For those readers who get a grin from such things, this case was referenced in two previous accounts, “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” and “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty.” (We’ll come back to discuss this at the end of this post.) Likewise, Watson tell us up front that this case wasn’t even going to be included for publication, such was its importance and potential fallout.
Peace or war. These are the stakes by which Sherlock Holmes finds himself being consulted by two prominent European heads of state regarding a missing document, the contents of which must at all costs be concealed from the public. The Prime Minister, Lord Bellinger, and the Secretary of State for European Affairs, Trelawney Hope, are reluctant to give details regarding what’s in the document, at which point Holmes bids them good day as this case is clearly a waste of time for two very important men such as themselves. Subtle, no? Of course they concede and reveal all, but Watson is not at liberty to tell us. We know only that the letter is from a foreign potentate, and that it disappeared from Hope’s dispatch box when his wife was out at the theater for a few hours. No one knew of the document, including his wife, thus clearing even the servants from guessing what was in the box to take.
Holmes assumes the document must make its way speedily to foreign powers through the use of spies, and when he begins his list, Watson makes him sit up in surprise with the news that one name on that list — Eduardo Lucas — has been murdered in the window of opportunity when the document disappeared. Hope’s wife, Lady Hilda Trelawney Hope arrives before Holmes can move on this information, inquiring after the contents of the stolen document. Holmes refuses her, stating only that the consequences are dire should the document not be recovered. She begs Holmes to keep her visit secret from her husband.
Four days following the murder of the spy, a suspect is captured, a woman whom Lucas married in Paris under an alias. She’s useless as a witness, however, as she has gone insane. So convenient. Lestrade calls Holmes to the murder site to examine a second blood stain. The victim bled over a drugget, soaking through, but there is no stain on the floor beneath. There is, however, one under the opposite edge of the carpet, meaning someone moved things around. Holmes tells Lestrade to take the constable in the back room to obtain a confession, which he does with all due *ahem* enthusiasm.
In the meantime, Holmes pulls the carpet aside, locating an empty hiding place in the floor. When Lestrade returns, he reveals the unauthorized visitor was a young woman who fainted at the sight of blood and required a brandy to revive her, which the constable was only too eager to retrieve. While he was doing doing that, she slipped out. Holmes offers a photograph to the constable on his way out, and the visitor is recognized.
Holmes returns to the Hope residence to confront Lady Hilda of the theft. She denies persistently but eventually caves under threat of scandal. Lucas was blackmailing her with a letter written by her years before in order to get the document. She did not know the full leverage of the document, but she feared to lose her husband’s love, hence the successful blackmail. Upon learning the document would impact his career and honor, she went to Holmes to verify this. The document in question is still in her possession, and Holmes bids her to return it to the dispatch box using her duplicate key. When Hope returns with the Prime Minister, Holmes bluffs his way around matters, telling them the evidence has convinced him the document never left the grounds nor indeed the box itself. Hope is beside himself with relief that the document is safe, and Lady Hilda’s part in this matter is unrevealed. The Prime Minister, however, suspects there is more to this story, and Holmes brushes him off. “We also have our diplomatic secrets.”
Recalling the aforementioned stories wherein this story was touched upon, “The Yellow Face” declared this case a failure with “the strongest features of interest.” Clearly, it’s not a failure, but such is how Watson chose to cover it up for misdirection. “The Naval Treaty” gives a more weighty account as Watson says the case has “interest of such importance and implicates so many of the first families in the kingdom that for many years it will be impossible to make it public.” The characters he names do not appear in this tale, implying there could be a corollary adventure to this tale or perhaps a wholly separate story featuring a second stain.
Some Sherlockian scholars out there have suggested the “foreign potentate” who wrote the letter at the center of this case was none other than Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Without doubt his policies were controversial at best in Britain, made clear by the advent of World War I a decade after this story was published. Despite Watson’s coyness about trying to hide when the case was solved in the first place, references in the Sherlockian world suggest the date as July 1888, even though Watson says it took place in autumn. To give you a further idea of just how far down the rabbit hole this goes, one of the spies listed in this story will appear again in “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” a tale that features Mycroft Holmes wherein the spy, Oberstein, is listed as one of the three most prominent agents in London. That story is set seven years later.
To piece this altogether… in the years before World War I, the fear of a total European war was something on the minds of the collective public, as surely as the idea of nuclear war loomed over the heads of the Cold War generation. It was never a question of if it would happen, but rather a question of when. Just as the idea that Holmes could catch the bad guys in the gaslight era where Jack the Ripper remained at large, it was comforting to know that he was also hard at work averting political meltdowns at the source (keeping in mind that many readers were — and still are — convinced that Holmes is a real person). For literary purposes 100 years after that war, it’s just fascinating to see how the pieces just drop into place so magnificently. The character of Holmes is consistent, but his evolution alongside his world was organic, keeping up with the times. It contributed to his popularity that he refused to stay rooted in one era, much the same way as with, say, James Bond or with virtually any superhero you can name who lasted more than a decade in the public eye. Holmes set that precedent for all of them, and thus he remains the most published and/or portrayed character in multimedia today, with Count Dracula as his only real competition on this front for the same reasons. Food for thought.
This story concludes the collection The Return of Sherlock Holmes.