really having decided on an ending when he published the beginning.

In this book, the seesaw falls slightly more to the side of the weaknesses than the strengths. I believe this was the last complete book he wrote, and he was involved in a serious accident in the middle of writing, when he was on a train that became derailed, leaving many people injured. He was unhurt physically but apparently the experience left him shocked. Perhaps it was that, or perhaps age was simply tiring him, but for me, this books lacks some of what makes his great books great.

The Boffins
The Boffins

The major theme of the book is money – how possession of it corrupts, and how lack of it causes great suffering. He satirises the class of society that hangs around the rich, especially the nouveau riche. Mr and Mrs Veneering seem to have come from nowhere, but their lavish hospitality wins them a whole host of new “oldest friends”. The Lammles show the pitfalls of marrying for money, each believing the other is wealthy till after the wedding, when they discover that they have each married a mirror image of themselves – another person on the make. Having inherited the Harmon wealth, kind old “Noddy” Boffin finds himself the target of conmen and would-be thieves, and begins to admire and emulate some of the great misers he finds in books. And, through old Betty Higden’s story, Dickens shows the iniquities of the Poor Laws of the time, and how many people would rather starve than end up living on the state’s merciless mercy.

That night she took refuge from the Samaritan in his latest accredited form, under a farmer’s rick; and if – worth thinking of, perhaps, my fellow-Christians – the Samaritan had in the lonely night “passed by on the other side,” she would have most devoutly thanked High Heaven for her escape from him.

All good, and all typically Dickensian, but it seemed to me that the old anger wasn’t there; especially with the Poor Law stuff, I felt his tone was resigned, almost defeated. The characters are well-drawn to serve his purpose of showing the shallowness and greed of this portion of society, but on the whole they’re not caricatured enough to make them unforgettable, in the way that, say, Sairey Gamp is, or Uriah Heep. In fact, I can’t think of a character from this book whose name has really become part of the general public consciousness, as, for example, Fagin has, or Mr Micawber, or Scrooge.

The plot takes an age to get going and I found myself wondering exactly where the focus was – again not a thing I usually find with Dickens. There are always multiple sub-plots and meandering detours, but generally it’s clear where the plot is heading. I found Bella’s story too light to hang a whole book around, while Lizzie’s story, much more darkly satisfying, keeps disappearing for large parts of the book. But the real problem with the plot is the end, so here goes with a major spoiler….

Betty Higden flees from the tender mercies of "the Parish"
Betty Higden flees from the tender mercies of “the Parish”

* * * * * * * MAJOR SPOILER ALERT * * * * * * *

The idea that Mr and Mrs Boffin together with Mr Rokesmith keep up a charade for literally years to teach Bella a lesson is simply too unbelievable even for this reader who happily swallows most of Dickens’ amazing coincidences and contrivances without blinking. The thing is, Noddy’s descent into miserliness is one of the more interesting parts of the book, so that when it turns out to have been an act, it takes away much of the book’s substance. Furthermore, I feel I have to point out that the eventual division of the money represents a major fraud on the Crown, to whom it in fact belongs!

It feels to me as if Dickens had intended the miser storyline to be “true”, and then, having written himself into a corner, had to hastily contrive this twist to get himself back out – the major peril of publishing in instalments.

* * * * * * * END OF MAJOR SPOILER * * * * * * *

Bella and Lizzie are both good heroines, though. Lizzie in particular shows herself to be strong and self-reliant, and the scenes where she resists her own inclinations in the matter of love, or where she sees her brother’s selfishness clearly but still loves him, make her one of his most likeable. Bella’s redemption from mercenary little madam to loving little wife and mother has its nauseating moments, but on the whole she’s rounded and believable, and her alteration is given a proper foundation. Jenny Wren is also intriguing, and perhaps the most traditionally Dickensian caricature in the book – although Dickens clearly liked her, so that the caricature is kind with none of his occasional cruelty. But what on earth was Dickens playing at with all this daughters treating their fathers as children stuff? It was silly enough when it was only Jenny who kept referring to her father as her ‘bad child’ but when Bella started doing it with her father too… well, I’m still wondering what was going on in Dickens’ mind! Though perhaps I don’t really want to know.

Jenny Wren and Mr Riah
Jenny Wren and Mr Riah

I was delighted with the positive way Dickens portrayed Mr Riah, his one Jewish character. Not only is Mr Riah shown as kind and generous, but Dickens takes the opportunity to discuss anti-Semitism and the unfairness of how minorities are often judged by the behaviour of the worst of them. This is Dickens at his best, when he tackles an injustice head on, and I felt it went a long way towards making up for Fagin – a great Dickensian character but not exactly flattering in its portrayal of Jewishness.

