Sherlock Holmes and the Case of Signals Intelligence

Cory Doctorow reintroduces the detective as a spy with a conscience.

Linda Tran

Because Sherlock Holmes is technically an amateur consulting detective, he’s uniquely positioned as someone who fights for those who otherwise might not have a voice. And though Holmes has been hired by royalty and government officials, it’s in his championing of ordinary citizens — from young governesses to poor clerks — where his heroism lies.

Tragically, Sherlock Holmes is also a make-believe detective. He’s a noble beacon of truth who is also an independent contractor and, more significantly, entirely fictional. On the bright side, that makes hypothetical questions more fun. And so, we ask how would a contemporary Sherlock Holmes deal with a world in which the government spies on everyone by hacking their phones? A newly published short story by Boing Boing founder and noted science fiction novelist — Cory Doctorow — investigates the dying world of human intelligence amid the world stage of government surveillance and espionage.

Pegasus Books

This new Doctorow-penned short story — “The Adventure of the Extraordinary Rendition” is the last entry in a new anthology of Sherlock Holmes short stories called Echoes of Sherlock Holmes. If you called this book a collection of high-end Sherlock Holmes fan-fiction, you wouldn’t be wrong, but being so reductive would mean you’d be missing out on this particularly incisive and politically timely piece.

In the story, we’re given a contemporary Sherlock Holmes who is neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes from BBC’s Sherlock nor Jonny Lee Miller’s of CBS’s Elementary, our two current iterations of the character in pop culture. Instead, this is a version of Sherlock Holmes who could easily walk among us without being detected. Quickly, we learn — as always from the perspective of Watson —that Holmes has uncovered a string of incidents in which a group of young people have been imprisoned as suspected terrorists, even though they are undoubtedly innocent. The culprit here is a complex mistake of contemporary espionage relying almost exclusively on cold-number-crunching rather than actually observing the suspects in person.

In speaking with Inverse, Doctorow outlined his motivations in writing the story: to highlight the way that “signals intelligence” or SIGINT spying on people’s communications has totally eclipsed “human intelligence” or HUMINT (learning things by talking to people).


“This is a live issue today,” Doctorow told Inverse. “The CIA directs the drone strikes in Yemen and other countries, and by their own account, they have no idea who they’ve killed. That’s because the strikes are driven entirely by SIGINT: The CIA intercepts mobile phone metadata to try to figure out who the terrorists are, and then dispatches Hellfire missiles to kill everyone standing with range of those phones, without ever learning the identities of those people.”

In the story, Sherlock Holmes hopes to extradite the wrongfully imprisoned young men by appealing to his brother, the secret service guru, Mycroft Holmes. Here, the reader can easily see shades of Mark Gatiss’s cold, calculating portray of Mycroft on the Sherlock TV series.

“Mycroft … is SIGINT personified,” Doctorow said. “A fat spider in the center of a surveillance web, getting all the memos of the Home Office and every telegram of interest delivered with his breakfast tray, secretly commanding and arranging the affairs of Her Majesty’s Government.”


The original Sherlock Holmes stories, by Conan Doyle, presented something of a mild rivalry between Sherlock and Mycroft, but Doctorow’s new take uses the term “binary.” Essentially, if the game is all about a some kind of pursuit of the truth, then Sherlock Holmes prefers to gather his information in the most human way possible, but relying on actual humans.

“Sherlock embodies HUMINT,” Doctorow said. “He’s the master of disguise, with his army of urchins organized as the Baker Street Irregulars, trying to listen to the streets of London by listening to its people.” Again, this notion is relevant even if someone gives even a cursory glance at headlines regarding Snowden, or the surveillance state. In the story, Watson mentions the “fatigue” he gets by just reading about Snowden, describing such news stories as “dismal.” Holmes counters bitingly in the story saying:

“Tedium and dismalness are powerful weapons — far more powerful than secrecy in many cases. Any it of business that can be made sufficiently tedious and over-complexified naturally repels public attention …”

In essence, Sherlock Holmes is here to remind us that if we ignore the “boring” news of an oppressive surveillance state, then well continue to be bamboozled by it without every knowing it. Uncorking this genie seems pretty difficult, too.

“In the old days, the CIA’s job would have been to send dudes in Lawrence of Arabia drag around to figure out what was actually going on, rather than using opaque machine-learning systems to decide who lives and who dies,” Doctrow said, “but mass surveillance is a very profitable business.”

Sidney Paget

At the end of the story, Mycroft Holmes actually turns in Sherlock Holmes and John Watson to the police, seemingly on the grounds that they object to the inhumane — and unreasonable — intelligence gathered from non-human sources. And if the courageous and totally independent Sherlock Holmes can be handed over to unscrupulous agents of the state, how are the rest of us safe from a similar fate?