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The first paragraph of the Holmes story The Naval Treaty, from Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, reads as follows (emphasis mine):

The July which immediately succeeded my marriage was made memorable by three cases of interest, in which I had the privilege of being associated with Sherlock Holmes and of studying his methods. I find them recorded in my notes under the headings of "The Adventure of the Second Stain", "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty", and "The Adventure of the Tired Captain". The first of these, however, deals with interest of such importance and implicates so many of the first families in the kingdom that for many years it will be impossible to make it public. No case, however, in which Holmes was engaged has ever illustrated the value of his analytical methods so clearly, or has impressed those who were associated with him so deeply. I still retain and almost verbatim report of the interview in which he demonstrated the true facts of the case to Monsieur Dubugue of the Paris police, and Fritz von Waldbaum, the well-known specialist of Dantzig, both of whom had wasted their energies upon what proved to be side issues. The new century will have come, however, before the story can be safely told. Meanwhile I pass on to the second in my list, which promised also at one time to be of national importance, and was marked by several incidents which give it a quite unique character.

Taken by itself, this seems like the kind of Noodle Incident reminiscence which is fairly common among the Holmes stories. On many occasions Watson as narrator refers to some adventure they had together which never made it to publication. Perhaps this is a way of reminding readers that Holmes had a great many more adventures than just those that were published.

But in this particular case, The Adventure of the Second Stain is in fact the name of a later story, from The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Its first paragraph reads as follows (emphasis mine):

I had intended "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange" to be the last of those exploits of my friend, Mr Sherlock Holmes, which I should ever communicate to the public. This resolution of mine was not due to any lack of material, since I have notes of many hundreds of cases to which I have never alluded, nor was it caused by any waning interest on the part of my readers in the singular personality and unique methods of this remarkable man. The real reason lay in the reluctance which Mr. Holmes has shown to the continued publication of his experiences. So long as he was in actual professional practice the records of his successes were of some practical value to him, but since he has definitely retired from London and betaken himself to study and bee-farming on the Sussex Downs, notoriety has become hateful to him, and he has peremptorily requested that his wishes in this matter should be strictly observed. It was only upon my representing to him that I had given a promise that "The Adventure of the Second Stain" should be published when the times were ripe, and pointing out to him that it is only appropriate that this long series of episodes should culminate in the most important international case which he has ever been called upon to handle, that I at last succeeded in obtaining his consent that a carefully guarded account of the incident should at last be laid before the public. If in telling the story I seem to be somewhat vague in certain details, the public will readily understand that there is an excellent reason for my reticence.

Did Conan Doyle always intend "The Adventure of the Second Stain" to be an actual story from the beginning, or was it originally just another Noodle Incident which he only later decided to write up as a story?

Question inspired by @Hamlet on Area51; I asked him if he was planning to post it here before doing so myself.

  • Dunno about planning, but the Second Stain was almost certainly written well after the Naval Treaty was published. – muru Feb 28 '17 at 2:17
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I haven't been able to find any primary source material from Doyle on the matter, and after a decent amount of reading, it doesn't seem like anyone else has, either. However, that doesn't mean I can't give it a good shot, because we've certainly got some material to go on, especially if we consider the stories in the context of all of Doyle's stories about Holmes.

First, while there are certainly some similarities between "The Adventure of the Second Stain" (which I will use to refer to the actual printed story) and the imaginary one, there are also quite a few differences (all quotes in the bullets from Watson's writing in "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty"):

  • The first of these, however, deals with interest of such importance and implicates so many of the first families in the kingdom

    No, it doesn't. By my count, the people who knew about the problem in England were the Prime Minister (Lord Bellinger), the Secretary for European Affairs (Trelawney Hope), Hope's wife, and, according to Hope, "each member of the Cabinet" as well as "two, or possibly three, departmental officials" - as plus Eduardo Lucas, who I'll get to in a moment. What about anyone outside England? According to the Secretary, "no one abroad" knew of the letter. Only one "first family", therefore, is implicated, and that is the family of the Right Honourable Trelawney Hope.

