The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans

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"The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans"
Author Arthur Conan Doyle
Series His Last Bow
Publication date 1908
Client(s) Mycroft Holmes and the British Government
Set in 1895
Villain(s)

"The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans" is one of the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is one of eight stories in the cycle collected as His Last Bow, and is the second and final appearance of Mycroft Holmes. Doyle ranked "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans" fourteenth in a list of his nineteen favourite Sherlock Holmes stories.[1]

Plot summary[edit]

Mycroft Holmes visiting his brother.

The monotony of thick smog-shrouded London is broken by a sudden visit from Holmes’s brother Mycroft. He has come about some missing, secret submarine plans. Seven of the ten pages — three are still missing — were found with Arthur Cadogan West’s body. He was a young clerk in a government office at Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, whose body was found next to the Underground tracks near the Aldgate tube station, his head crushed. He had little money with him (although there appears to have been no robbery), theatre tickets, and curiously, no Underground ticket. The three missing pages by themselves could enable one of Britain’s enemies to build a Bruce-Partington submarine.

"Underground"-branded Tube map from 1908 showing the District and Metropolitan lines with Aldgate at right and Kensington at lower left

It seems clear that Cadogan West fell from a train and that he stole the plans meaning to sell them, but the mystery is truly complex:

  • How did Cadogan West meet his end?
  • If he was thrown off a train, what was he doing at Aldgate, well past the stop where he presumably would have gone?
  • If he had made an appointment with a foreign agent to sell the plans, would he not have kept his evening free instead of buying theatre tickets for himself and his fiancée?
  • How did he get into the Underground without a ticket, or did someone take it?
  • Why can no evidence of violence be found in any Underground coach?
  • How is it that Cadogan’s head was crushed and yet there was very little bleeding by the track where he was found?

Inspector Lestrade tells Holmes that a passenger has seen fit to report hearing a thud at about the location in question, as though a body had fallen on the track. He could not see anything, however, owing to the thick fog.

After an examination of the track near Aldgate, Holmes reaches an astonishing and unusual conclusion: Cadogan West had been killed elsewhere, was deposited on the roof of an Underground train, and fell off when the jarring action of going over the points at Aldgate shook the coach.

Holmes decides to visit Sir James Walter, who was in charge of the papers. He has, however, died, apparently of a broken heart from the loss of his honour when the papers were stolen, according to his brother Colonel Valentine.

Cadogan West’s fiancée is a bit more informative. There was something on his mind for the last week or so of his life. He commented to her on how easily a traitor could get hold of “the secret” and how much a foreign agent would pay for it. Then, on the night in question, as the two of them were walking to the theatre, near his office, he dashed off, never to be seen again.

Sidney Johnson talking to Holmes.

Holmes next goes to the office from which the plans were stolen. Sidney Johnson, the senior clerk, tells Holmes that as always, he was the last man out of the office that night, and that he had put the papers in the safe himself. Anyone coming in afterwards to steal them would have needed three keys (for the building, the office, and the safe), but no duplicates were found on Cadogan West’s body, and only the late Sir James had all three keys. Johnson also mentions that one of the seven recovered pages might also be indispensable to a foreign agent. This will prove important later. Holmes also discovers that it is possible to see what is happening inside the office from outside even when the iron shutters are closed.

After leaving, Holmes finds that the clerk at the nearby Underground station remembers seeing Cadogan West on the evening in question. He was most shaken by something, and took a train to London Bridge.

Acting on information from Mycroft, and on what he has learnt thus far, Holmes identifies a person of interest, Hugo Oberstein, a known agent who left town shortly after Cadogan West’s murder. Some small reconnaissance shows Holmes that Oberstein’s house backs onto an above-ground Underground line, and that, owing to traffic at a nearby junction, trains often stop right under his windows. It seems clear now that Cadogan West’s body was laid on the train roof — the evidence shows that he was not dropped from a height — just there. The only remaining questions are about who killed him and why.

Holmes and Dr. Watson break into Oberstein’s empty house and examine the windows, finding that the grime has been smudged, and there is a bloodstain. An Underground train stops right under the window. It would be easy to lift a dead man onto a train roof, as was apparently done. Some messages from the Daily Telegraph agony column, all seeming to allude to a business deal, are also found, posted by “Pierrot”, and this gives Holmes an idea. He posts a similarly cryptic message in the Times demanding a meeting, signing it Pierrot, in the hopes that the thief — assuming it is not Cadogan West — might show up at Oberstein’s house.

Woolwich Royal Arsenal gatehouse. (February 2007)

It works. Colonel Valentine shows up and is stunned to find Holmes, Watson, Lestrade, and Mycroft all waiting for him. He confesses to the theft of the plans, but swears that it was Oberstein who killed Cadogan West. Cadogan had followed the Colonel to Oberstein’s and then, injudiciously, intervened. Oberstein beat his head in. Oberstein then decided, over the Colonel’s objections, that he had to keep three of the papers, because they could not be copied in a short time. He then got the idea of putting the other seven in Cadogan West’s pockets and then putting him on a train roof outside his window, reasoning that he would be blamed for the theft when his body were found, when actually, he had only seen the theft in progress and followed the thief.

Colonel Valentine Walter had been deep in debt and had acted out of a need for money. He redeems himself somewhat by agreeing to write to Oberstein, whose address on the Continent he knows, inviting him to come back to England for the fourth, vital page. This ruse also works, and Oberstein is sentenced to 15 years in prison, while the missing pages of the Bruce-Partington plans are recovered from his trunk. Colonel Valentine dies in prison, not long after starting his sentence. Holmes is given an emerald tie pin by Queen Victoria (she is not actually identified by name, but there is little doubt considering the dropped hints and given that the story is set in the year 1895, while she still reigned) for his efforts.

