This was originally part of InSpyNoMo.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as one of the founding fathers of detective fiction. Sherlock Holmes is practically synonymous with Detective, Watson with side-kick. However, there are a fair handful of their adventures that are actually early examples of the spy genre. In particular, ‘The Naval Treaty’ (1893), ‘The Second Stain’ (1904), ‘The Bruce-Partington Plans’ (1912) and ‘His Last Bow’ (1917) feature, if not actual spying then certainly themes of espionage. In the first three, Holmes acts as detective for cases of international intrigue; national, rather than personal or familial, security is at stake in each. If he fails, the country is at war and various members of Government publicly denounced.
In ‘His Last Bow’, in order to protect British military and defence secrets from foreign spies, Holmes actually turns agent himself, feeding false information to the Germans on the eve of World War I. Unlike the previous three, here Holmes’s famous powers of deduction remain largely untouched. Instead he infiltrates an England-based German spy ring via the guise of a disgruntled Irish-American. Although a good story, as a spy story ‘His Last Bow’ is flawed. The reveal scene seems unnecessary; Holmes could have easily revealed to Watson and the reader alone. Many argue that a ‘real’ spy would have left von Bork, the German ringleader, to escape back to Germany and continued to feed him misinformation once war was declared. Holmes, instead, reveals all and thus undermines two years toil and an entire network of British agents.
I can see where these critics come from, though rarely do fictional spies ever behave the way spies might in the real world. What seems to me more interesting is that in later spy-fi, we find the villains doing the reveal, which ultimately enables the hero to restore order. (And, of course, it doesn’t do for the spy-hero to win too easily, nor for the spy-hero to boast to the villain that he has succeeded. As the invisible hero, he must instead finish the job and make sure there’s enough time for the paint to dry before morning rush-hour begins.) I wonder if this ‘blunder’ by Holmes is actually where we find the story’s lasting, if distorted, effect.
I have yet to read this properly, but this article by Esme Miskimmin looks like it might offer some useful insights into Victorian views of criminality and the criminal underworld.