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3:03 p.m. - 2020-09-14
"Holmes the Scotland Yard Jack-in-office!"
--Dr. Grimesby Roylott, "The Adventure of the Speckled Band"

Roylott chose to insult Sherlock Holmes with a Victorian term meaning a minor but self-important bureaucrat. Of course, Holmes, as well as Watson's loyal readers, would have been amused by the implication that his pretensions exceeded his ability, but in another short story, "The Naval Treaty," there are at least some hints of a less appealing side to Sherlock's personality.

The story itself is quite entertaining. Watson receives a letter from Percy Phelps, an old classmate, who implores him to have his friend Holmes look into the theft of a secret treaty from Phelps's government office. Several weeks have elapsed, no clues have surfaced, and Phelps has been incapacitated with brain fever subsequent to his professional disgrace. After interviewing Phelps, his fiancé Annie Harrison, her brother Joseph, Phelps's mentor Lord Holdhurst, and Inspector Forbes of Scotland Yard, Holmes solves the mystery and returns the stolen document in dramatic fashion.

The first suggestion that all is not well with Holmes is his tangential philosophical musing at the sight of a rose. Phelps has just finished his summary of the case as he remembers it, and is undoubtedly awaiting any word of encouragement from the great detective. But Holmes wanders off on another subject:

"What a lovely thing a rose is! There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so, I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers."

Was Holmes attempting to boost Phelps's spirit with this mini-sermon? It hardly seems likely that the disgraced and forlorn young man would suddenly perk up after hearing this pedestrian homily. And Holmes's argument ignores the evolutionary benefit of scent and color in flowers, which serve to attract insects and promote pollination. If the speech was intended as some distraction, like knocking over the table in "The Reigate Squires," any hidden purpose is never made clear later in the story. It all seems rather pointless and a little pompous. Even the loyal Watson remarked, "It was a new phase of his character to me."

Later, on the train back to London, Holmes fills Watson in on the background of the Harrisons. "I've been making a few independent inquiries, you see," he concludes. But when did Holmes have time to make these inquiries? He learned of the case from Watson and left for Phelps's home immediately. Watson was present for all of Holmes's conversations from that point on. Had Holmes already been investigating the case, perhaps at the behest of his brother Mycroft? If so, why conceal that fact? Was he trying to make himself appear more clever for the edification of his biographer?

During the train ride Watson mentions his medical practice. Holmes rather crankily responds, "Oh, if you find your own cases more interesting than mine---," then relents when Watson explains that he only meant it would be a simple matter to get another doctor to cover for him for a day or two. But why shouldn't Watson find his own profession more interesting? It is in fact his livelihood.

Later, when Inspector Forbes of Scotland Yard makes a remark about Holmes taking credit for the case, Holmes corrects him by pointing out that of the last 53 cases he has shared with the official police, they have received public credit for 49, he for only four. One has to wonder, if Holmes puts such little value on public acclaim, why does he know precisely how the credit was shared? He seems to be keeping score.

Holmes then goes on to explain to the inspector: "I don't blame you for not knowing this, for you are young and inexperienced; but if you wished to get on in your new duties you will work with me and not against me." One interpretation of these remarks could be that they are meant as friendly advice, but they also could be viewed as (1) an insult ("young and inexperienced") followed by (2) a threat ("get on in your new duties").


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