Thursday, August 27, 2020

The Bruce-Partington pastiche

 Tonight was once again Sherlock Holmes Story Society night here in Peoria, and where I usually come away with a variety of different thoughts from our discussion, new perspectives, etc., this time I came away with just one, and it haunts me.

The story was "The Bruce-Partington Plans." The haunting thought?

I don't feel like Conan Doyle wrote this one.

We've always had the odd little authorship theories with Sherlock Holmes, be it our purposefully fantasy of Watson's work, the Fletcher Robinson business, or that one or more of his wives took a hand in it. But I never really felt like a tale has all the elements of a pastiche in it as much as "Bruce-Partington Plans." It is written well enough, yes, but it's written a bit too thoroughly.  

Yes, yes, it's practically the focus of Vincent Starrett's poem "221B" -- 1895, yellow fog, and all that. But when you compare it to other stories, the author spends a whole lot of time on details that he would not have dallied over in earlier times, entire visits to characters that seem unnecessary. And did we need one more "Violet?" Nothing cries out "pastiche" like a Violet.

Miss Violet Westbury, Mr. Sidney Johnson, Colonel Valentine Walter . . . one one starts down this path, those three all have the blandness of pastichery characters. Another mark of the pastiche? Here comes brother Mycroft. How about a Victorian celebrity? How about the Victorian celebrity, Queen Victoria herself, who practically waltzes into Baker Street in this tale. (Though she is, sadly, kept apart from her greatest admirer John Watson. Holmes and Watson headcanon -- catch the fever!)

Holmes decides to do burglary and doesn't know if Watson will go, even though we've already seen the two as burglars in "Charles Augustus Milverton." When Watson says he will go, Holmes jumps up to shake Watson's hand and looks in his eyes with "nearer to tenderness than I had ever seen." Some real Johnlocking going on there, because you know the writer had to be thinking "KISS! KISS!" and pulled back, knowing his editor wouldn't allow it. Okay, perhaps I went too far on that one for old school readers, but just look at some of the lines in this puppy:

"What do you think of it,Watson?" Holmes asks of the idea West's body was atop the train.

"A masterpiece," Watson exudes, "You have never risen to a greater height."

Really, Watson? Were you around for the other cases?

And that last line where the author actually gets in the title: "I have little doubt that the emerald pin will forever recall to my friend's memory the adventure of the Bruce-Partington plans." I mean, who writes cheese like that except a fan? 

Let's take this theory a step further. In 1904, Conan Doyle finished writing the stories that were collected as "The Return of Sherlock Holmes." After four years, in 1908, he supposedly writes "Wisteria Lodge" and "Bruce-Partington Plans." then he goes another coupe of years before the very excellent return to form with "The Devil's Foot" in 1910.  

"Wisteria Lodge" has its own problems, but at least in Brian W. Pugh's A Chronology of the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Pugh records that "Wisteria Lodge" was written in April, then published in September and October. "Bruce-Partington Plans" is recorded as being published in December of 1908, but no mention of it being written by Doyle is ever made. The manuscript for the story is said to exist in an "unrecorded location." Perhaps the team behind the BSI manuscript series had clearer knowledge of its whereabouts, but if it is ever subject to our scrutiny, what might that handwriting look like? Jean's? That of young Inness with embellishments by his father?

Something has always seemed a little off about "Wisteria Lodge" which came out during that 1908 island of the Canon. But with "Bruce-Partington Plans," the oddity is almost the opposite of the earlier tale -- it's' just a little too cozily fitting in that "just like a Holmes story" niche with a little more loving detail added in than Doyle usually took the time to add. It is a curious thing.

Any takers on this theory? Or just another wild conjecture from Peoria?


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