In terms of building the expanded world of Sherlock Holmes, this story takes leaps and bounds over the previous entries, and indeed most of the ones yet to come. If you’re looking for background on the Great Detective, the revelations here are fast and few, but they are impossibly big and carry ramifications that no self-respecting aficionado can ignore.
The first thing to point out (aside from yet again spelling out Holmes’ “aversion to women”) is that this will be one of the few times Watson will refer to the Great Detective by his first name. It is such a rarity that it actually feels strange to civilized ears to hear it in context, regardless of how many times pop culture would like to hammer on it. This leads us to point two.
The reason for referring to Holmes by first name is, of course, to distinguish him from his older brother. Mycroft Holmes makes his debut in this tale, and though possessing of the same keen intellect and deductive faculties as his little brother, the two men could not be more different. For starters, Mycroft is actually better than Sherlock in these regards. For this reason, we learn Sherlock has brought a case or two to Mycroft that he couldn’t break himself so that he might work backwards from the solution to find evidence. But where our hero uses his powers of reasoning to track things down to their conclusion, Mycroft “doesn’t have the energy” of his brother (re: he’s lazy beyond measure). He has no desire to be in the world or of it at the ground level. A point made by his brother to Watson is that Mycroft would rather be accused of being wrong than track down the proof that he is right… and he is pretty much always right. Interesting character trait, no?
But it goes even further than that. In order to create that separation between himself and the world, Mycroft has helped to found the Diogenes Club, a curiosity of a gentlemen’s club that says as much or more about Mycroft as his brother can offer. The rules for members are simple. It’s men only (again, that aversion to women). No patron is allowed to acknowledge the presence of another. The Stranger’s Room is the only room in which members are even allowed to talk. Three offenses leads to probable expulsion by the committee. There are versions of this, most notably in Jeremy Brett’s series, where expulsion can happen if your shoes so much as squeak when you walk. It amuses me to no end that the same episode shows people reading newspapers, as if this can be accomplished in total silence. That paper will rustle or crinkle sooner or later, folks. Suffice to say, the club has become a haven for the most unsociable and shy people in London, and the quiet atmosphere that results is quite the sanctuary to those who otherwise can’t operate well in the outside world. Sherlock Holmes himself says he finds it “soothing.” Take that how you will from a man who, lest we forget, gets his kicks firing bullets into the wall at home and shoots up with cocaine from time to time because he’s bored.
Speaking as someone who deals with Sensory Processing Disorder… this is my kind of place. Seriously, a few tweaks here and there to its operation to make it viable to someone like myself, sign me up. I’ll be in a back room somewhere with a book, finally able to immerse myself without distraction and without the need for noise cancelling headphones simply to normalize on some level. Bliss!
Sadly, this is how I know it’s fiction. Doesn’t make me love it any less.
A bit of foreshadowing here, because I feel it’s warranted before we go further. In the later collection His Last Bow (which we’ll get to eventually), “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans” reveals that Mycroft is the indispensable head of a brain-trust behind the British government, making deductions that result in state policy. Think about that for a moment. Essentially, if Mycroft so much as nods his head, the throne and/or the Prime Minister points a finger, and things happen. At least, this is how it’s often interpreted by pop culture. From this idea, many, many, many writers have gone into a frenzy of speculation that suggests the Diogenes Club is a front for the British Secret Service, acting as the predecessor organization for MI5 and ultimately MI6. Indeed, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is one of several stories that have since made that direct connection (I believe League was the first to do it, with one of James Bond’s predecessors in a role similar to that of M). It’s fun to think about, absolutely, but if you go back to the original statement about the brain-trust, that’s literally as far as Arthur Conan Doyle takes it. That hint is more than enough to pique curiosity, and long before we even get that hint, there are whiffs of that potential right here in the nature of the story that introduces both Mycroft and the Diogenes Club. Makes me smile to consider what ACD might think about all of this now, given that for a man of zero ambition, Mycroft seems to have done alright for himself. No matter what, that reaction would be priceless.