“I reflected – clearly reflected for the first time, that in bending my neck to the yoke I was willing to wear, I bent the unwilling necks of the whole Jewish people. For it is not, in Christian countries, with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say, ‘This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.’ Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough – among what peoples are the bad not easily found? – but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say ‘All Jews are alike.’”

Nobody does dark and wicked deeds quite like Dickens, and happily there’s plenty of evil to make us shiver. The filthy and polluted Thames runs through the heart of the book, appearing again and again as the place where the foulest acts take place, and Dickens uses it to great effect as he builds up an atmosphere of tension and horror. I’ve included enough spoilers, so I’ll just say that these river scenes are up there with the best of Dickens’ writing.

The white face of the winter day came sluggishly on, veiled in a frosty mist; and the shadowy ships in the river slowly changed to black substances; and the sun, blood-red on the eastern marshes behind dark masts and yards, seemed filled with the ruins of a forest it had set on fire.

Dark deeds by the river...
Dark deeds by the river…

To sum up, then, there are too many weaknesses in this for it to count as one of Dickens’ absolute best, but then he sets the bar so high. Even as one of his second-tier novels, it’s still a greater book than the vast majority out there, and its strengths still justify a five-star rating. When you’re the greatest writer the world has ever known, you can get away with an occasional clunky plot device or two…

Book 5 of 90Book 5 of 90

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82 thoughts on “Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

  1. It’s been a while since I read this one, thank you for bringing it to mind, FF! I agree, it isn’t one of his best, but it still knocks the spots off most other books. It’s almost as if it was ghost-written for him, or something. As you say, age could have played a part in it, although writing as a serial is a bugger for messing up plots and whatnot. The thing is, because his books are so blinding, there’s bound to be the odd one or two that aren’t quite as spectacular and I suppose this is one of them. Loved the review, though – a super way to start my hump day! 😀

  2. I find personally that the lighter Dickens suits me better than the angry social reformer, but I agree any Dickens is good Dickens.
    And thanks to cosmic coincidence, I have just finished The Pothunters by PG Wodehouse, set in a turn of the century English public school where two of the boys refer to their disliked colleague as “Our Mutual” as they sneak a quick read of Dickens instead of studying their Aeschylus and Thucylides.

    • It depends on my mood to a degree – I like when he’s being humorous, but when he goes into romantic mode, somehow I always feel the need for anti-nausea medication. 😉 But I love when he thunders away at an injustice – like the mob stuff in A Tale of Two Cities!
      Ooh, I haven’t read that Wodehouse – I’ve tended to stick to the well-worn Jeeves and Blandings books. Haha! I do like the idea of schoolboys reading this as a break from heavier stuff, though! I wish I’d gone to that school… 😉

        • Thanks – noted! I must say I totally adore the Bertie Wooster books, but have always been more ambivalent about all his other stuff, including Blandings. Pleasant enough, but without the total brilliance of Bertie and Jeeves in full flow…

          • Back to Dickens, and the cosmicness continues – this week’s email from my fave online bookstore is spotlighting Dickens and had the following to say about OMF …

            Unless drugs, alcohol, financial collapse, illness or overwhelming happiness waylay them, great writers generally get better with age. Our Mutual Friend is the last completed novel by Charles Dickens and is the work of a writer at the very height of his powers. For me personally, this is the novel which altered my opinion about Dickens; in my eyes it lifts him from the rank of popular writer to great writer. Of course, there are all of those elements which made him famous and a delight to read: the outrageous characters, the inescapable pull of his plots, the tear-jerking scenes and the adventure. But there is more.

            You get the feeling that Dickens was enjoying his powers, testing their limits. There is a welcome element of madness here, which lifts every scene from the expected to something other. For those of us familiar with the rest of Dickens’ novels, where genius is sprinkled at irregular intervals, reading Our Mutual Friend is a revelation.

            Though imperfect, sometimes muddled, and in places laughable, Our Mutual Friend is all the more enjoyable for its imperfections. Writers who continue to extend themselves even after they have reached the very height of fame are rare; most only attempt to repeat the efforts which gave them their fame. Dickens did not rest. He was determined to better himself with every novel, not only in the eyes of his reader, but in the eyes of his muse. Our Mutual Friend is a must read Dickens.

