What are the Bruce-Partington Plans?
The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans feels like a precursor to the modern spy thriller and it’s a fun Sherlock Holmes story. It’s inspired by real life crimes around 1905 and 1907, and has been adapted countless times, by Sherlock, Elementary on CBS, and in the Return of Sherlock Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett. This detailed story was probably pretty cutting edge in its time, first published in 1908. The Return of Sherlock Holmes version carries on this theme and features a guest-appearance by Charles Gray as Mycroft. The show has some good performances, probably brought on by a good pace as it zips along trying to solve the mystery.
The Granada episode begins with the arrival of Mycroft, who recruits his brother to solve a recent case of some stolen plans. Nigel Bruce and Basil Rathbone also put this tale to radio, which is more or less a dramatization of the original story. There is a bit more exposition and stupid dialogue in the radio play, so I prefer the Jeremy Brett version.
There is substantial detective work by Holmes. I like these clever deductions quite a bit, and I think only The Musgrave Ritual or The Second Stain has better revelations, off the top of my head. A dead man turns up on the rail tracks with the stolen plans in his pocket, so the group of them go there and inspect the scene. By the end of their time there, you can tell Holmes suspects the truth in the matter and later explains how the body ended up there. The Jeremy Brett version does well to emphasize this point. They do this by simplifying some of the detail found in the original story and giving more dialogue to Jeremy Brett, as he analyzes and asks questions about the murder.
I think the only fault in this story is with the climax, which relies a little too heavily on a deus ex machina. Holmes only solves the case because of information conveniently provided by Mycroft, that Holmes uses to track down a foreign spy and decode a mysterious cipher in the newspaper left by an agent calling himself Pierrot. Who or what is Pierrot? Pierrot is a stock character or a clown in French pantomime, which could reference the criminal himself who is hiding behind a false identity, like a clown hides his face behind make-up. Or it could be a slight against the French, as Holmes sees through this stupid alias pretty easily.
The Jeremy Brett version of this story also has a different ending, where the police allow the thief to go free. “We’re keeping him on a long lead,” Inspector Bradstreet says. Why was this change made? I guess it seems a little more in line with spy thrillers and maybe it was used to give Denis Lill a little more dialogue as Bradstreet. Inspector Bradstreet has a more authoritative and classic appearance than Lestrade, as if he’s an international agent himself. Denis Lill only has a few lines, but it’s a good performance, if not a subtle one. The original story also had Holmes receive a reward from a mysterious lady, who is hinted at to be the Queen. I’ve never seen this ending in any of the adaptations.
Overall, this is a classic story. The Jeremy Brett episode is worth seeking out and the radio adaptation by Rathbone & Bruce is worth a listen, if you’re patient. Jeremy Brett’s appearance seems to suffer during this period in his life and he looks overweight, put on as a side-effect of his medication. His hair is also quite short, perhaps cut off in rebellion against all Paget appearances. Neither weakness affects his performance and doesn’t hurt the episode in the least. Even the deus ex machina doesn’t really bother me, but the deductions are better in The Second Stain, I should think, where they’re free from Mycroft’s convenient info. The espionage flair is what makes this story work, and even Holmes and Watson get into the spirit of things by breaking into the house of the known spy. There is more detective work inside, which again shows heavy detail and the clever juxtaposition of spies, secret codes, and danger.
What are the Bruce-Partington Plans?
The Bruce-Partington Plans are for a secret British submarine, which was likely an E-Class submarine first operated around that time. Mycroft asserts that naval warfare becomes “impossible” in the radius of a Bruce-Partington submarine, which is an ironic reference to the critical importance submarines would have in later history. This use of submarines and the military might of the British has overtones that suggest the influence of war and foreshadows European conflicts.