“To act, Sherlock--to act!” cried Mycroft, springing to his feet. “All my instincts are against this explanation. Use your powers! Go to the scene of the crime! See the people concerned! Leave no stone unturned! In all your career you have never had so great a chance of serving your country.”
“Well, well!” said Holmes, shrugging his shoulders. “Come, Watson! And you, Lestrade, could you favour us with your company for an hour or two?
Oh, my, where to start with this one? There is so much to love here:
- (M)ycroft who is either the first human computer or the first, erm, ....."M" or both?
- The underlying story of increasing political tensions between Britain and Germany?
- The brilliant inclusion of the London Underground, which has been around since the 1860s but which seemed too modern for earlier Holmes stories that still featured hansom cabs and which therefore is a definite switch to a more modern era (even if this is set in 1895)?
First off, let me say this: I love a good spy story, but when I think of Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, I think of mystery, murder, blackmail, and strange dogs - not of spies. And yet, in this story we have all of this (minus the dog) neatly fitted into a story of espionage that holds its own when compared to any of the short stories by Ian Fleming - I might say it is even better because it does not feature that awful guy Bond.
It's even pretty satisfying when looking at how stories of espionage - the better ones, in my opinion, anyway - relate to the political context in their time and show some of the author's awareness of the current affairs at the time of writing.
Although the story is set in 1895, it was written in 1908 and there is a definite sense of the political tensions between Britain and Germany of the time. I mean, essentially, this story is about the naval arms race of the time, which was one of the key issues of contempt between the monarchs of both countries.
Reading this in hindsight, it also makes me wonder to what extent stories like The Bruce-Partington Plans
and Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands
(first published in 1903) may have influenced public opinion, given that public opinion was not yet used (has it ever been?) to separate fact from fiction? We know that Childers' book inspired the Admiralty to consider building a naval base. We know that later adaptations of Sherlock Holmes were used to boost morale and promote the war efforts during WWII. But to consider that this sub-plot had already been written into the original Holmes stories? That was something that had not stood out for me on previous reads.
Of course the last story in this collection, The Last Bow, would make this even clearer, but the Bruce-Partington Plans were written years before that famous last story.
So, in this story we are getting to know more of Mycroft, who clearly is the unofficial head of the intelligence services ... which may have existed in a different form from the later MI5 and MI6 that we know from later popular series, but which nevertheless have existed:
"By the way, do you know what Mycroft is?”
I had some vague recollection of an explanation at the time of the Adventure of the Greek Interpreter. “You told me that he had some small office under the British government.”
“I did not know you quite so well in those days. One has to be discreet when one talks of high matters of state. You are right in thinking that he under the British government. You would also be right in a sense if you said that occasionally he IS the British government.” “My dear Holmes!”
“I thought I might surprise you. Mycroft draws four hundred and fifty pounds a year, remains a subordinate, has no ambitions of any kind, will receive neither honour nor title, but remains the most indispensable man in the country.”
“Well, his position is unique. He has made it for himself. There has never been anything like it before, nor will be again. He has the tidiest and most orderly brain, with the greatest capacity for storing facts, of any man living. The same great powers which I have turned to the detection of crime he has used for this particular business. The conclusions of every department are passed to him, and he is the central exchange, the clearinghouse, which makes out the balance. All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience. We will suppose that a minister needs information as to a point which involves the Navy, India, Canada and the bimetallic question; he could get his separate advices from various departments upon each, but only Mycroft can focus them all, and say offhand how each factor would affect the other. They began by using him as a short-cut, a convenience; now he has made himself an essential. In that great brain of his everything is pigeonholed and can be handed out in an instant. Again and again his word has decided the national policy. He lives in it. He thinks of nothing else save when, as an intellectual exercise, he unbends if I call upon him and ask him to advise me on one of my little problems. But Jupiter is descending to-day."
As I mentioned, this is also the first story that features the London Underground in its plot. This is a huge departure from the previous Holmes stories and shows (just like the introduction of electricity in a previous story) the change - not in the ACD's surroundings (the Tube had been going since the 1860s) - in the author's attitude towards his protagonists. Instead of being firmly implanted in the Victorian era, this mention of the Underground - rather than the overground rail network - shows the characters embracing modernism. That is quite striking when reading the canon in order of publication.
Lastly, I am keen to point out that this is also the story that so prominently features that odious yellow fog that I so hate in wannabe Victoriana, but that was a real thing and caused serious health issues at the time.
I say I hate the mention of this yellow fog in other works, but I really do. This is mostly because so many modern authors seem to rely on the mention of the fog to create an atmosphere of Victorian London. For me this backfires in most cases because: it doesn't matter how many times someone mentions the bloody fog, it does not make the story more Victorian if other details are completely wrong. Also, the fog alone does not create atmosphere; the rest of the writing has to support it. The worst offender that I have ever come across was David Morrell's Murder as a Fine Art - 96 references of the fog, 0 atmosphere.
However, one of the many fine reasons of why I love ACD's writing is that he's already shown us how creating a setting and atmosphere using the blasted fog should be done:
In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London. From the Monday to the Thursday I doubt whether it was ever possible from our windows in Baker Street to see the loom of the opposite houses. The first day Holmes had spent in cross-indexing his huge book of references. The second and third had been patiently occupied upon a subject which he hand recently made his hobby--the music of the Middle Ages. But when, for the fourth time, after pushing back our chairs from breakfast we saw the greasy, heavy brown swirl still drifting past us and condensing in oily drops upon the windowpanes, my comrade’s impatient and active nature could endure this drab existence no longer. He paced restlessly about our sitting room in a fever of suppressed energy, biting his nails, tapping the furniture, and chafing against inaction.