            • Intriguing! I can’t really agree that this is up there with the best, or him at the height of his powers. And I thought the characters were pretty toned down in comparison to Dickens’ usual. But on the other hand, I totally agree that it’s a must-read! I think it probably depends on one’s opinion of the caricaturing he uses – because this one has less of it, it probably appeals to people who don’t like that aspect, whereas for me that’s one of the things that make him unique. I do think that to describe the book as “imperfect, sometimes muddled, and in places laughable” is way more brutal than I would be about it, and it does make me chuckle that after saying that, the reviewer then implies that this one is him “bettering” himself! I dread to imagine what s/he’d say about one of the less good ones! 😉

    • I think I enjoy him even more as an adult than I did when I was younger, and I love re-reading him – the first read is always a bit of work keeping everyone straight in my mind, but with a re-read I can just relax and let the glorious language flow over me… 😀 Which ones have you read?

  3. I think you are right about the lack of memorable characters in this one, as I realised how little I remembered of it when I was reading your summary (to my defence, I read it when I was about 15… a few short summers- ahem, decades – ago). I rather like your quotes though, reminds me how visual and creative and colourful Dickens is. I should reread a bit more of him.

    • For some reason, I hadn’t read this one before. It was actually quite an odd experience reading a Dickens for the first time – it’s been ages since I last did that. I wondered if that was affecting my view of it, in fact. Usually on a re-read, I can just concentrate on the stuff I like and skim over the rest. I was surprised at the lack of standout characters, but his language is so fabulous I can forgive him all kinds of things that I’d be much harder on with other writers…

  4. It’s a long time since I’ve read much Dickens (except a couple of attempts to complete Edwin Drood), but I remember enjoying this one the best of ’em all . . . in part, as I recall, because he went easier on the caricatures than in some of his better known novels. I also recall being absolutely gripped by the plot. though I can’t remember a huge amount about the plot itself.

    • I can see that actually – I think the caricatures are something people either love or hate, and mostly I love them. Which is odd, because I’d complain bitterly if a contemporary author did it. I found the plot in this picked up after maybe the first third, and from there on I was absorbed… and I liked the way he ended Lizzie’s story, though I was disappointed with the Bella ending. But for me it’s all comparative and I only really compare Dickens to himself because I think he’s so much better than just about everyone else! So my mild disappointment with this is only because it’s not quite as good as Bleak House or David Copperfield…

  5. Interesting, isn’t it, FictionFan, how events in the author’s life (such as the train accident) can impact so heavily what they write. I can certainly see how, after such an event, and towards the end of his career, Dickens wouldn’t have had the fire he did earlier. That said, though, I agree with you that Dickens had an incredible amount of skill. Even at his weakest, he was heaps better than a lot of people at the top of their game.

    • Yes, indeed – and he even mentioned the accident in his afterword, so it clearly was still weighing on him. Apparently, he had to climb back into the train to get the latest installment of the book out! But I only really compare Dickens to himself because I think he’s in a class of his own – so even when I say this isn’t his best, it’s still a great book. 🙂

    • Did you??? Oh, I do hope you enjoy it! Haha! I found it got off to a slow start, but I promise it did grip me after a bit and is well worth reading. Can’t wait to hear what you think… 😀

  6. I’ve never read Charles Dickens but I really enjoyed your review! Sounds like this one wasn’t as good as others you had read and how interesting he didn’t write again after the train derailment.

    • I should warn you then that it’s my mission in life to force everyone to read Dickens, whether they want to or not! 😉 The thing is that his great books are so great (Bleak House, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, etc), that it’s hard not to compare his other books to them and be a little disappointed. But this is an excellent book in its own right, even if it’s not quite his best. He did start writing another one after this, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but he died before it was finished.

      Don’t forget to add him to your TBR… 😉

        • Hahaha! My pleasure! 😉 Or you might want to try Oliver Twist – it’s only about half the length of the others and would let you know whether you like his style… 🙂

          • Or A Tale of Two Cities, or especially Great Expectations, both of which are about the length of Oliver Twist and for me rank with it among CD’s best.

            I’m amused that the ones you keep mentioning as the goodies are the ones I’m not so enthused about. Clearly, we (by which I mean you and my much younger self) seek different things from Dickens; it’s to his credit that he managed to satisfy both readerships!

            • Haha! Yes, he does manage to cater to different audiences even though his basic style remains similar. I love A Tale of Two Cities – one of my absolute favourites – but I don’t think of it as ‘typical’ so I rarely recommend it to new people. And I did love Great Expectations the first time I read it, but then University ruined it for me by making me analyse it to death, and tragically it’s never recovered from the experience…

  7. I always wonder what is/was going through a writer’s mind while writing their books – especially in the case of well-known writers who have written many novels. Sometimes it says a lot about their books, and why some are better than others.
    I do love his social commentary and dark deeds. His London lent itself well to such things.

