“We must fall back upon the old axiom that when all other contingencies fail, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
I’m just going to come right out and say it. This is one of my favorites in the entire canon. This is in part because it’s an incredibly fun story, one of the best written in the series, and in part because of what it offers beyond the dreams of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Let’s dig in.
The thick London smog is parted by the arrival of Mycroft Holmes, the older brother of the Great Detective. The very fact that he’s on the streets at all tells Holmes and Watson it’s important, though Holmes already knows of his impending arrival, having received a telegram. Mycroft comes bearing a mystery from the top levels of government regarding some plans for a secret submarine. Seven of the ten pages were found with the body of Arthur Cadogan West, a young clerk in the government office at Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. He was discovered next to the Underground tracks near the Aldgate tube station. His head was crushed. There appears to have been no robbery. He had little money with him, theater tickets, and most telling, no Underground ticket. What is missing are three pages of the plans that would allow Britain’s enemies to build their own Bruce-Pardington submarine. It seems that Cadogan West stole the plans with intent to sell them, and that he fell — or was pushed — from a train, a hypothesis put forward by Inspector Lestrade. We all know it’s never that easy. Upon examining the switchtrack, Holmes deduces that the man was killed elsewhere, and his body fell from atop the train, thus providing the reason for a lack of a ticket.
Holmes proceeds with the investigation, paying a visit to Sir James Walter, who was in charge of the plans. He arrives too late, however, for it is learned from his brother, Colonel Valentine Walter, that Sir James apparently died of a broken heart from the loss of his honor in the wake of the stolen papers. West’s fiancée is more helpful. It seems that West commented to her how easily a traitor could attain “the secret” with a mind to how much a foreign agent would pay for it. On the night in question, the two of them were walking to the theater, when West dashed off to his nearby office, never to be seen again.
The office becomes Holmes’ next point of inquiry. The senior clerk, Sidney Johnson, informs Holmes that, as always, he was the last man out of the office that night, and assures him the papers were in the safe. Anyone looking to steal them would need three keys: to the building, to the office, and to the safe. No duplicate keys were found on West’s body, and only the late Sir James had all three keys. It turns out also that one of the recovered pages might be just as indispensable as the missing three to a foreign agent. This is a point that will prove inestimably important when Holmes later discovers that, even when the iron shutters are closed, it is still possible to see in side the office from outside.
At the nearby Underground station, a clerk tells Holmes that he remembers seeing West that evening, visibly shaken. West took a train to London Bridge.
Acting on information from Mycroft concerning known foreign agents in the area, Holmes identifies Hugo Oberstein, an agent who left town shortly after West’s murder. He learns that Oberstein’s house backs onto an above-ground Underground line, and that trains stop frequently under his windows. West’s body was laid on the train roof — evidence suggests he was not dropped from height. The remaining questions are now who killed him and why.
Holmes and Watson, of course, break into the empty house. Examining the windows, they find the grime smudged, and there is a blood stain. A train stops right under the window, suggesting how easily done it would be to lift a dead man and deposit the body onto the train’s roof. Messages from the Daily Telegraph allude to a business deal, posted by “Pierrot.” Holmes posts a similarly cryptic message in the Times, demanding a meeting, and signing it with the same name. The hope is that the real thief — not West — will show up at Oberstein’s house.
The ploy works. Colonel Valentine Walter arrives to find Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, and Mycroft lying in wait. He confesses to the theft, but swears it was Oberstein who murdered West. He says that West followed the Colonel to Oberstein’s, where Oberstein beat his head in and then kept three of the papers because they could not be copied in time. The other seven would be left on the body, leading the authorities to blame West for the theft.
Colonel Walter was in debt, and Holmes’ ruse of an invite to return to Oberstein’s to claim the fourth page was too enticing to pass up. Oberstein is sentenced to 15 years in prison, the missing pages of the plans recovered from his trunk. Colonel Walter dies in prison shortly after incarceration.
For his efforts on behalf of the country, Holmes is given an emerald tie pin to mark his service. The august lady who awards him with it is not named, but the story is set in 1895, and Watson drops more than enough hints to confirm her as none other than Queen Victoria.
* * * * *
This story circles back around to an idea I’ve mentioned a few times in the past elsewhere across the whole of this site. When it rears its head, I feel the need to call it out because it’s something that plays my heartstrings like a harp. It’s not so much the story itself, which is always a good time for me, but rather what it opens up in terms of literary possibility.
