Title:Stranger Than Fiction
Stranger Than Fiction
My friend Sherlock Holmes speaks little of the past. Indeed, although he clearly likes to keep an atmosphere of his native century within his own life, his mind is always firmly rooted in the complexities of the present. Thus, when he does bestir himself to bring up, in his own offhanded way, some item of historical interest, it never fails to be fascinating.
It was a pleasant autumn evening in 2104, and as was often the case, Holmes and I were spending it in the company of the Baker Street Irregulars. For some hours after tea, our young friends sprawled across the rug with their books and papers as I helped them with their homework. Holmes meanwhile sat curled up in his armchair, dreamy-eyed and absorbed in his music, as he improvised one cheery air after another. Of late he had been in the midst of one of those small but peculiar private inquiries which he often found so congenial to his tastes, and he was therefore in excellent spirits.
Wiggins, Deidre and Tennyson were just gathering their books when there came a knock upon our door, and at a crisp summons from Holmes, Inspector Lestrade stepped into the sitting room.
"I’m sorry, Holmes, I didn’t know you had company," Lestrade said upon seeing the Irregulars. "I wanted to talk to you about the Mitchell case, but I can come back."
Wiggins stood up, shouldering his book bag. "Hey, it’s cool. We were just leaving anyway. We’ve got a lot of reading to do for some dumb ol’ book report."
"What is the book?" I asked in curiosity.
"Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne." Wiggins shook his head. "Strange old story, if you ask me. Nowadays it’s pretty hard to imagine having to take that long to go around the world."
Holmes chuckled and sat up straight in his chair. "Ah, but that was the reality of my day, Wiggins," he said good-humoredly. "I was rather near your age when Mister Phileas Fogg went on that mad dash round the globe. I remember that I followed the news of it with some interest—mainly, I admit, because the man was accused of absconding with stolen funds. I studied the theft and determined his innocence long before the real culprit was captured. You see I had a turn for criminology, even then."
Deidre goggled at Holmes. "But I thought that book was all just a piece of fiction!"
"As I recall, you once thought the same of me." Holmes smiled enigmatically and steepled his fingers. "No, Phileas Fogg was quite real. Before those ‘Eighty Days’ and his subsequent marriage made a wreck of the mechanically precise order of his life, I daresay he was the one man in London who was even more singular in his habits than myself. The fact is that many years later, he lent his genius for timetables to help solve one of my cases."
Tennyson chirped eagerly at his keyboard, and his remark was echoed by Deidre. "Yeah, tell us the story!"
"Read the book first," said Holmes with a laugh. "Monsieur Verne was just as guilty as John Watson when it came to mangling stories for the sake of romance, but I shouldn’t like to color your views before your assignments are written. If your grades on the report are good, I promise to tell you all about my experience with Phileas Fogg—but now perhaps I’d best see to the problem Inspector Lestrade is so patiently waiting to tell me. Good evening, Irregulars."
Once the Irregulars had paraded noisily out of the room and could be heard clamoring down the stairs, Lestrade shut the door behind them, then turned to Holmes with a look both amused and reproachful. "You really had them going."
"Did I?" Holmes asked innocently.
"With all that stuff about Phileas Fogg being real. I’ve read Jules Verne. He had quite an imagination."
"He certainly had some perceptive qualities—not unlike my own in some respects, although his particular talent lay in drawing inferences about the distant future. Around the World in Eighty Days was no product of his unique vision, however." Holmes drew his knees up to his chest with a smile of secret amusement. "You would be astonished, my dear Lestrade, to know how many significant individuals of my day are now presumed to be fictional… or vice versa, for that matter."
Wide-eyed, Lestrade drew up the stool from the desk and sat facing Holmes. "You’re serious, aren’t you?"
"Phileas Fogg was a member of the Diogenes Club in his later years, after his interests had broadened. His famous biographer came round with him on occasion, and my brother Mycroft once had the happy chance to introduce me to them both. Verne was rather interesting, for the reason I described, but Fogg was truly impressive: he perceived, much as I do, that with sufficient information all possibilities might be anticipated. ‘The unforeseen does not exist’ was his credo, and I must confess I admired that philosophy. Though his severe punctiliousness was quite the opposite to myself, I found his clarity of thought to be exceptional. In fact…" Holmes paused, almost a hesitation. "I never inquired into his affairs, but I suspect Brother Mycroft may have made more official use of Fogg’s calculating mind now and again."
In my many months at Holmes’ side, this occasion was the first time I had ever heard him make mention of his brother, whom I knew of only through the writings of the original Watson. The references were quick and curiously impersonal, and I wondered briefly if my friend ever missed his relative.
"You say Fogg assisted in one of your cases," I said with a frown, "but there is no mention of this in any of my predecessor’s journals. Why is that?"
"The case was left unrecorded at Fogg’s own request. After Monsieur Verne had immortalized those Eighty Days, I suspect he’d had quite enough publicity." Holmes chuckled. "We had occasion more than once to compare notes about the flaws of our biographers—in his case Verne, and in my case… your ‘predecessor’, of course."
Lestrade gave an impatient shrug. "So what’s the story?"
Holmes smiled crookedly. "Come round on the day the Irregulars present their grades to me, Lestrade, and I’ve no doubt you shall hear it. I find that our young friends can be highly motivated in their studies by the promise of a story which was never committed to paper."
"Sneaky," Lestrade declared, but with an amused smile on her face.
"Effective!" Holmes replied simply, and clasped his hands. "Now, what was this matter of the Mitchell case you wanted to discuss?"