    • Usually I try to avoid knowing too much about the writer in case it stops me being able to get lost in the story, but Dickens is the exception. I think he himself is as fascinating as any of the characters in his books – such a larger-than-life figure. I bet he’d have been fun at parties!

      Absolutely – I still don’t think anyone else has matched him for the way he writes dark deeds – real edge of horror – and I love when he gets angry and thunders at us!

  8. Excellent review, FF! I love that you highlighted Dickens’s emotional journey, which comes through in his books. This was not one of my favorites (those being A Tale of Two Cities and Little Dorrit). But I appreciated your review.

    I’m just glad to finally return online after my computer broke last week. 🙂 Still waiting for it to return from the manufacturer who had to fix it, thanks to the warranty. But at least I have an interim computer to use in the meantime.

    • Thanks, L. Marie! 😀 Yes, this won’t rank as one of my favourites either – though like any Dickens I thoroughly enjoyed it despite the weaknesses. A Tale of Two Cities is brill, but I don’t remember being quite so wowed by Little Dorrit – long overdue for a re-read though! Glad you’re back! Any time my computer or internet dies, I discover just how addicted I’ve become to online life – I begin to go crazy after only a few hours. And it often takes so long to get them fixed – so I’m glad you have a spare to tide you over. Wise woman! 🙂

  9. I think I read this many years ago, and although much of the detail now escapes me I do remember liking it at the time. As you say, probably not his best, but still a good tale. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

    • I always enjoy Dickens and really only compare him to himself, since I think he’s so unique – so even when I’m saying one of his books isn’t his best, it can still be great in parts, as this one is. Glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

    • Yep, that’s the thing about Dickens – you can really only compare his books with each other, because there are very few other authors who even come close to his standard…

  10. I’ve only read A Christmas Carol (many times,) A Tale of Two Cities, and Hard Times. I’ve had Great Expectations on my shelf for years – maybe this is the year I read it? I do have to “read a classic that’s intimidated me” as one of my goals this year! Would you recommend a different one?

    • I think Great Expectations is a good choice – I really liked it the first time I read it, though University sadly spoiled it for me later by making me over-analyse it. My favourite of all is Bleak House – in fact, I genuinely believe it’s the best book ever written in the English language. (Though I haven’t read them all… 😉 ) But Oliver Twist is another good one for a new-ish Dickens reader – it’s a reasonable lengthe with some great stuff in it. The big, long books (Bleak House, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby etc.,) can be quite off-putting just by their sheer size and complexity, until you really get into his style of writing… 🙂

        • Oh, I do hope you enjoy Bleak House whenever you get around to it! It has everything, including one of the best murder scenes – scratch that, THE best murder scene – in fiction! I love A Tale of Two Cities – I always think it’s one of his more under-rated ones, maybe because of the historical setting. So I’m really glad you loved it! 😀

    • Hurrah! It always makes me happy to hear of other Dickens fans – people of excellent taste! 😉 I re-read A Tale of Two Cities a year or two ago, and realised I’d forgotten how great it is – and quite differenet in some ways from his usual style. I hope you enjoy it! 😀

  11. What a great review! I remember loving this one, but as it was one of the first Dickens novels I’d read, I didn’t have much to compare it with at the time. I’ll have to read it again one day – but not until I’ve finished working through the rest of his books as I still have a few unread.

    • Thank you! 😀 I don’t know why I’d never read this one before, but I’m glad I finally did. Even though I don’t think it’s one of his absolute best, it’s still head and shoulders above most of what’s out there – which is why I love Dickens so much. I’ve got into a routine in recent years of reading a Dickens book over Christmas each year, and that’s making me fill in any gaps in my reading plus letting me enjoy some great re-reads!

  12. Hmm, I don’t remember reading this one in school, perhaps because we were busy reading some of his more popular books. At any rate, now that I’ve read your outstanding review, I find no need to wade through it, preferring to bury my nose into something a bit less … hefty!!

    • Yes, somehow I’d managed to miss this one too. Ah, see, I love getting lost in one of his huge novels – I even prefer to read them in hardback just because it’s like reading an ancient tome, plus I love the illustrations! This one is just short of 1000 pages… 🙂

  13. I’m glad you reviewed this one as to be honest I’ve forgotten most of it although I think I read it nigh on thirty years ago so perhaps unsurprisingly. At the time I think I missed the more positive portrayal of the Jewish character, as you say, if nothing he faced squarely up to the injustice he saw around him at the time. I also have to agree that even his not so good books have so much to offer – I may have to squeeze one in at some point this year.

