Unless we consider his virtuosity on the violin, we see our protagonist at the beginning of this story enthralled by a new hobby quite out of sorts with his previous monographs. What could the study of medieval music ever offer Holmes? Amusement, certainly, and perhaps keen artistic satisfaction; yet there is nothing forensic or organizational to be enjoyed. From his other pastimes – codes, bicycle tracks, chemicals, ash – we detect a pattern of knowledge that could only appeal to the fanatic or crank. Holmes's veil of cold precision notwithstanding, he evinces appetite for all forms of crime so that, with years of practice, brief observation would yield understanding as easily as color betrays acid. Such knowledge would allow his resolution of the most trivial questions of everyday science to the broadest anthems of human motivation. One such motivation has always been the opportunity to forego a plain existence that will result in plain dreams and a plain spouse for the risk ushered in by opportunity, by a mystery that promises reward or glorious failure. And the mystery in question commences by way of that éminence grise of the British government, Holmes's brother Mycroft.
The problem? Submarine plans of the highest technology and secrecy. Its status? On the verge of completion, unbeknownst to the public at large, although the weapons remain a project that Mycroft believes everyone has heard of in the same way that everyone has heard of the Yeti: an impossibility that might one day actually be proven to exist. Holmesian scholars have not hesitated to note that such submarines, at least in terms of their allotted destructive forces, would not drift out of blueprint for another dozen years – but we do not read these adventures for historical accuracy. The time was undoubtedly ripe for such speculation, as was the grim specter of war that abetted the naval subterfuge between Germany and England in the North Sea (as depicted in this prescient work). So when a young man by the name of Cadogan West is found murdered in an underground railcar one November morning, little is made of the matter (Holmes even calls the case "featureless"). Yet Mycroft's telegraph indicates that his worrisome task involves no one other than this young clerk at this defunct arsenal. The Royal Arsenal is one of those government buildings that have more locks than secrets. The plans, ten in all, were housed under the watchful eye of Sidney Johnson, another among the canon's memorable secondary characters:
He is a man of forty, married with five children. He is a silent, morose man, but he has, on the whole, an excellent record in the public service. He is unpopular with his colleagues, but a hard worker. According to his account, corroborated only by the word of his wife, he was at home the whole of Monday evening after office hours, and his key has never left the watch-chain upon which it hangs.
West is accorded a less laudatory review, and his "hot-headed and impetuous" tendencies will certainly decide his fate; but it is Johnson who should draw our attention. Johnson embodies the steady banality of petty government work, of officials who for all their malingering cannot commit to a barefaced lie. The few sentences offered on his disposition indicate not so much a stereotype as an inevitability, the uniform reactionary that haunts the halls of every strong governmental institution. Considering the novelty of submarine warfare, such an official would be in principle the least likely among all professions to place greed and deception before a planned and secure life. Although this same official and his ilk remain the closest citizens to the vault of state secrets.
There is a pleasing fervor to The Bruce-Partington Plans that only compares to the more attenuated tension of a well-made thriller. It is one of the longer Holmes stories, and one of the best, and its effectiveness lies in the intricacies of the crime. A transfer of the plans could drastically shift military advantage, which suddenly endangers empire and citizen alike – but neither Holmes nor we, as it were, are concerned with empire. From all indications West had a hand in the blueprints' disappearance as he was found with seven of the ten on his murdered person. Granted, these were the seven least important prints; and there is the implication that the submarine could be passably engineered on the basis of the three others. What is more, West was about to marry (Watson and Holmes interview his sobbing bride), and could also have used the money were he planning to purchase separate quarters or start a family. Yet compare Mycroft's impression of Johnson cited above to what he thought of the younger clerk:
He has been ten years in the service and has done good work. He has the reputation of being hot-headed and impetuous, but a straight, honest man. We have nothing against him. He was next Sidney Johnson in the office. His duties brought him into daily, personal contact with the plans. No one else had the handling of them.
My copy, a venerated edition which must be right, contains "impetuous"; but an online search also yields "imperious," which cannot possibly refer to the callow and naive West. Unless, of course, he took the whole notion of global domination more seriously than first imagined. Strange what ten safe and sheltered years can do to human desire.