Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 6): Of detectives and detection

Was the hiss emitted by the lifting bottle-cap, or Lestrade’s plump lips? Difficult to tell, but without doubt there was a trace of parody in the Scotland Yard man’s tone when he remarked, putting the metal opener down and pouring his beer into a glass, “this, I think, is a triple White Shield problem.”
The two of us were sitting on scuffed, dun-coloured leather armchairs in the seedy, dun-coloured parlour of Webb’s Hotel in Liskeard, which the unexpected sunlight of this October afternoon failed to penetrate through either of two tall, cobwebbed and mossy windows. Lestrade had just joined me, a sheaf of papers on his lap, all written over in his own distinctively thin and wavering hand (“a penmanship that looks,” Holmes had once remarked, “as if a bluebottle had lately escaped from a bottle of whisky into a bottle of blue-black Quink and then gone staggering across a notepad.”)
There was a bluebottle, now, rubbing its forelegs together in one of the little rings of beer Lestrade’s glass was leaving on the yellow formica-top of our table.
“Brother Mycroft? Get hold of him in the end?” Lestrade asked, swatting at the fly with his papers. It took off, circled, landed on the detective’s head, and when he angrily brushed it away, went back to his beer.
“At the third attempt, yes.”
After my friend had – perhaps unsurprisingly – begged a private audience with the priest, I’d left Holmes with Father Entwistle and gone straight to find Lestrade with my news (either sensational or farcical: as yet, who knew which?) of the newly disclosed allegations about Holmes’s parentage. Sensibly, Lestrade had suggested that we head straight for Liskeard, a part of the see in which Holmes’s father was supposed to have been a Bishop, and the likeliest place to yield a copy of Crockford’s Clerical Directory.
Lestrade had taxed me with the raising of Mycroft, which I first tried to do via Facebook on Holmes’s laptop in his hotel bedroom. I remember a cormorant landing on the windowsill and staring hungrily – or so it seemed – into my eyes just at the very moment the broadband gave out. My next endeavour took the form of a text message, after we’d set off. In reply, I received a stream of unintelligible algebraic symbols. I turned the screen of my mobile to show Lestrade, glanced out of the train and was convinced that our Labradoodle was bounding through the fields beside us. “Look!” I cried. “That dog...”
“A calf,” said Lestrade, tersely. “Try texting again.”
“Can’t. No signal, now. Are you sure?” For the ‘calf’ had just leapt a hedge.
“All right then, a panther,” said Lestrade. “The beast of Bodmin.”
But whichever creature it was, the animal ducked into a birch wood and was gone. Meanwhile we were now so deep in a valley that all hope of phone contact was lost until we reached Liskeard.
Now I was able to tell Lestrade, who had gone to the lending library before joining me at Webb’s, that I had at length used the hotel landline to reach Mycroft Holmes through the porter’s lodge at the Diogenes club.
“He’s on his way.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Very little. The Webb concierge was keen to overhear me.”
“This is a rum business, doctor,” said Lestrade. “Turns out there was a Bishop of Bodmin and Liskeard with the unlikely name of Arthur Plynnfarlong, that he was cashiered for some species of heresy, and that he had just the one son by just the one wife, Shirley, née Holmes, who died in childbirth. What do you make of that?”
“Great heavens. Shirley Holmes? Blow me down.”
“No, doctor. Not that. One son.”
“I don’t follow you?”
“Grief man. Was it Mycroft or Sherlock? It can’t be the both of them if he was Dad to a singleton, can it?”
“Great heavens.”
“So you say, quite often. Well listen, my friend” – and Lestrade swigged his beer then spat, for the fly had moved to the rim of his glass; the insect shot out from his lips, looped the loop, then zigzagged away – “we need to talk about our chum Sherlock Holmes. There’s things don’t add up.”
“For example, what?” I asked, with some heat.
“For example, in your preliminary notes on the man,” (and here Lestrade spread his own shabby papers upon the formica) “which you published in the reminiscence named ‘A Study in Scarlet’, you say, inter alia, ‘knowledge of philosophy, nil’, and, ‘knows nothing of practical gardening’.”
