The Adventure of the Naval Treaty

I recently watched the Jeremy Brett version of The Adventure of the Naval Treaty. Other than a little bit of redistribution of lines to balance things out among the people on screen, it’s a remarkably faithful version of the short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

It’s a fun puzzle in its own right, but it contains one of my favorite sections from a Holmes story. Just for fun, I will quote it again:

“Thank you. I have no doubt I can get details from Forbes. The authorities are excellent at amassing facts, though they do not always use them to advantage. What a lovely thing a rose is!”

He walked past the couch to the open window, and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.

“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “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.”

(I discussed this quote in some length in my post Sherlock Holmes on Flowers.)

There is something of an irony in the story in that this magnificent reflection of Holmes is met with disappointment by the people who hear it. To be fair, one of them is facing complete social ruin and the other intends to marry him, so their minds are elsewhere when they hear it.

NOTE: what follows containers spoilers. As the oldest person living, at the time of this writing, was ten years away from being born when The Adventure of the Naval Treaty was published, I can safely say, dear reader, that you have had your entire life to read this story, or at least that fraction of it since you learned to read, and if you really have not yet read it, you have, at least, been given ample time.

Anyway, considered as a mystery, it is definitely an interesting one. It has a long setup, full of facts, with what seems a nearly impossible crime. The criminal had a very short time to act, and—to all appearances—no way to have known that there was anything worth stealing. And then there is the very curious fact that the criminal made life much harder on himself by ringing the bell.

It is an extremely well executed setup, especially for its time (1893). I say, “for its time,” because, prior to the explosion of detective stories, readers were not so much in the habit of analyzing the story as a story. As G. K. Chesterton put it in 1925:

Generally speaking, the agent should be a familiar figure in an unfamiliar function. The thing that we realize must be a thing that we recognize; that is it must be something previously known, and it ought to be something prominently displayed. Otherwise there is no surprise in mere novelty. It is useless for a thing to be unexpected if it was not worth expecting. But it should be prominent for one reason and responsible for another. A great part of the craft or trick of writing mystery stories consists in finding a convincing but misleading reason for the prominence of the criminal, over and above his legitimate business of committing the crime. Many mysteries fail merely by leaving him at loose ends in the story, with apparently nothing to do except to commit the crime. He is generally well off, or our just and equal law would probably have him arrested as a vagrant long before he was arrested as a murderer. We reach the stage of suspecting such a character by a very rapid if unconscious process of elimination. Generally we suspect him merely because he has not been suspected. The art of narrative consists in convincing the reader for a time, not only that the character might have come on the premises with no intention to commit a felony, but that the author has put him there with some intention that is not felonious. For the detective story is only a game; and in that game the reader is not really wrestling with the criminal but with the author.

What the writer has to remember, in this sort of game, is that the reader will not say, as he sometimes might of a serious or realistic study: “Why did the surveyor in green spectacles climb the tree to look into the lady doctor’s back garden?” He will insensibly and inevitably say, “Why did the author make the surveyor climb a tree, or introduce any surveyor at all?” The reader may admit that the town would in any case need a surveyor, without admitting that the tale would in any case need one. It is necessary to explain his presence in the tale (and the tree) not only by suggesting why the town council put him there, but why the author put him there.

If one thinks about the story as a story, in which the rules of detection fiction state that the criminal has to actually be introduced in the story before he is unmasked as the criminal, that Percy’s future brother-in-law is the criminal is quite obvious. It would be preposterous that Lord Oakapple would commit so sprightly a crime—for it certainly involved running. The commisar could not have committed the crime, for Percy was himself the man’s witness. About the only character in the story who had opportunity was the future brother-in-law; everyone else in the story was a train ride away, and with witnesses. However, in 1893 this was not a given. People did not read stories in this sort of meta way. Conan Doyle does an admiral job of keeping suspicion on some unknown person while Holmes fixes the evidence on the real culprit.

It is also interesting that Holmes delivers the treaty to Percy in a breakfast dish. He apologizes to Percy for this theatrical surprise, saying, “Watson here will tell you that I never can resist a touch of the dramatic.” It’s an interesting aspect of Holmes’s character.

The story also has a great ending. (If you haven’t read the story, it will help to know that Holmes arrived to the breakfast at which he delivered the naval treaty with a bandage on one hand, where Mr. Joseph Harrison, Mr. Percy Phelps’ intended brother-in-law, had attacked Holmes with his knife. Also that the day before, a figure, who turned out to be Harrison, had come to the window of the bedroom in which Mr. Percy Phelps was staying, carrying a knife.)

“You do not think,” asked Phelps, “that he had any murderous intention? The knife was only meant as a tool.”

“It may be so,” answered Holmes, shrugging his shoulders. “I can only say for certain that Mr. Joseph Harrison is a gentleman to whose mercy I should be extremely unwilling to trust.”

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