Lately I’ve read an unusually high concentration of Holmes pastiches — Caleb Carr’s The Italian Secretary (not good), Stephen King’s ‘A Doctor’s Case’ (not terrible), Colin Dexter’s ‘A Case of Mis-Identity’ (extremely good), Michael Kurland’s The Infernal Device (loadsa fun), Steve Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range (fabulous) and a superb piece of unpublished fan fiction sent to me via email — and it’s made me realise that while Watson, and specifically the Watsonian voice, is vital in undertaking Holmes, no-one can quite agree what Watson is, how he should be written, and this makes him far and away the more interesting of the two men when it comes to analysis.
Conan Doyle’s Watson™ was of course well and truly retired by the time Ronald Knox laid out his decalogue in 1929, including at number nine the missive that
The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
By 1929 we already had Captain Arthur Hastings fulfilling this role, but some famous Watsons didn’t come until after this point — Archie Goodwin (Fer-de-Lance, 1934), say, and Lionel Townsend (Case for Three Detectives, 1936), — and in fact it’s interesting just how many classic detective fiction authors largely forgo the Watson in their work, opting not just for third-person authorly authority, but also a degree of intelligence and specialism in any partnerships they did use: Anthony Berkeley, Gladys Mitchell, Michael Innes, John Dickson Carr, Edmund Crispin, Ellery Queen, Ngaio Marsh, E.R. Punshon, Christianna Brand, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Miles Burton, Freeman Wills Crofts…even Christie abandoned slow ol’ Hastings fairly quickly. I mean, sure, there’s the odd one or two but they’re definitely in the minority.
So, here’s the thing: if the Watson character was scorned by so many of the luminaries of this genre, why does the perception of a Watson resonate so strongly? Adam Roberts uses the verb ‘doctorwatsoning’ at the start of Jack Glass, even, so why can you refer to a Watson and everyone know what you’re talking about? And — perhaps more importantly — if it’s such an ingrained concept, why is there so much difference in the portrayal and perception of that character?
There is inevitably scope in the interpretation of any fictional character — my Gideon Fell is not your Gideon Fell, David Suchet gets Poirot hilariously wrong in key regards for me (though nowhere near as wrong as Albert Finney), I know someone who thought David Walliams was brilliant as Tommy Beresford (I don’t like them, I just know them). Nevertheless, there are aspects of each character — constants, let’s say — that once strayed outside of do not become the character: Sherlock Holmes does not sing, James Bond does not dwell on the consequences of all the murder he perpetrates, Mrs Bradley never coldly and rigorously outlines a logically watertight case against a guilty party.
But the key way in which these characters differ from Watson is that they are the focus of their stories: they are the people we read these books to look at. Watson, by contrast, is the window through which we look in on Holmes; a slight deformity in the glass in no way impedes our view any to meaningful extent, and usually we’re so focussed on the compelling brilliance of that mind that we’ll forgive an occasional thickening of the medium, a slight diffraction of the light, if we even notice it at all. No-one is looking at Watson, and so for the 100+ years that this hasn’t been going on, Watson has been getting away with all sorts of things under our noses.
Nigel Bruce famously played Watson as the kind of buffoon you’d easily see forget to concentrate on breathing and so suffocate in mute perplexity by the end of his third scene, but it’s a portrayal that remains famous now because it seems so off-key: this is supposed to be an educated man, a qualified doctor of medicine, not some second-tier Marx Brothers stooge. Indeed, it’s almost an insult to your audience to make Watson too dim: “his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader,” remember — Watson is our eyes and ears. Watson, in short, is us; we can’t possibly be Holmes, that’s why the character appeals, but we could be Watson (which is why that character appeals) and if he’s dim then, well, you’re saying that we’re dim. And we’re not. We read detective fiction, thankyouverymuch, and are clued up to how this goes.
Reading many of the original Holmes canon now, here is little in the way of challenge (‘The Adventure of the Empty House’, say) and so not much to test us as readers. We, with our modern knowledge and the great many hours we have dedicated to reading detective fiction in its many forms, have an advantage over those characters trapped in late-19th century stories that can easily turn to a kind of disdain: we are ahead of you, Mr. Holmes — clearly you are not so special after all. But Holmes is powerless to change this: we’re looking at Holmes, remember, he’s the reason we’re here, so he can’t suddenly undergo a massive transformation before our eagerly fixed-and-centred eyes (something Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss realised and updated perfectly for their deservedly-successful BBC series). Take away Holmes and why are we there? We came for Sherlock Holmes, not Shitlock Bones.
What can change, and what a number of authors have exploited now that Holmes is in the public domain, is Watson. To stick with the BBC’s Sherlock for a moment, take the beginning of the third episode of series 3 in which Martin Freeman’s permutation of the character enters a drug den with a tire iron and engages in an actual physical skirmish. This is in keeping with the man he is: a trained soldier, a military man, capable of violence, motivated by a sense of human interest and friendship towards his neighbour…about as far from Nigel Bruce’s simpleton as you can get, but still undeniably Watson. Following later revelations in that episode, at Watson’s bitter reflection on the chances of knowing the people he knows, we’re given a perfect summing up of the character by Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes that resonates perfectly with Conan Doyle’s Watson™ and Updated Watson: you can see the threads connecting these two very different men, but the character has enough scope in him to admit this without conflict.
Contrast this with the nerd-rage caused by the very first episode of Sherlock in which Holmes results to nicotine patches to focus his mind: as the Victorians would say, Sensation. You don’t change Holmes, it was scoffed, he’s clearly not going to work in a world of mobile phones and forensic science. Except he does, because the character as he is will always work, you simply need to alter the people around him accordingly (witness the most recent episode The Abominable Bride — Cumberbatch’s Holmes remains virtually the same in the Victorian milieu, it’s Freeman’s performance that undergoes the most amendment from previously) .
So, since there’s more scope with Watson, what do you do with that? How has the character been used over the years to provide a series of different approaches to the unscalable genius of Mr. Sherlock Holmes? Well, since I’ve gone on long enough as it is, come back tomorrow to find out…