    Yes, Scotland Yard and the French police were conducting investigations at the time that had a bearing on the case, but these were just into the murder of Eduardo Lucas, also known as Henri Fournaye. I won't spoil the plot for anyone who hasn't read "The Adventure of the Second Stain", but I will say that the police didn't find out about the connection between Lucas and the lost letter.

  • No case, however, in which Holmes was engaged has ever illustrated the value of his analytical methods so clearly or has impressed those who were associated with him so deeply.

    This is absolutely not true. In fact, precisely three people knew - prior to the story's publication - how Holmes solved the real case: Watson, the person who took the letter (whom I shall leave anonymous), and, of course, Holmes himself. In fact, Holmes actually ends the narrative with an enigmatic reply to the Prime Minister, when asked how he did it:

    "We also have our diplomatic secrets," said he, and picking up his hat he turned to the door.

    First, that's my favorite line in any Holmes story. Second, Holmes' methods weren't illustrated to anyone besides Watson! Perhaps others were indeed impressed, but that's only because they were intentionally kept in the dark about it. So I think there's a discrepancy here.

  • I still retain an almost verbatim report of the interview in which he demonstrated the true facts of the case to Monsieur Dubugue of the Paris police, and Fritz von Waldbaum, the well-known specialist of Dantzig.

    For a discussion about how Holmes actually did not explain things to people, see my above point. If he didn't explain his methods to the bloody Prime Minister, there's no way he talked to foreign officials about it, given that the British government - at least, those who knew about it - wanted the whole thing kept secret. Plus, while there was a French police investigation (with no mention of Dubugue) involved during the real adventure, it had to do with the death of Eduardo Lucas/Henri Fournaye, not the missing letter. I can also assure you that neither von Waldbaum nor the city of Dantzig were even mentioned.

In other words, all three sentences Watson dedicates to describing the story bear almost no resemblance to the actual published adventure. Now, it is possible - possible - that this is intentional deception on the part of Watson (and thus Doyle), to grab the readers' attention without telling them anything of substance, and not revealing any specifics, to protect Holmes and his request for secrecy. We do know that Watson is at times an unreliable narrator. However, using that assumption here is a generous interpretation of the problems.

Second, Thomas Vranken's The Public, the Press, and Celebrities in The Return of Sherlock Holmes establishes many ties and underlying themes among all the stories in this collection, implying that the published version of "The Adventure of the Second Stain" was written during this same period. For instance, secrecy and the troubles of those in power are touched upon in quite a few adventures, including "The Adventure of the Priory School". Additionally, Watson himself becomes much less willing to give details of certain cases:

I should be guilty of an indiscretion if I were even to hint at the identity of some of the illustrious clients who crossed our humble threshold in Baker Street ("The Adventure of Black Peter")


It is years since the incidents of which I speak took place, and yet it is with diffidence that I allude to them. . . with due suppression the story may be told in such fashion as to injure no one. ("The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton")


If in telling the story I seem to be somewhat vague in certain details the public will readily understand that there is an excellent reason for my reticence. ("The Adventure of the Second Stain")

Watson as a narrator has clearly evolved. He's much more reluctant to share details, a pattern which was not as apparent before, if it even existed. This may be in part because Doyle's stories involve more and more prestigious figures (although that was also true for certain cases in the past; see "A Scandal in Bohemia", as well as "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle", "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty", and others). Yes, Watson of course refused to give much information the first time around, but when Doyle actually wrote stories about people in power, he did not shy away from naming names, even though the characters were fictional.

Vranken touches upon other similarities. He connects the many references to struggles with aristocratic composure in "The Adventure of the Second Stain" with Doyle's experiences with being knighted in 1902, and also states

In the Return . . . the connection between sexualised feminine power and celebrity becomes far stronger

citing the actions of Lady Hilda Trelawney Hope - which I, like Watson, will only allude to, so as not to give the whole plot away.

Finally, for anyone wondering how the story could have changed so much in the intervening years - if it was indeed just an idea at first, which is what the evidence indicates - there may be an explanation. In Bed with Sherlock Holmes suggests that Jean Leckie, Doyle's second wife, may have written "more than 1,000 words" (page 100) of "The Adventure of the Second Stain", as well as influencing other stories. This would certainly account for many discrepancies between the two versions, suggesting that the published one was largely written later.

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