I had intended ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange’ to be the last of those exploits of my friend, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, which I should ever communicate to the public.
The Adventure of the Second Stain is thus billed as a crowning Holmesian achievement, a mystery so profound that it ust be the final story in the final collection. (Of course, it wasn’t – but we’re used to this wishful thinking from Conan Doyle by now). Holmes has long thought this story too sensitive for public consumption, Watson tells us, but the good doctor has “at last succeeded in obtaining his consent that a carefully guarded account of the incident should at last be laid before the public.” Holmes is now, we are told, in retirement with his bees on the Sussex Downs – all this is ancient history.
The Second Stain is in truth closer to a mash-up of The Naval Treaty and Charles Augustus Milverton. Neither of those stories were entirely successful alone, and the mixture of tones and crimes here gives the hybrid a depth the parents lacked. Still, it is nevertheless a story which ultimately relies on a woman not understanding politics enough – so it is far from the fully satisfying investigation we might hope.
In my remarks on The Abbey Grange last week, I feel I did the story a disservice with my brevity – it is a delightful example of Holmesian craft. The sleuthing on show here, on the other hand, is simply less exciting. Holmes interprets newspaper reports; he waits for word from others; he follows hunches or flashes a photograph at a witness. His gift for connecting things is never so explicitly championed, but nor is it ever his most engaging skill. Were it not for the dimension of international politics – there are spies and Premiers here, European wars and colonialism, all foreshadowing His Last Bow – the mystery would be a flat one indeed.
Still, when Holmes tells a Prime Minister to leave unless he tells the whole truth, or refuses to provide the same candour in return (“We also have our diplomatic secrets”), we see the real purpose of the story; this is Holmes not as detective but as government agent, a proto-James Bond. His mythology is now complete: the stories collected in “The Return” have brought Holmes back to life, made him a celebrity, given him the respect of the police force, and now cemented his role as agent non pareil for Her Majesty’s Government. It’s often said that Holmes was never the same after his return from the interregnum, and that much is indeed true. But if he was somehow less intense and intellectual, he was also something greater.
If “Adventures” and “Memoirs” give Holmes his quintessential character, it is only in “The Return” that he is granted the immortality which ensures we remember it. The Second Stain – a weak story framed by a larger-than-life context – is the clearest instance of that difference.