In the first days of January ‘17, the Arctic air frosted over London forcing even the most careless citizen of that metropolis to accept the mastery of those great elemental forces which shriek at mankind through the bars of his civilisation. Holmes would not move from his fire, and was as moody as only he could be when he had no case to interest him.
‘Why,’ said I, glancing up at my companion, ‘that was surely the bell. Who could come tonight? Some friend of yours, perhaps?’
‘Except yourself I have none,’ he answered.
‘A client, then?’
‘If so, it is a serious case. Nothing less would bring a man out on such a day and at such an hour. But I take it that it is more likely to be some crony of the landlady’s.’
Sherlock Holmes was wrong in his conjecture, however, for there came a step in the passage and a tapping at the door.
The man who entered was the wrong side of middle age, some five and sixty at the outside, well groomed, and trimly clad in a 1000-guinea suit.
‘You have come up from Fitzrovia,’ said Holmes
‘I have,’ our guest replied plainly astonished.
‘The distinctive clay and sand mixture on your shoes can only be from the pavement repairs outside the Langham Place branch of Pizza Express,’ explained Holmes with a yawn.
‘And I see you work in broadcasting.’
‘I am Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC,’ the visitor exclaimed.’ Sir, how could you know?’
‘The lines from forced smiles around your mouth and the dark bags around your eyes tell me you are from a profession where one must make an outward show of passionate enthusiasm while concealing a wild despair. Your decision to wear a suit and shirt but no necktie merely confirmed the point for me.’
Our visitor could take no more. ‘I had hoped you could help me Mr Holmes. I am told you are fond of queer mysteries, and there is none queerer than this.’
‘By all means. The cold has sent the criminals of London to sleep, and I yearn for a new case.’
‘It’s about Sherlock, a drama series on which I have spent a not inconsiderable sum of money. Money, which I should tell you Mr Holmes, my organisation can ill afford to lose.’
‘Pray proceed,’ said Holmes, bringing his fingers together and staring at our guest with a concentration no other man in England could match.
‘It begins with Professor Moriarty taking over every computer and TV screen.’
‘Why would he do that?’
‘No one knows’
‘Will it be explained later?’
‘No one knows’.
‘Anyway, a boy burns to death in a car.’
‘Is this child’s unfortunate demise at the heart of your case?’
‘Not really. It’s covered in 90 seconds.’
‘As I understand it, Mr Hall, you assigned 90 minutes to your entertainment. How did your scriptwriters fill the remaining 88 minutes and 30 seconds?’
Our visitor turned pale. He clearly did not wish to speak, but with the effort of a condemned man climbing the steps he stammered, ‘By making you lovable.’
‘Yes to show you are game for a laff.’
‘And how do these repellent qualities manifest themselves?’
‘You lunge for a plate of biscuits and shout, “Are those ginger nuts? I love ginger nuts”.’
‘Surely this must make me seem remarkably stupid?’
‘Everyone must in BBC drama today. Easily bored 13-year olds are our target audience. Even after the watershed. Especially after the watershed.’
‘But I must have a case to solve.’
‘This is why I am here Mr Holmes. The BBC wishes only that you could solve it for we are at a loss to understand what we have broadcast, or indeed why we have broadcast.
‘You must know that Dr Watson’s wife, is now an international assassin, whose career is modelled on the adventures of one Mr Jason Bourne, of New York City.’
‘My dear Holmes,’ I cried, ‘this is too much’.
‘I assume Watson,’ said Holmes, trying to calm me, ‘the BBC intends that in the interest of dramatic plausibility you met Mrs Watson on the field of battle. In Afghanistan, perhaps.’
‘Not a bit of it,’ the broadcaster replied. ‘Dr Watson marries her thinking she was just the kind of woman he would have met in Fortnum & Mason, or Waitrose if he were in one of the poorer parts of town. Only later does it transpire that his wife has worked for the CIA, MI6 and agencies of other powers as a contract killer – as so many young women do these days.’
‘A fellow assassin is searching busts of Lady Margaret Thatcher, for a USB stick containing all the details of his life, he had hid in a Lady Margaret Thatcher bust manufacturing factory in Tbilisi, Georgia. (That’s Georgia Caucasus, not Georgia USA.)
‘He decides that he must kill Mrs Watson for betraying him when they were international men (and women) of mystery six years previously, even though Mrs Watson is about to have a baby and gallantry would demand restraint.
‘Mr Watson is, meanwhile, betraying Mrs Watson by thinking about having an affair. It turns out that spy who betrayed the assassin was not Mrs Watson but a secretary working for Her Majesty’s Government. The secretary tries to kill Mr Holmes in an aquarium, near Westminster, I believe, but Mrs Watson throws herself in front of the bullet and dies in his place.’
My capacity to speak deserted me. But Holmes retained his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.
‘Why would international assassins carry USB sticks containing all their secrets? Surely it would make the task of any arresting constable seeking to ascertain their motives ridiculously easy to accomplish.’
‘I don’t know,’ said the Director-General
‘Why would my good friend Dr Watson consider an improper relationship with another lady? Was he flabbergasted to discover that his wife was, contrary to all reasonable expectations, a hired killer of the utmost ruthlessness?
‘I don’t know,’ said the Director-General.
And said Holmes his voice raising, ‘why would the mother of a new-born child kill herself to protect me? The fair sex is not my department, but surely her first instinct would be to protect her baby?’
‘I don’t know,’ said the Director-General. ‘I really don’t know anything.’
‘Come man. It is easy. I wonder why you even considered such trivialities worthy of my attention. Our creator Mr Arthur Conan Doyle insisted in A Case of Identity that “the little things are infinitely the most important”. He would never allow Dr Watson to present a case to the public filled with slapdash tricks.
‘But Conan Doyle’s standards are hard to meet. It is easier to raid zany crime capers and action movies than create a true mystery. Easier to give Dr Watson a love interest then kill her off so he can have a fresh love interest in the next episode than think of a plot that can hold the audience’s attention.
‘Better to substitute sentimentality for sensitivity, clichés for craftsmanship, and contrivance for creativity. The alternative would require writers of application and talent your organisation can no longer acquire.’
The director-general ran. He looked back at us from the door, and I had a last impression of that haunted face, the startled eyes, and the drawn mouth.
Then he was gone.