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Decoding the Subtext: The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter

Dates:

Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter in September of 1888. While Watson does not give a date, he does mention that the story took place on a summer evening sometime during his long and intimate acquaintance with Sherlock Holmes. This suggests a later date, but it should be noted that Watson is unmarried and living in Baker Street. This is also the first time Watson has had to occasion to meet Mycroft, suggestion that the story took place sometime before Holmes' disappearance in The Final Problem (as we know Watson had previously met Mycroft in FINA --it is also impossible to date the story past its publication date). Ruling out, then, a year after Holmes' return, we can safely date The Greek Interpreter late in Holmes and Watson's acquaintanceship, but before Watson's marriage to Miss Morstan. The story was first published in 1893.

Synopsis:

Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's brother, has all of Holmes' intellect, but none of Holmes' energy, so when Mr. Melas, a Greek interpreter, first shares his strange and fantastical tale with Mycroft, Mycroft's first thought is to turn the entire affair over to his brother. So begins The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter, and aside from allowing us some valuable insight into Holmes' singular family, the case also takes us on a mysterious journey, where a kidnapping reveals a mysterious man with sticky plaster upon his face. So concerned for this man is Mr. Melas that he is willing to risk threatened punishment by telling his tale to the Holmes' brothers; a decision that will later come back to haunt him.

The Subtext:

During my long and intimate acquaintance with Mr. Sherlock Holmes I had never heard him refer to his relations, and hardly ever to his own early life. This reticence upon his part had increased the somewhat inhuman effect which he produced upon me, until sometimes I found myself regarding him as an isolated phenomenon, a brain without a heart, as deficient in human sympathy as he was pre-eminent in intelligence. His aversion to women and his disinclination to form new friendships were both typical of his unemotional character, but not more so than his complete suppression of every reference to his own people. I had come to believe that he was an orphan with no relatives living, but one day, to my very great surprise, he began to talk to me about his brother.

So begins The Greek Interpreter, and already we are presented with several interesting comments. Note the contradiction in language here: Watson first tells us of his long and intimate acquaintance with Holmes, but then goes on to compare him to a brain without a heart. Clearly, at this point in their relationship, Holmes was still quite closed off, possibly fearing the immense emotional ramifications that would accompany letting Watson fully into his heart.

Watson also notes Holmes' aversion to women --a reoccurring theme in Canon. It is interesting to note here that, during the Victorian era, many men who would today be classified as homosexual were then known as inverts. Victorians, known for their decorum, would not have labelled an individual an invert, but rather, they would have alluding to this 'condition' by drawing attention to the individual's eccentric behaviour. Oscar Wilde, for example, was famous for his aversion to women.

Then there is Watson's statement that Holmes was disinclined to form new friendships. We know Holmes considers Watson a friend, as he has, on several occasions, referred to Watson as such, and yet it is interesting to note that Holmes seems uninterested in forming new friendships. Obviously his friendship with Watson can be considered an anomaly, and if that is the case, one cannot help but wonder what it was that caused Holmes to single Watson out from so many others.

Finally, we have Holmes speaking to Watson of his brother, an incredibly intimate act, especially for one prone to suppressing the details of his life. That Holmes would trust Watson enough to share this information is a clear indication of Holmes' affection for Watson.

Indeed, beyond merely sharing his brother's existence with Watson, Holmes offers to introduce the pair. It need not be said that the meeting of family is quite the significant step in any relationship.

"The Diogenes Club is the queerest club in London, and Mycroft one of the queerest men. He's always there from quarter to five to twenty to eight. It's six now, so if you care for a stroll this beautiful evening I shall be very happy to introduce you to two curiosities."

I want to touch on two points in Holmes' statement. The first is Holmes' use of the word queer. Although queer traditionally meant strange, or unusual, it is today commonly associated with homosexuality. The shift in meaning, however, dates back further than one would imagine. Indeed, in 1894, John Sholto Douglas, the ninth Marques of Queensberry, used this word to refer to his son Lord Alfred Douglas, when complaining of Alfred's relationship with Oscar Wilde. Even before this time the word queer was commonly associated with gay men. While an exact date is unknown, its modern use can be traced back as early as the 18th century, the phrase 'queer' used to describe men who worked in molly houses (male brothels).

While queer, at this point in time, would have likely carried both meanings, it is curious to note that Holmes chooses queer in this instance, when so often Holmes has opted for singular instead. Could it be that Mycroft himself was gay? And that the Diogenes Club was, in reality, a gentleman's club?

