• Holmes goes back to work
    May 15,2013
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    Despite the cleverness of Sherlock Holmes in solving crimes, his stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle often have a certain late-Victorian innocence about them. One example is the story entitled “The Second Stain,” which appears in the collection called “The Return of Sherlock Holmes.” A brief summary of the story, outlining events as we eventually come to know them, will show what I mean.

    A foreign potentate, who is Kaiser Wilhelm thinly disguised, has sent a very bristling letter to the British government in relation to some colonial affairs. The letter is so insulting that there would be a great public outcry if it were published. There might even be demands to go to war. After the cabinet is sworn to secrecy, the British foreign secretary takes the letter home to be placed in his private dispatch box.

    A foreign agent whose country is not named but who has a second home and other identity in Paris, so we can guess what country he’s the secret agent for, has been told about the letter by a spy in the foreign office. He blackmails the wife of the foreign secretary into stealing the letter from the dispatch box. The wife takes the letter to the agent’s London residence. She sees the agent put the letter in a secret floor compartment under a rug.

    At that moment the agent’s Parisian wife bursts in jealously. The foreign secretary’s wife flees and learns the next day that the secret agent has been stabbed to death.

    It turns out that the foreign secretary never tells his wife a word about his official duties or what sort of activities he’s engaged in. He is devastated on discovering the bristling letter missing from his dispatch box, and he and the prime minister go to consult Sherlock Holmes. Meanwhile the wife, who had gladly escaped the threat of blackmail, is upset at seeing her husband troubled over something she knows nothing about. So she secretly returns to the agent’s house, decoys the policeman guarding the murder scene, and manages to retrieve the letter from its hiding place under the rug.

    Holmes eventually discovers the hiding place, finds it empty and ascertains that the culprit is the foreign secretary’s wife. He confronts her and persuades her to return the letter to the dispatch box, where the foreign secretary is happy to discover it.

    The first thing that comes to mind these days is that it’s quite unusual, in fact almost impossible, for a government official to keep his wife completely ignorant of what’s going on at the office. They are described repeatedly as a very devoted couple, but that would hardly be the case if he shuts her completely out of his working life.

    Then the fact that a government official takes documents home with him to keep them “safe” is a little hard to believe. Was the British foreign office completely devoid of safekeeping devices to which the official only had access? And although the wife tells Holmes about the spy in the office who told the secret agent about the letter, the detective does nothing to warn the government about him.

    This particular story is the last one in that particular collection, and I think it shows that Conan Doyle had become rather tired of the character he had invented. In fact, the story opens with the statement by Dr. Watson that Holmes has retired to keep bees in Sussex and doesn’t want any more stories written about him. Conan Doyle killed Holmes off once, and then brought him back to life for the “return” series of short stories, and the “Second Stain” account might have been an effort to shut him down once more. But it didn’t work. Holmes stories kept coming until only a few years before Conan Doyle’s death.

    Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.
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