“The Stormy Petrel of Crime”

"Holmes was working hard over a chemical investigation."

"Holmes was working hard over a chemical investigation."

The Naval Treaty feels unusual: not only is it finally a full write-up of on of Holmes’s political cases, with which Watson has routinely teased his readers but of which not a single one has he ever offered up; it is also a relatively long story, by the far the longest of the Adventures and Memoirs. This gives it more time to introduce the characters and to layer the clues – as Holmes points out at the story’s end, the principal difficulty of the case was shaving away all the extraneous detail.

In a sense, this makes the story frustrating – an awful lot of it proves to be irrelevant. Yet much of it has such lovely colour that it doesn’t matter: there’s the cleaning woman’s tart retort about the difference between an omnibus and the detectives’ hansom, Phelps’s unabased admission that he got his high-ranking position in the Foreign Office through familial influence, and Holmes’s own encomium to flowers. There are Downing Street drawing rooms and Woking cottages, Cabinet ministers and commissionaires. Homes moves through this milieu with his usual focus, but the story itself is uniquely expansive. (Indeed, it was originally published in The Strand in two parts.)

The mystery itself recalls The Beryl Coronet: a priceless artifact is lost, and the culprit is not who at first it seems obviously to be. Mark at the excellent Good Night Mister Sherlock Holmes recently pointed out that The Beryl Coronet doesn’t quite make sense (though you’ll remember I disagree with his contention that the story is nothing special), and The Naval Treaty has a similar flaw: surely Phelps’s fault is in losing the Treaty in the first place, and its return will not save his reputation as a safe pair of hands. Of course, Holmes’s wink that Phelps and his uncle, Lord Holdhurst, won’t want the case come to court suggests that he (and we) are party to a cover-up, but nevertheless the return of the Treaty is secondary to its loss.

Similarly, the thief’s immediate recognition of the value of the Treaty strains credibility – many government documents are fairly dull things, after all, and the mystery itself feels less satisfying than its mise en scene. There is a sense, in his penultimate of the first round of Holmes stories, that Conan Doyle is growing weary: he acknowledges in his reference to The Speckled Band that he is recycling ideas, and though this is approaches an early instance of the spy story, it is a story which still struggles to wring new life out of Holmes’s profession. Its moments – Holmes’s admission that he solves cases for his own sake as much as his client’s, and Harrison’s, “For a moment I thought you’d done something clever” – are spot-on, but moments they remain. Holmes remains engaged by his adventures, but does the author?

To which end, this week’s post wouldn’t be complete without a comment on the great detective’s latest reinvention. Scott Monty rather likes it, and certainly Communicator’s commenters are right when they identify its broad farce elements as so-bad-they-could-be-good. But it’s hard not to think that Ritchie is making a Hollywood comic book romp and appropriating a famous character to stand in as its protagonist, merely for the extra PR bump. Reinventions and reboots can do a series a bucket of good, but a reconceptualisation is quite a different animal.