“Yes? And?”
“And then, Doctor Watson, in a collection of reports you gathered under the title ‘His Last Bow’, you remark that ‘friends of Mr Sherlock Holmes will be glad to learn that he has, for many years, lived in a small farm upon the Downs five miles from Eastbourne, where his time is divided between philosophy and agriculture’.”
“When the recession began to bite, of course, he left Sussex to rejoin me in Baker Street.”
“Hmm. Forgive me, but you’re prevaricating just a little, I think.” Lestrade dropped one sheet of paper on the floor and took up another. “Now. Here we have third little yarn of yours, with a deceptively dull title, ‘The Cardboard Box’. I quote: ‘As to my companion [which is, of course, Mr Holmes], neither the country nor the sea presented the slightest attraction to him. 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. Appreciation of nature found no place among his many gifts’.”
“Rather mellifluously put, don’t you think?”
“Indeed, but hardly accurate if we are to believe this next bit of reportage.” Lestrade cleared his throat, drank again, and continued thus, somewhat to my embarrassment: “The adventure, as you call it, of the ‘Lion’s Mane’ occurs, Holmes says, and this is his direct speech, as set down by you, ‘after my withdrawal to my little Sussex home, when I had given myself up entirely to that soothing life of Nature for which I had so often yearned during the long years I spent amid the gloom of London... On the morning of which I speak the wind had abated, and all Nature was newly washed and fresh. It was impossible to work upon so delightful a day, and I strolled out before breakfast to enjoy the exquisite air’.” Well? Did you never observe the inconsistency? His enraptured stroll, by the way, takes him through the countryside and down to the sea.”
“I... I... well, people change, don’t they?”
“Oh, come off it,” sneered Lestrade. “He always says you’re not the brightest pin in the cushion, but really, doctor, really, wake up and try to shine a little. This isn’t change you describe, it’s the invasion of the body snatchers. Given that you portray Mr Holmes several times as a master of disguise, are you sure, what with the wild disparity of your descriptions of his favoured and unfavoured disciplines and predilections, that there haven’t actually been two or even three different Sherlock Holmeses sharing your digs in Marylebone, London NW1?”
“I think,” said a portwine voice from behind us, “that we should cease this casuistical squabbling and address ourselves forthwith to my brother’s welfare.”
“Mycroft?” I was stupefied. “How the devil did you reach us so swiftly?”
“Why, by the quickest route, clearly,” he replied. “Needs must, and so forth.” The older of the Holmes brothers was sitting on the velvet-covered stool beside the parlour’s old piano. It occurred to me that his habitual garb, sober and severe, a black coat with black-braided lapels and a blue-black waistcoat, was not unepiscopal. His bald head shone and his pewter-coloured, close-shaven chins gleamed and wobbled. But his eyes, as ever, were cold.
“Where is your brother, then?” asked Lestrade.
“Entwistle is taking him to Wilder Hall on Dartmoor, seat of our father’s exile. I sense danger, real and imminent. Come. My car is outside. There are mysteries, I know, but I can elucidate them as we travel.”
Lestrade grabbed an unopened bottle of White Shield and thrust it into his trouser pocket . Mycroft opened the door to usher us into the lobby, but his way was blocked by the concierge, who said: “Sorry, gentlemen, but I’ve had to bolt up the front. Beer delivery. The hatches are open. Health and safety, you know? Wouldn’t want you plunging into the cellarage. This way, if you don’t mind.”
He tried to shepherd us back along a narrow, dingy corridor, but Mycroft was seized with what seemed a mixture of panic and rage, screaming, “I must go out at the front. I must.” And he barged past the concierge, unbolted the door, and rushed into the square, breathing stertorously and clawing at his brow.
“Well, goodness me,” I murmured to Lestrade. “I wonder what that was about?”
“What indeed?” Lestrade replied, helping the concierge to his feet. “And three times, as well, you had to ask him to come. These are deep waters, as our mutual friend might aver. I sense, doctor, that we might be getting out of our depths.”

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