So with all that in mind, it’s easy to see how the addition of Mycroft and the Diogenes Club opens up a completely new dynamic to the Holmes canon. Our detective has, from the beginning, operated in the affairs of other countries, but this gives him a plausible and direct bead with which to operate in his own.
Enough preamble. Let’s discuss the story!
The story opens with some random conversation between Holmes and Watson, wherein Holmes reveals the existence and description of his aforementioned brother, Mycroft, and the Diogenes Club. Opting to introduce Watson to these twin curiosities, the pair end walking into another case where Mycroft has no energy to go forth and solve it and passes it on to his brother accordingly. In this matter, the case revolves around Mr. Melas, a Greek interpreter and neighbor of Mycroft who has consulted the elder Holmes following an unnerving experience.
Melas was called upon one evening by one Harold Latimer to translate on a matter of business. En route in Latimer’s carriage, the windows are rigged up with paper and curtains so that the ultimate destination could not be known. Melas makes note of various types of road condition, but he’s unable to discern his location during the whole of the two-hour journey. Latimer also wielded as an implied threat a lead-filled bludgeon. Despite protests, Latimer revealed that he would compensate Melas, but threatened consequences should any detail be made public.
The destination was dark, and Melas could get only a general idea of a large property as he was rushed from the coach into the house. In the room where he was led, Melas tells of man already there, one Wilson Kemp, who is noted to be nervous and giggles incessantly. The room is marked by deep-pile carpet, a marble mantle, and a Japanese suit of armor, all of which further suggests a great deal of money and power.
Another man is brought in, thin, emaciated, with “sticking plaster” all over his face including a large piece sealing his mouth. Melas, knowing things were amiss at this point, carefully observes that his kidnappers are completely in need of his services as an interpreter and used this to his advantage to learn more from the prisoner brought before him. Latimer and Kemp have Melas translate demands regarding some papers that need signing, and Melas adds short questions of his own to the exchange. The prisoner, who must answer by pencil and paper, responds. The prisoner’s name is Kratides. He’s been in London three weeks, has no idea where he is now, and he is being starved.
From his answers to Latimer, Melas learned that Kratides was being coerced into signing over some property, and a woman is involved. Latimer warns his prisoner that his resistance will do him no good.
Melas is convinced he’d have extracted the entire story from this exchange, but the aforementioned woman burst in. She recognizes Kratides as “Paul,” and he managed to remove the plaster enough to call her “Sophy.” It’s clear neither expected to see the other. The exchange, however, is enough to end the situation. Melas is pushed back into the coach and dropped off in Wandsworth Common, far from his own home. He makes it just in time to catch the last train to Victoria from Clapham Junction. Shortly thereafter, he appealed to Mycroft at the Diogenes Club, who in turn now turns it over to his brother Sherlock.
An advertisement already placed looking for information from the public bears fruit. One Mr. Davenport knows the woman Sophy; she currently resides at the Myrtles, a house in Beckenham. Both Holmeses and Watson decide to go to her, with Inspector Gregson and Melas in tow. But Melas has already been intercepted by a man fitting Kemp’s description.
Securing a search warrant, the group proceeds to the house in question which turns out to be the same one Melas described. And it’s been abandoned. Tracks indicate a fully-laden coach recently pulled away. Melas and Kratides are bound in a closed room where charcoal has been lit so as to gas them. Melas recovers thanks to Watson, but Kratides is already dead.
Kratides is revealed to be Sophy’s brother, and he never signed any papers. Sophy’s friends contacted him in Greece regarding Latimer, which led him into the bad situation. A news story from Hungary provides the only further information. It describes the deaths of “two Englishmen who had been travelling with a woman.” The deaths are attributed to a fight between the two, but Holmes believes Sophy to have avenged herself and her brother by stabbing them both.
I personally hope that’s true, and I’m pleased to say it wasn’t merely just another mishap at sea that claimed them. As cases go, I’ve always found this one to be one of the more compelling ones, and certainly one of the most memorable above and beyond just for Mycroft and the Diogenes Club. That said, it’s still just weird to call him “Sherlock.” No matter how fitting it may be for Mycroft, it doesn’t feel natural to me at all, like there’s some kind of literary injunction at work that makes it taboo.