John Vane: London Fiction – The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans

John Vane: London Fiction – The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans

It starts as follows:

“In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London. From the Monday to the Thursday I doubt whether it was ever possible from our windows in Baker Street to see the loom of the opposite houses.”

Love that use of the word “loom”. It came from the pen of John H. Watson, better known as Dr Watson, which came from the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Watson and of his talented, sometimes difficult, friend, Sherlock Holmes.

The Baker Street address of Holmes – a private renter, by the way – didn’t exist at the time he was invented, but the “pea soupers” of that period are quite easily imagined with the help of movie adaptations and Victorian London’s criminal folklore.

This particular Holmes story, a short one contained in the volume His Last Bow, opens with the great detective very bored. ‘The London criminal is certainly a dull fellow,” he remarks, before his London day is brightened – metaphorically rather than meteorologically – by a telegram from his brother Mycroft, who does something obscurely important for the government. There’s been a theft of military secrets and the death on the Underground of one Arthur Cadogan West. Are the two things connected? By Jove, yes!

Holmes’s investigation is a joy for London nerds, especially if they’re big on the Tube. Within a few pages we’re at Aldgate station – not yet 20 years old in the year the story is set – with the sleuth and his sidekick, where the former makes the, for him, elementary deduction that young West had not fallen from the “Metropolitan train” itself but from its roof. Next question: how did he come to be up there?

Then we’re off to Woolwich, home of the Royal Arsenal, which is portrayed as a place that lay quite outside London, and after that to an Italian restaurant in Gloucester Road which, despite Watson thinking it “garish”, served coffee and curaçao with cigars Holmes deemed “less poisonous than one would expect”. And before you know it they’re leaning out of a Kensington window overlooking a point where “the Underground runs clear of tunnels”.

Whodunnit? And how? I long to tell you, but must not. I will instead confine myself to revealing that the stolen plans had been for a new submarine designed by the Bruce-Partington of the story’s title and that the fog played a vital part in enabling the villainy and its dastardly but failed concealment.

Naturally, Holmes penetrates the fog. In the process, Conan Doyle, through the medium of Watson, takes us on a vivid journey through the capital and it downstream surroundings, capturing in fragments of observation the London of its time in all its imperial murk.

There are eight Holmes stories in His Last Bow, but only one other is set within the boundaries of today’s Greater London – Croydon, as it happens, and we don’t get much of a feel for what the place was like back then. The story in question, though, contains a lovely description of Holmes’s relationship with the city:

“He loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, with his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour or suspicion of unsolved crime.”

What a guy. But only five million…?

Order Arthur Conan Doyle’s His Last Bow from the famous Pages of Hackney. Buy my London novel Frightgeist there too. See you on X/Twitter and Substack. Illustration of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget.

Categories: Culture, John Vane's London Stories

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