Thursday, February 06, 2014

A Naval Idea

By the time of "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty," it seemed that Arthur Conan Doyle was keen on switching up his established Sherlock Holmes formula in various ways. He'd done a "flashback" to Holmes' earliest case, he'd brought in a family member, he'd depicted cases where Holmes did not "get his man" in the end -- anything to mix things up for his readers (and possibly to keep his own boredom at bay?). This time out, he lengthened the formula.

"The Adventure of the Naval Treaty" is the longest of all the Holmes short stories to this point, and noticeably so. Obviously, Doyle had written two novels with the character to kick things off, but since then he had settled down into a short story formula that went generally went like this: a vignette about Holmes and Watson to get things rolling, a recitation of the case background by the client, Holmes mysteriously going about his investigations and/or baiting a trap (usually overnight), and then Holmes' reveal of the solution (usually the next day). "Naval Treaty" adds extra steps: Holmes fails to crack the case in his first night of deliberations, returns to his client and receives an update of events that transpired in the interim, then baits his trap for that evening, to ultimately crack the case on day three.

I believe Doyle added this wrinkle in an effort to stress the high stakes of this crime. A man has been asked to copy out a sensitive treaty between England and a friendly country, but it's been stolen from his possession. The client fears it man be sold to England's enemies, scuttling the entire treaty and causing an international incident. (In a fun reflection of the times in which this was written, the two named enemies are France and Russia.) Some online critics have suggested Doyle was grasping for the prototype of what decades later would become the "spy thriller" genre, though I think this case is far less visceral than that.

The solution to the case is found by pursuing one of Holmes' deductive maxims, though it isn't explicitly articulated during this tale: when you eliminate all the other options, whatever remains must be the truth. The circumstances of the crime, particularly the fact that the treaty hasn't been sold to enemy countries by the time Holmes is on the case, leads to its solution. It's a cleverly constructed mystery, though the fact that it does take so long to play out does make the pace feel slack in places.

One other odd fact about this story, which I read online: in Watson's introduction of the case, he mentions by name two other cases he might have written about on this occasion, before dismissing the first ("The Second Stain") and settling on this one to regale us with. Interestingly, years later, Doyle would actually write "The Second Stain" story. We get barely enough details of it here to constitute anything like foreshadowing, but it is interesting how the simple mention of it does work to strengthen a sort of grand continuity of Sherlock Holmes that lends authenticity to the body of work.

As for this story? "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty" gets a B- in my book.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ah, one of my favorite stories. You'll find others that use this "Holmes fails at first, then succeeds" pattern.

Yes, the Second Stain reference is an intriguing notion. But then Doyle eventually got around to writing the story that bore that title.
There are two other stories that Watson alludes to, but never gets around to telling: The Aluminium Crutch and The Giant Rat of Sumatra.
Most sherlockians have been yearning for the Rat story, but I have to admit that I've always found the former title to be the most mysterious...