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There must be other stories in which Sherlock Holmes meets Arthur Conan Doyle. But I doubt there are many that get such mileage out of their contrast. For this story has the Conan Doyle of later years, the one who believed in spiritualism and the Cottingley fairies. This appalls Holmes, especially the claim that Houdini’s feats are supernatural: “He dismisses Houdini’s hard work and ingenuity.”

Nevertheless, one day Conan Doyle calls at Baker Street with a challenge. There has been a spate of crop circles lately, though because of a confused physics explanation of them, the press have dubbed them ‘field theorems’. Conan Doyle hires Holmes to solve this mystery:

“Dr Conan Doyle,” he [Holmes] said, “if you believe spirits are the cause of this odd phenomenon – why did you engage me to investigate?”

“Because, Mr. Holmes, if you cannot lay the cause to any worldly agent, then the only possible explanation is a spiritual one. ‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’! You will help me prove my case.”

“I see,” Holmes said. “You have engaged me to eliminate causes more impossible than the visitations of spirits. You have engaged me… to fail.”

They promptly travel out to the wheat fields being defaced, and the game is afoot.

Holmes on a seemingly supernatural case has three main types of outcome (as the anthology in which I found this attests). He may discover that it is supernatural, and be either unable to cope or forced to learn how to defeat the menace quickly. He may discover that it is supernatural, and reveal that he is an expert on the relevant occult matters as much as he is on tobacco ash. Or he may prove the mundane explanation behind everything, as he did with the Sussex Vampire and the Baskerville Hound.

As for this story? Well, given how dismissive Holmes is to Conan Doyle’s beliefs, and how easily crop circles can be made by students nowadays, you might think that a mundane explanation is coming. But when strange lights are seen in the sky, when the duo’s automobile breaks down every time it approaches a crop circle, when Conan Doyle claims to have been abducted by Martians, it seems all the more challenging for Holmes to find a rational explanation for this one…

The Adventure of the Field Theorems by Vonda N. McIntyre

Availability: free online, print, e-book

Word count: 11,200

First published: Sherlock Holmes in Orbit, edited by Mike Resnick & Martin H. Greenberg, 1995, MJF Books

Where to find it: You can find it as a PDF on McIntyre’s website here

An e-book of the story by itself is available from Book View Café here

The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by John Joseph Adams, 2009, Night Shade Books (an audio-book is also available)

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