After a long hiatus, I am finally going through my inbox and the number of questions about the identify of the third Holmesbrother is phenomenal. People have postulated everyone from Q in James Bond to Moriarty.
I do have my theory about the Third Holmes Brother and it is very simple: he doesn’t exist and I shall explain why it fits perfectly with the themes of His Last Vow.
Moffat and Gatiss love exploiting with our preconceptions to produce amazing plot twists. If there is any episode where facts turned out to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors, it would be His Last Vow.
The Third Holmes Brother is another wonderful piece of deception.
The Missing Link
Let us review exactly what Mycroft said and the context ofhis conversation.
Thank you to Arianne DeVere for the Transcript:
DAY TIME. Mycroftstands at the glass wall of a large meeting room. It may be the same room inwhich the parliamentary commission was held at the beginning of the episode. He
has his back to the room and is looking outside. A suited man stands nearby to his
MYCROFT: As my colleague is fond of remarking, this country
sometimes needs a blunt instrument. Equally, it sometimes needs a dagger – a
scalpel wielded with precision and without remorse.
(He looks to his left.)
MYCROFT: There will always come a time when we
need Sherlock Holmes.
(Several men sitting at tables in the room look back at him
silently but the man standing near him speaks.)
SIR EDWIN: If this is some expression of familial
(Mycroft rolls his eyes, sighs and turns to him.)
Don’t be absurd. I am not given to outbursts of brotherly compassion.
(He looks down for a moment, then turns to Sir Edwin again.)
MYCROFT: You know what happened to the other one.
(Sir Edwin looks away, grimacing slightly. Mycroft turns to look out the
On the surface we can take this conversation to indirectly mean that Mycroft has another brother, even though he never specifies this. The script is deliberately vague so that we can tie ourselves into knots trying to figure out the exact meaning.
In terms of additional Holmes brothers: we know from Arthur Conan Doyle’s notes that before he settled on writing the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sherringford was a name that he had considered for his titular character.
William Baring-Gold, who was a noted Sherlock scholar, and is perhaps best known for writing Sherlock Holmes’ fictional autobiography, was the first to postulate that Sherringford was the eldest Holmes Brother. This was to account for the fact that ACD had Sherlock describe his family as country squires. Therefore they must have been raised on a country estate before embarking on their careers in London. This leaves the question of who was ran the estate. As ACD did not
specifically mention Sherlock’s parents, Baring-Gold postulated that in order for Mycroft and Sherlock to be free to roam around London, they probably had an eldest brother managing the family affairs as his “career”.
This idea fits with the common societal practice of the time: whereby the younger sons mostly moved away from their ancestral home to the city (almost always London) and pursued respectable careers in the civil service, clergy, military, or academia. Mycroft in the ACD books certainly fulfils this social expectation well. Sherlock being the youngest son was free from social expectations simply because in the grand scheme of things the heir and the spare were already well settled. No one cared about what he did with his life as long as he didn’t cause a scandal.
Moffat and Gatiss love to draw upon all the works that subsequently developed from ACD canon. I can completely see a reference third Holmes Brother being something they threw in to pay homage to Sherlock fandom.
The conversation Mycroft has with the sour faced bureaucrat Sir Edwin, appears to suggest something unsavoury occurred to the Third Holmes brother, possibly as a result of Mycroft’s own actions.
Given that this missing sibling has never been mentioned or alluded to until this particular conversation is highly suspicious, but what is even more suspicious is that he is deliberately dropped into this conversation.
One would imagine that if Sherringford (for the lack of a better name) was an active part of the Holmes brother’s lives at some point, they or their parents would at least mention him, particularly during Christmas. If Sherringford had passed away or was somewhere unreachable, one would expect there to be some sense of loss expressed about his absence at Christmas dinner.
Of course the writers do not want to give the plot away but unlike the introduction of Mycroft, there was absolutely no foreshadowing before the existence of the third brother was dropped in conversation. One could argue this was the foreshadowing but it is a bit of an obvious ploy for Moffat and Gatiss who love playing with our minds.
Smoke and Mirrors.
Sir Edwin clearly thinks he knows what Mycroft was eluding to when he said: “you know what happened to the other one”. However this does not guarantee that Sherringford ever existed, or that he was in fact Mycroft’s brother.
Firstly we know absolutely nothing about the providence of Sir Edwin. We can assume he must be a highly placed government official seen as he is even having this discussion with both Mycroft and Lady Smallwood (who is most likely a peer of the House of Lords). What we can’t assume is that he knows anything more about Mycroft’s personal life than we do, beyond hearsay and rumours. In fact the audience must know more than he does by virtue of having watched nine episodes of brotherly love unfold. Hence his reaction really isn’t the sufficient to judge the existence of a missing Holmes brother on.
If we look back through His Last Vow, the overarching theme is one of deception and misdirection, smoke and mirrors. Fact turnout to be even strange than fiction: Mary was a famous assassin, Magnussen had an eidetic (photographic) memory and had all his blackmail information stored inside his head, Appledore, the world’s most secure vault was nothing more than a myth. Moffat and Gatiss clearly enjoy setting up a premise and then completely demolishing it.