This, of course, brings us to our second point. Prior to offering to introduce Watson to his queer brother, Holmes remarks upon hereditary traits, and informs Watson that his brother shares his aptitude for deduction and observation. Clearly this is not the only hereditary trait to pass from brother to brother. This theory becomes entirely more probable when one examines Holmes' next suggestion; that they take a stroll this beautiful evening. For a man entirely preoccupied by intelligence, this request is teeming with romantic innuendo.

Watson instantly agrees to accompany Holmes to the Diogenes Club, and immediately the pair set off. Holmes is very careful to explain the rules of the club, and it is interesting to note that speaking is not allowed, save for in the Stranger's Room. Stranger, as the reader may know, is another turn of the century term used to identify homosexuals.

My brother was one of the founders, and I have myself found it a very soothing atmosphere.

This was, of course, before Holmes met Watson.

To turn our attention back to serious matters, I want to point out something quite remarkable in this story.

Mycroft Holmes was a much larger and stouter man than Sherlock.

Watson, for perhaps the first time in all of Canon, refers to Holmes by his given name. While Watson has referred to Holmes as 'Mr. Sherlock Holmes', 'Sherlock Holmes', and, of course, 'Holmes', this is the first time he has used, simply, Sherlock. While this can easily be explained as a means of differentiating between the two brothers, one cannot help but notice Watson's distinct lack of propriety here. Truly, the shift in their relationship has created a new sense of familiarity. Indeed, a moment later Watson makes use of Holmes' first name a second time.

His eyes, which were of a peculiarly light, watery gray, seemed to always retain that far-away, introspective look which I had only observed in Sherlock's when he was exerting his full powers.

It is curious to note, too, that Mycroft does not require an introduction. He is instantly aware of who Watson is, and the role Watson plays in Holmes' life.

"I am glad to meet you, sir," said he, putting out a broad, fat hand like the flipper of a seal. "I hear of Sherlock everywhere since you became his chronicler.

Recall that, when using Baring-Gould's date of 1888, Watson has only published one story: A Study in Scarlet. Surely this is not enough to presume Watson has assumed the role of chronicler.

Shortly following Watson's introduction to Mycroft, Holmes and Mycroft begin trading deductions, much to Watson's amazement. Watson expresses his incredulity, to which both Holmes and Mycroft begin to explain their reasoning. After, Watson tells us:

I began to understand what my friend meant when he said that his brother possessed even keener faculties that he did himself. He glanced across at me and smiled.

There is something quite touching in Holmes' smile, and yet, one cannot help but notice Holmes' uncertainty here. It is obvious that Holmes depends upon his uniqueness as a means of keeping Watson's interest, and yet here Holmes has demonstrated that his ability is neither unique, nor particularly well defined. Surely this must have concerned Holmes. In introducing Watson to his brother, Holmes has taken a rather large leap of faith.

This requires an extraordinary amount of trust, and we see here Holmes' uncertainty in giving over that trust. His smile, then, represents an attempt to reassure his position in Watson's life; a clear indication of just how important Watson has become to Holmes.

Holmes' attempts to gain reassurances are waylaid by Mycroft's offer of a case, one which Holmes is only too eager to accept. It is here that Mycroft asks Mr. Melas to step across and share his tale. After hearing it, Holmes and Watson return to Baker Street, discussing the case while they walk. It is interesting to note here that it is Watson who first suggests the solution to the case (with Holmes' prodding), to which Holmes replies:

"Excellent, Watson!" cried Holmes. "I really fancy that you are not far from the truth.

Holmes' enthusiasm comes with the realization that Watson is still very much interesting in Holmes' work, a great relief on Holmes' part, no doubt.

Their conversation dwindles as Holmes and Watson arrive at Baker Street, only to find Mycroft waiting for them. The case quickly turns serious and, delayed by the want of a warrant, their arrival at the scene of the crime arrives too late for the man Mr. Melas was trying to help; indeed, it comes almost too late for Mr. Melas.

The story ends without resolution, but sees Holmes and Watson back in Baker Street once more, this time hearing of the death of two Englishmen, who were traveling with a woman. Holmes, certain that the trio is the one he seeks, cannot help but theorize upon the revenge which has been served.

So ends The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter, Holmes relieved by Watson's continued interest, and Watson content to remain by Holmes' side. Indeed, Watson has gained an even greater advantage; proof positive that Holmes is far more than a mere brain within a body.

Watson has been accepted into Holmes' life fully now, with the added benefit of having Holmes' older brother's approval. Truly, this marks a great shift in their relationship, the two men a good deal closer, despite Holmes' perceived failure of the case.

 
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