Commentary[edit]

The Nordenfelt-designed Ottoman submarine Abdülhamid (1886) was the first submarine in the world to fire a torpedo while submerged. It and its sister ship, Abdülmecid (1887), were built in pieces by Des Vignes (Chertsey) and Vickers (Sheffield) in England, and were assembled at the Taşkızak Naval Shipyard in Istanbul, Turkey.
The 16th Century composer Orlande de Lassus, in whose work Holmes took such an intense interest

This Sherlock Holmes story is one of four in which Holmes's brother Mycroft is mentioned. Mycroft appears as a major character in "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter" and in this story. He also appears as a minor character in "The Final Problem", (as Watson's cab driver), and is only referred to in "The Adventure of the Empty House". In this story, the reader learns that Mycroft's government job is considerably more important than Holmes earlier let on in "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter". Holmes even says that his brother sometimes is the British Government.

Holmes is mentioned as writing "a monograph upon the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus", which is, in the story, "said by experts to be the last word upon the subject".

Hugo Oberstein is one of the few minor characters in the Holmes stories who is brought back and used for more important reasons in a second story. He first appears in The Adventure of the Second Stain as one of three possible spies that a missing foreign office document may have ended up with.

Watson finishes the story by mentioning that Oberstein was sentenced to 15 years of prison. Both murder and treason/espionage were capital crimes in the Victorian Era. The lenient treatment suggests - though it is not explicitly stated - that Oberstein bought his life by revealing some secrets in his possession, which prefigures the treatment of actual German agents in the World War II Double Cross System.

The story can be considered as an eerie precursor of the spy thriller, not yet developed into a genre in its own right. The theme of theft of military secrets by a hostile power was a prominent element of the Dreyfus affair, at the time of writing convulsing neighboring France and a major subject of news all over the world.

The reference to "the Bruce-Partington submarine", in whose "radius of operation" naval warfare becomes impossible, foreshadows the critical importance which submarine warfare would assume in the coming World Wars. The submarine's means of attacking surface craft is never made clear, being a closely guarded military secret.

In the case of "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans", the background includes two different recent crimes to the date of composition (1908). In 1905, a young woman, Mary Money, was found dead on a set of railway tracks in London; she had been the victim of an assault. Her killer was never found. This death is mirrored in the apparent death of Cadogan West by the tracks of an underground line. Then, in 1907, the Irish Crown Jewels were stolen from Dublin Castle the day before King Edward VII was to give a state visit requiring the regalia. It too was a crime that was never solved - and which resulted in the dismissal of Conan Doyle's cousin, Arthur Vicars.

Conan Doyle, when he combined real-life events, entangled them into a new version. One of the lead suspects in the theft of the Irish Crown Jewels was Frank Shackleton, a shady individual who was the brother of the prominent Polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who had come within ninety miles of the South Pole the previous year. It has been noted that Frank Shackleton is the model for Colonel Valentine Walters, the man who helps the spies steal the plans in "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans". His brother is a public servant of great probity, Sir James Walters (who dies of shame when he realizes what Valentine has done). But there is more than this odd connection. In 1875, the career of a major British army hero (and friend of the Prince of Wales) ended in disgrace. Colonel Valentine Baker, brother of the noted hunter and African Explorer, Sir Samuel Baker, the first white man to find Lake Albert, was convicted of an indecent assault on a woman, and was cashiered from the British army (subsequently he served in the Egyptian Army). The assault was in a railway car (shades of the fate of Mary Money), and Col. Baker's relationship with the Prince of Wales - later King Edward VII - tied his fall from grace with that of the King who was victimized in the theft of the Irish Crown Jewels. The result seems effortless to the reader who is unaware of it, but it shows how complex Conan Doyle can be in his literary constructions.

Adaptations[edit]

An adaptation of "The Bruce-Partington Plans" was used for an episode of the 1965 television series Sherlock Holmes starring Douglas Wilmer as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Watson.[2] Only the first of three reels of the 16mm telerecording of the episode exists, although the full soundtrack survives.[3]

The 1986 film The Twentieth Century Approaches, the fifth part of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, features the story.

The story was adapted for a 1988 episode of the television series The Return of Sherlock Holmes starring Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, Edward Hardwicke as Doctor Watson and Charles Gray as Mycroft Holmes. It differs in showing that the death of West was manslaughter, as well as that, after the capture of Oberstein, Colonel Walter is allowed to "disappear" so that Special Branch can use him to trap other spies. Lestrade in the original story is replaced by Inspector Bradstreet in the television series.

A series of four TV movies produced in the early 2000s starred Matt Frewer as Sherlock Holmes and Kenneth Welsh as Dr. Watson. One of these films, The Royal Scandal, adapted "A Scandal in Bohemia" and combined its story with "The Bruce-Partington Plans".

"The Great Game", the third episode of the 2010 television series Sherlock, uses several of Doyle's stories as inspiration, among them "The Bruce-Partington Plans". The story borrows many elements of the original story and is updated to the modern era. The victim here is an MI6 clerk named Andrew West, nodding to the original victim's name. Many of the other clues, like an unused train ticket and blood traces on a windowsill, are also used. The theft in this story is carried out by the brother of West's fiance, for financial reasons. Both the perpetrator and the motive are taken from the short story The Adventure of the Naval Treaty which likewise deals with the theft of government papers.

References[edit]

Sources[edit]

  • Francis Bamford & Viola Bankes Vicious Circle: the Case of the Missing Irish Crown Jewels. 212 p. illus. New York: Horizon Press, 1907

External links[edit]