In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London.
The Bruce-Partington Plans, like The Naval Treaty before it, is a sort of spy story. Reading through the Holmes adventures, one of their strengths – despite Conan Doyle’s reliance on recurring motifs – is the range of criminal activity Holmes investigates. He is not merely a murder detective like so many of those who would follow him; indeed, crime is not really his focus. Though Watson writes here that, “I was aware that by anything of interest, Holmes meant any- thing of criminal interest,” crime is simply the area in which Holmes is most likely to find the sorts of problems which give his mind the most thorough work-out. “I play the game for the game’s own sake,” he says here, and from the transformation he undergoes in the course of the story, from paralysingly bored lay-about to active and boastful dynamo, is evidence enough of his addiction to simple intellectual activity.
The story certainly provides a knotty problem – indeed, its principle success lies in how well it builds up both the significance and strangeness of its central mystery: how the government official Arthur Cadogan West is found at the sides of an Underground railtrack with top secret military plans in his pocket. The significance is principally indicated by the involvement of Mycroft Holmes, of which his brother colourfully says, “A planet might as well leave its orbit.” We learn that Mycroft’s gift for synthesis of disparate facts has made him an indispensible clearing house of information within the government; his involvement lends weight to the whole affair.
Conan Doyle often mistakes novelty for complexity. Not least in the wonderfully scripted debate at the start of the adventure, though here – although Holmes’s assertion that Cadogan West’s body was originally dumped on the top of a train carriage adds a satisfying twist to the crime, his mystery is both memorable and genuinely intriguing – his cast of characters is large enough, and this particular locked room well described enough, to provide a robust challenge for Holmes without turning into a kind of grotesque. His step-by-step approach, from initial pessimism to inspiration and thus to slow piecing together, is one of the better investigations in the canon – it is without the single startling observation, but it is a very s0lid bit of detecting. (“I cannot agree with you there,” Holmes insists when Watson suggests this case his masterpiece. “From the moment that I conceived the idea of the body being upon the roof, which surely was not a very abstruse one, all the rest was inevitable.)
As if to put all his ingredients together in one practically perfect recipe, Conan Doyle too includes some lovely character moments for Holmes: the tenderness with which he regards loyal old Watson, or the preening confidence with which he begins to enjoy a mystery he has cracked, or, as the Heptarchy Herald gets excited about, the revelation that our hero is a medievalist; even his bumptious greeting of a threat of arrest from Lestrade (“For England, home and beauty — eh, Watson? Martyrs on the altar of our country.”) is a vintage instance of Holmesian humour. In this story, the master is grave and playful, austere and warm. It is as good a distillation of his central character traits as exists in a single story. This alone makes The Bruce-Partington Plans surely one of the finer stories amongst the fifty-two.