At the top of the story, in one of the coolest additions to the canon, Holmes reveals to Watson that his brother Mycroft has secured for himself a unique, self-created position within the British government, that at times he is the British government and all that implies. I suspect that modern readers take this for granted on some level, but it really is quite impressive when all ramifications are considered. I touched on this back when Mycroft was first introduced to us in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” but I have considerably more new readers now than I did then, and thus more people to tell. Besides, if you’re not neck-deep into this stuff in the same manner I am, odds are you may not even be aware of the level of awesome that this story drops into place. That’s not intended as an insult or any kind of smugness on my part. This is simply one of those specialty niches in the annals of pulp fiction that separates the uber-geek from the casual reader only because the mainstream media hasn’t yet found it. As always, I like to share and bring more people into the fold for love of the game. As Sherlock Holmes tells his brother, “I play the game for the game’s own sake.” If you’re reading this and are of like mind and heart in this regard, I invite you to geek out with me now.
As we learned from Mycroft’s initial appearance, he is a member of the Diogenes Club, a think tank of sorts cleverly disguised as an exclusive gentlemen’s club with some truly bizarre rules and restrictions. At this point, this is where the Sherlockians who play “The Game” get tied in with something they’d rather not acknowledge because it sees their own geekiness at their own level and doubles down hard. According to what’s been laid out in connecting, non-canonical fictions, the Diogenes Club, which is to say Mycroft himself, is the original M. Does that sound familiar to you? It should. M is a function that’s evolved and passed down. Thanks to Ian Fleming, we know M to be the head of MI6, the top level ultra-secret branch of the British Secret Service, which has only in recent years, comparatively speaking, been revealed to be an actual organization. Think about the ramifications of that idea by itself. At this point in the timeline, there is no MI6 yet, but according to the building lore, the need for that would come about in the wake of World War I and with the advent of World War II. This story drops that idea into place nicely, crossing reality and fantasy seamlessly.
I’ve posted about this a few times before, but if you’re new to all this, what I’m telling you about is the “secret” world of connected pulp fiction known as the Wold Newton Universe. You can learn a little more of that HERE and HERE.
If you’re familiar with the movies or TV series Highlander, it works pretty much the same way. In fact, Highlander is part of the WNU, whether it knows it or not. In the TV series, it is revealed the immortals are watched and recorded by a secret society of mortal chroniclers known as The Watchers. When the immortals cross swords or otherwise come in contact with one another, you get varying accounts of how that went unfolded.
Applying this idea on the larger scale in the manner the Sherlockians unleashed in treating the Great Detective as an historical personage, the nuts and bolts of it is that Sherlock Holmes shares our real world with a number of other literary characters, the adventures of whom are “chronicled” in the form of pulp fiction, sometimes so outlandish that no one would believe it. Beneath each of those stories is a “true” event of which the world at large remains blissfully unaware.
It’s the original shared universe, the Mother of All Crossovers, the sort of thing that DC and Marvel wish they could pull off in their wildest imaginations precisely because they’re trying to connect it all up, writing themselves into corners, and rebooting every few years. Don’t get me wrong, their longevity and success speaks volumes, and indeed, a few of their respective heroes are part of the WNU, but by and large these ideas are separate entities. The WNU was stitched together after the fact, with the stories themselves guiding the way forward in ways their original authors never intended, shoehorning into it stories that, on the face of it, shouldn’t belong in together. You can blame the Sherlockians for this outright, and this is the point where someone as arrogant as myself calls out the whole lot of them to put up or shut up. If Holmes is as real a person as they claim, then why not James Bond, Zorro, The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, or Captain James T. Kirk? Ok, I’m not that arrogant; let the Sherlockians have their fun. I mean, seriously… when it comes to deep level geekery, who am I to talk? I love, love, LOVE this entire concept.
The Sherlockians would likely ask why there’s a need for such a literary equivalent to Frankenstein’s monster as the WNU. My reply would be much the answer they give regarding Holmes: because the love and respect of the characters and the stories are there. The WNU helps to keep characters and stories alive, where pop culture once revered them but has since all but forgotten. In addition to keeping the pulp tradition alive and well, it also keeps alive the curiosity and wonder within the audiences in ways that the mainstream media is always seeking to tap but never quite seems to find the mark. As such, and as ever, Sherlock Holmes is and remains one of the foremost ambassadors to a much larger world, real or imagined. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could never have conceived of this, but I like to think he would approve.