Wednesday, April 10, 2013

44. Espionage

“It is fortunate for this community that I am not a criminal.”
“The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans”

Tracing the evolution of the espionage tale, or, more colloquially, the “spy novel,” Peter Gillis, writing in a 1979 number of the journal Archivaria, noted:

The genre itself can be traced to Yuan dynasty China and in English literature follows a line through James Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans (1826); Edgar Alan Poe, The Purloined Letter (1845); Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands (1903); Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (1907); and Under Western Eyes (1911); Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Bruce-Partington Plans (1908); and John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps, (1915) and the rest of his Richard Hannay books, among others.

While there can be no doubt of Cooper’s and Poe’s contributions to the development of the new genre, the mention of “The Bruce-Partington Plans” would seem a slight misstep to a keen reader of the Holmes canon. That is not to say the story is not emblematic of and seminal to the development of the espionage genre, but, rather, that it has a stylistic predecessor, 1893’s “The Naval Treaty.” That story’s inclusion not only recalibrates Conan Doyle’s role in development of the genre, but also elucidates the possible influence his work may have had on Childers (a fellow Boer War veteran and acquaintance) and Conrad, with whom Conan Doyle shared a mutual admiration. Not only this, but “Bruce-Partington” even shares a character with a second earlier spy story—albeit a homage to Poe— in the canon, 1904’s “The Adventure of the Second Stain.”

This begs the question, why, in the study of the espionage tale, is it only the latter tale that gets the mention? It is, perhaps, the shared elements of “The Naval Treaty” and “The Bruce-Partington Plans” that are most telling in this respect. Both stories deal with the theft of government documents crucial to British national security. The motives for both are linked to an expected (and needed) financial gain, and both stories hinge on Holmes needing to solve additional crimes that intrinsic to the document theft (e.g., a murder in “Bruce-Partington” and an attempted break in by a knife-wielding hooded intruder in “Naval Treaty”). So, why, then, is “Bruce-Partington” the more exemplary espionage tale? Quite simply, first, because Conan Doyle, through his characters, tells us it is. The appearance of Mycroft Holmes and the grave pronouncements of what may befall Britain should an enemy get the missing pages of the titular plans are given far more weight and gravitas than the treaty in the former story. Which brings up a second crucial difference: the winds of change had begun to blow. By the time of the story’s publication in 1908, events like the assassination of King Carlos I of Portugal, the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and relinquishment of former colonies in Congo by Belgium had made the newspaper headlines and made the world seem smaller and peace seem all the more fragile to the average citizen. Alliances had shifted considerably between the two centuries and Conan Doyle was not only aware of the events themselves, but also the potential consequences.

So, it is thus that, to help inaugurate the genre that was to inspire so many writers, from Buchan to le Carré, Conan Doyle would produce, in “Bruce-Partington” his most original tale of government intrigue to date. Where the previous stories borrowed liberally from their forebears, “Bruce-Partington” seemed to draw from the media of the day, and was filled with government machinations that were emerging as all-too-real for the modern reader, elements that would later reach their apex in “His Last Bow.”

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