Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Stain in the Holmes Canon

In "The Adventure of the Second Stain," Sherlock Holmes is approached by no less than the Prime Minister of England and the Secretary of State, to assist in a most sensitive investigation. A letter from a foreign leader has been stolen, containing such indecorous language as to bring about certain war, were its contents to be widely circulated. Holmes must track and retrieve the letter before it is given or sold to a party hoping for just such a European conflict.

This story is a curiosity among Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes adventures, for at least two reasons. For one, this was seemingly the second time Doyle chose to retire the character of Sherlock Holmes. The last time, he'd famously killed off the character in "The Final Problem," in a struggle with Professor Moriarty. Presumably not wanting to use the same trick twice, Doyle this time offers a much less dramatic reason for Watson to stop sharing these adventurers: Holmes has retired from detective work, and has specifically asked Watson to stop sharing such sensational nonsense. It's an explanation that seems fitting enough for the character, even if it would hardly have satisfied a rabid fan of the day.

But Watson has secured Holmes' permission for one last tale. And therein is another curiosity about this adventure: it was actually teased 11 years earlier when Doyle published "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty." In that story, during Watson's characteristic preamble to each adventure, he mentions this "Second Stain" case, too sensitive to be chronicled at the time. So it's only natural that Doyle would decide that in "permanently" ending Holmes' stories this time, he could go out by presenting a "lost adventure." Yet that old mention of the case was surely just a fun bit of flavor Doyle offhandedly tossed in at the time; it's unthinkable he actually had a plot in mind, or he would surely have written it before what he thought would be Holmes' last adventure (his death). To tell the story now, Doyle would have to craft it to fit the few details Watson had already mentioned: it had to involve a "second stain" (and, presumably, a first), and a matter of sensitivity that implicated major political figures in England.

The actual story does at least check those boxes. But otherwise, it's not exactly the most satisfying tale. The guilty party is rather obvious early on, for lack of any real suspects. The Macguffin of the stolen letter, absent a better working knowledge of British politics in the 1880s, feels contrived. And the resolution is patently absurd. In order to preserve the reputation of the Secretary of State's wife, Holmes returns the letter to the very place from which it was first stolen, then carries out a wholly unconvincing ruse suggesting that it must never have been stolen in the first place. As incompetent as the official's original loss of the letter may have been, doesn't it make him look even worse for being mistaken about the theft?

In all, I find it a rather disappointing finale for Sherlock Holmes, an average grade C. Thankfully, though, Doyle would take up writing his adventures for a third time, a few years later.

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