There is absolutely no evidence that there is a third Holmes Brother beyond what Mycroft says to one man in this meeting room. Alluding to his ill-fated brother gave Mycroft the exact advantage he was looking for exactly when he needed it.
In this scene Mycroft is clearly discussing with a small council of highly placed bureaucrats what they should do with his brother who has become a murderer. A man in Mycroft’s position must have amassed a considerable legion of enemies and we shall never know how many of them were sitting in that boardroom on that day. Sir Edwin, could have been one of his enemies or just and opportunistic detractor.
Given that his honorary title is the Iceman, I imagine Mycroft rose to power precisely because he was famous for being both cold and ruthless. Mycroft’s power comes from being able to project this image. As Magnussen will tell you, one’s image is much more important than reality. Should his Iceman image ever melt, I am sure that his enemies would have a feeding frenzy.
The solution on the table was to send Sherlock to jail, which we know Mycroft wanted to protect him from but could not afford to make it look as if it was due to sentiment. Thus, the casual reference to “the other one” in effect silences Mycroft’s detractors within this meeting and upholds his reputation as a ruthless Machiavellian manipulator. Mycroft needs his proposed alternative to sound much harsher than sending Sherlock to prison, because he is basically attempting to pervert the course of justice and let Sherlock get away with murder despite being caught red handed.
He does successfully sway the meeting through a combination of factors. Lady Smallwood is definitely shocked at Mycroft’s supposed ruthless plan and wants him to reconsider.
The entire conversation is entirely too convenient for Mycroft, his opponents only ever get a word in edgeways before he basically cuts them off with his trump card.
I would not put it past him to have invented Sherringford for the purpose of protecting Sherlock. I do not mean that Sherringford was invented for this specific occasion. I doubt this is first time that Mycroft has needed to manoeuvre Sherlock out of harm’s way without making it obvious that he was bypassing justice or jeopardising his Iceman credentials.
The rumour mill is a wonderful thing to people who know how to manipulate it. Magnussen has shown us that just a crumb of suggestion can grow into an enduring belief that even the most intelligent people do not think to question. The myth of Appledore is a fine testament to the power of Chinese whispers. Mycroft, being an expert manipulator, would have known that a well-placed rumour could grow with time to become so entrenched as fact that no-one bothers to check for proof. Hence the gruesome tale of the ill-fated Sherringford Holmes was born.
I am not going to write fanfiction (despite being very close to doing so already), but I can give an outline of the Sherringford Holmes story.
In order to fuel the myth of Sherringford Holmes, necessity dictates that he is technically no longer alive simply because dead men can’t tell you they don’t exist. Additionally, he must also have been consciously sacrificed by Mycroft in order for maximum ruthlessness credentials. The rumours may be that Sherringford Holmes committed a terrible transgression against the government, or he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and Mycroft refused to save him. Either way, Mycroft has a ready-made reputation enhancer in the form of his ill-fated dead brother. If he is willing to sacrifice his own brother, what else must he be willing to do in the pursuit of power?
But why has no-one discovered that it's all a lie?
It took the genius of Sherlock Holmes, in an intense situation, to blow the myth of Magnussen’s Appledore vault and that myth was something a great number of power people knew about: acto everyone Magnussen had been blackmailing and probably the intelligence services. Magnussen’s myth had direct implications for the safety and security of his victims in the present day and yet no one attempted to prove that Appledore’s vaults of information were nothing but smoke and mirrors.
The Sherringford Holmes myth in contrast does not immediately affect the wellbeing of important political figures. It is nothing more than a backstory, albeit a very useful one for Mycroft. It is also probably set so far in the past that the current crop of government appointees like Lady Smallwood and Sir Edwin, have no means to disprove it even if they ever had the incentive to do so.
Accepting the status quo or premise is something that everyone does subconsciously. We, the audience, do it in order to immerse ourselves in the story. New government appointees do it so that they can fit into the political system and start functioning, which is why our political system is so hard to change. What is hard about accepting a small but sinister backstory about the shadowy Mycroft Holmes compared to accepting that your most deadly secrets are being kept by a madman in an impenetrable vault? Which one of these sounds more like a fantasy?
What puzzles me much more about the end of His Last Vow is not the elusive Third Brother but why Mycroft had to send Sherlock to Europe. He could have allowed the case to come to trial with tight controls on public access, media information and testimonies. I imagine with the lawyers at his command Sherlock could have easily been acquitted of murder, so there would have been no need to “rescue him from jail”. The entire premise that Sherlock’s fate is being decided in a government meeting rather than a courtroom shows us that Mycroft and his “colleagues” have already agreed to bypass the justice system, so why not let Sherlock go. He just liberated Lady Smallwood and the British Government from the strangle hold of a monster.
Unless of course, Magnussen lives on in another form and Sherlock isn’t safe in the UK?
I may make this the topic of my next meta.