It was no very unusual thing for Mr. Lestrade, of Scotland Yard, to look in upon us of an evening, and his visits were welcome to Sherlock Holmes, for they enabled him to keep in touch with all that was going on at the police headquarters.
The Six Napoleons is a buddy movie. Over the years, Inspector Lestrade has taken more stick from Sherlock Holmes than any other member of the Metropolitan police force. It’s hard to feel too sorry for him – even here, with all that experience, he still believes his own dull and partial solution will best Holmes – and yet so many stories in the canon involve Lestrade’s routine humiliation that he becomes, if not for that maddening but face-saving lack of self-awareness, a pathetic – even a tragic – figure. Poor old Lestrade is just unequal to the increasingly Byzantine alleys of London crime. He seems a plod for an easier age; Holmes is the true modernist.
Yet in this story we learn that Lestrade volunteers for this treatment, arriving at Baker Street on a regular basis to involve Holmes in yet another case which has proven too much for his more pedestrian bent. Here, he’s even bashful about doing so, like a schoolboy offering teacher a puzzle: when asked if he has anything remarkable on hand, Lestrade blushes, “Oh, no, Mr. Holmes – nothing very particular.” The great detective sees through this ruse, of course, responding immediately, “Then tell me about it.” Lestrade laughs – laughs! – and proceeds to lay the thin case before both Holmes and Watson. When the business turns more sinister the next day, Lestrade sends a telegram – “come instantly” – to 221B without, it seems, much in the way of delay.
It’d be easy to find this reliance on Holmes odd, given Lestrade’s self-assurance in the face of constant demonstration that he is almost always wrong. “I have identified the dead man … and found a cause for the crime,” he boasts later. In response, Holmes goes so far as to patronise him: “Excellent, Lestrade, excellent! […] But I didn’t quite follow your explanation of the destruction of the busts.” Still Lestrade comes back for more. Confounding, except for the rather lovely moment at the end of the story: “We’re not jealous of you at Scotland Yard. No, sir, we are very proud of you, and if you come down to-morrow, there’s not a man, from the oldest inspector to the youngest constable, who wouldn’t be glad to shake you by the hand.”
Holmes is moved by this tribute, and with good reason – here, after all, Lestrade reveals his deep respect, and that of the entire force, for Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Lestrade can maintain professional pride whilst also having pride in Holmes – the Yard, too, can maintain that it is a professional force whilst also being deeply grateful to “the well-known consulting expert” who so often lends his hand in their struggle for order. These cases are fuelled by a friendly rivalry, a game between friends. It can be no coincidence, surely, that this respect has developed from the rivalry of old following Holmes’s return from the dead; fondness has developed for a man thought lost. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.
These reflections are by way of avoiding the story itself, which is a shameless recycling of The Blue Carbuncle, a story which remains a far tighter, more interesting, better characterised and multi-faceted a narrative. This is a disappointment in a story involving the Mafia of all things, but, in turning his tale of a panicked thief hiding his treasure in an unlikely repository possessed of widely distributed identical twins, Conan Doyle reminds us that – unlike the officers of the Metropolitan police force – he isn’t always too interested in the quality of Holmes’s adventures.