    • For some reason, I hadn’t read this one before – can’t think why! Despite my criticisms of parts of it, it’s still a great book – I love his descriptive writing so much I can forgive him for anything else. I’m in the habit now of reading one of his books over Christmas each year, and that stops them getting lost for ever on the old TBR…

  14. I did not know what you were going to say about that book because, like you, It is wonderful in place sand other places make me wonder if you had read two different books. But, yes, Dickens is like that. He could make you sing and other times you want to edit him.

    • Yes! That’s why I love him so much – his writing is so great, especially the descriptive stuff, that I’m willing to overlook the bits that don’t work so well, or that just annoy me. But I’m kinda glad he more or less edited himself – I love the way the books ramble all over the place, even though I’d be hugely critical of almost any other author who did that! He’s in a class of his own, as far as I’m concerned… 😀

  15. I’ve been saving this post for a chance to read it slowly – what a great review! And I mustered the will power to skip over the spoiler alert – thanks for that! I am steadily working through Dickens’ catalogue – currently slogging through Curiosity Shop (and yes, it has felt like a slog). Since I’m sort of reading chronologically – sort of – it may be a while before I reach this one. Which means, on reflection, I probably could have read the spoiler, since I’ll have forgotten it by the time I come to read the book for myself! But seriously, he is such a wonderful writer. Astonishingly we never read a single Dickens book at school, but I was required to read Hard Times for my OU degree and that put me off anything more for a long time. I’m so pleased to be finally getting to know his works now. It’s never too late!

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, I never know with classics whether to include spoilers or not – so many people have read them or seen versions on fim and TV. I’d never include a spoiler about the end of a contemporary novel but it feels different with Dickens somehow. I’ve read most of the books over the years, although I’m occasionally surprised to discover one I’ve missed – like this one. But some of them are definitely harder work than others – this one took me several weeks, even though I was enjoying it. I have to be in a certain mood to enjoy this kind of writing where you really have to pay attention to the language. I never read him at school either, thoguh I did start reading him in my late teens – and then University nearly destroyed him for me by making me over-analyse them – I’ve never been able to properly enjoy Great Expectations since…

      • I remain amazed (and somewhat horrified) at the depth of influence a poor teacher, or the untimely introduction of a writer/book can have on young minds. It has taken me 40 years to get past my introduction to Shakespeare, 30 years to overcome the impact of Hard Times on my appreciation of Dickens… Of course it also works the other way: inspirational teachers can shape us for life 🙂

        • I agree – and in fact think the forced reading of books that people aren’t ready for probably puts many people off reading for life. I had a huge argument at school because they were insistent that I ‘did’ two war novels for my o-level exams, and I hated war novels. I won, but only because I was stubborn, and then when they chose two other books for me to do, half the class moved over to do them too. On the other hand, I was incredibly lucky to have a drama teacher who loved Shakespeare and had the ability to pass her enthusiasm on to us. But the University English Dept was the place that nearly destroyed reading for me altogether – so snobby and pretentious about what books were ‘worth’ reading. Happily I don’t think it’s quite that bad any more…

  16. Ha ha! Well my little grandsons are already suffering due to their grandmother stealing their chocolate. Alongside that, a little more suffering will be nothing!

  17. It’s funny you mention that none of the characters have remained in the mouths of readers, for I’ve never even heard of this book! I do use Dickens’s serialized work as an example of how serials have been around for a long time. We discuss how novelists are using platforms like Twitter and cell-phones to create new types of works that rely on anticipation, much like Dickens did when he was writing. Do you know if Dickens’s plots were ever swayed by reader reactions to the most recent part of the story published?

    • Very often, I believe! I think because they were usually published in his own periodicals he was very aware of how well they were selling, or not. In Martin Chuzzlewit, I believe sales were quite low at first, so he wrote in the whole American section just to boost them.


      And there’s one of the books – unfortunately I can’t remember which at the moment – where in the early chapters he includes a character based on a real woman, who was very hurt at his portrayal and wrote and told him so. So in the second half of the book the character is completely toned down and all the caricaturing is stripped out. If I remember which one it was, I’ll let you know…

      • I was thinking more about serials and how a lot of the most popular TV shows right now are serials, like The Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, and Breaking Bad. Fans often tweet about these shows as they watch them, giving creators insight as to how the next season could go and do better.

        • I think he changed the end of one or two as a response to public reaction. Great Expectations is one that has two endings – a sad one, which was the original, and a happy one because the public protested. And he came under huge pressure to let Little Nell live at the end of The Old Curiosity Shop, but I think he held out over that one.

          Of course, Conan Doyle famously brought Sherlock Holmes back from the dead as a response to public pressure…

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