The companion of the fictional detective — the “stupid friend” as Ronald Knox styled them — is something I have spent far too long thinking about, mainly because the protoype is always taken to be Sherlock Holmes’ chronicler Dr. John H. Watson. Joining me this week to discuss why that might not always be a good comparison to draw is Caroline Crampton of the superb Shedunnit podcast.
Back in October 2019, about the time I was mulling over an examination of the very Decalogue in which Knox talks about the “stupid friend”, Caroline put out this episode about Watsons that got me thinking we should exchange views on the topic. It has taken some time, mainly because I’ve been less productive about the Knox Decalogue than my rosy optimism predicted, but with a look at rule 9 coming on Tuesday next week, here we are.
So, who is John Watson? What is his purpose in the Holmes stories? What does the changing face of GAD mean for the role of the “stupid friend”? How might that differ from the original intent of Doyle’s stories? All this and more — including a comparison with classic UK sticom Yes, Minister (1980-84) — is raked over in the search of what we mean when we call a character a ‘Watson’ and whether the label has any meaning 134 years after the character’s emergence.
You can listen to the podcast on iTunes here, on Spotify here, or on Stitcher here, or by using the player below.
Thanks, of course, go to Caroline for her time here and the work she put into compiling as mentioned in the above, to Jonny Berliner for the music, to you for listening, and to Arthur Conan Doyle for providing us with an archetype from which so much wonderful material has poured forth.
More podcast in two weeks, when Moira, Brad, and I shall be discussing A Murder is Announced (1950) by Agatha Christie in full spoiler-rich detail, and then back to normal In GAD We Trust service thereafter.
Stay safe, keep your distance, wash your hands.
All episodes of In GAD We Trust can be found on the blog by clicking here.
11 thoughts on “In GAD We Trust – Episode 23: What’s in a Watson? [w’ Caroline Crampton]”
Surely, Watson’s continued popularity owes a lot to his name’s inclusion in the misquoted line “Elementary, my dear Watson.” I knew this line (from pop culture) before I knew who Watson was.
In the vast collection of Watsons (Hastingses?) since the original, my favorite development has been the Watson who humanizes the Holmes.
If anything, I think the misquote “Eelementary, my dear Watson” has been responsible for the misappropriation of the label down the years. Roughly translated, it’s saying “You can’t see this thing, but my greater intellect makes it much clearer and I shall now explain why…” which supports the notion that the detective is explaining a concept to Watson and so anyone to whom a thing is being explained by the detective must be a Watson. This, “they person standing near the detective” becomes referred to as a “Watson” and, well, round and round and round we go.
Excellent episode. I particularly like the bit about the real differences between Watson and Hastings. Christie really adapted the Watson very well for her needs. Hastings is obviously a Watson, but he works well enough that he never feels like a copy. The only bit left over from Watson that feels out of place is that he writes up the stories!
Also a fan of this “floating ball of light” idea. I know of modern books narrated by Literally A Ghost, any Golden Age ones? I’m sure there must be some wild Shin Honkaku that use the idea.
I think, after this, I’d like to go through and further categorize Watsons throughout GAD. Figure out where Carr’s “Jeff”s fit in, and whether they’re even necessary.
Also Caroline should not be embarrassed by spreadsheets! Let’s all be proud of our spreadsheets.
Yeah, we didn’t get into the various Carrian Jeffs, but I feel that ssort of character is a step on from Hastings — someone deprived of even basic human characteristics to shout out the obvious thing and so mislead the reader before they get a chance to think too heavily about what’s happening. It’s an archetype I’ve seen in most of the modern thrillers I’ve read…there’s a whole hierarchy it would be possible to explore through such types. It’s just a matter of having the time to do it…
You mention Holmes being disdainful of Japp, but isn’t he in the Poirot books?
But Holmes would undoubtedly have read the Poirot books and found the character of Japp worthy of disdain, right?
HIghly entertaining as always. (Must be the company you keep!) I enjoyed listening to Caroline being extemporaneous. True story: we were supposed to have tea together two years ago with Moira, Kate, Chrissie Poulson and Martin Edwards. She bailed because of – gasp! – family commitments. I tried to listen to some of this with a cup of coffee and a croissant in my hand, but it wasn’t the same. (Clear your calendar next summer, Crampton, said the incredibly macho American . . . )
I always felt those non-Watson narrators existed to point at the criminologist and say, “Isn’t he incredible?” without having any sort of defined relationship to the sleuth beyond “Hello, Van Dine, old sport!” Notice that beyond that initial greeting to assure us that the narrator is in the room, no other comment is ever leveled at them. Meanwhile, the Watson has a real relationship with the Holmes figure which, if not always affectionate, is familiar. The best thing about Hastings is his hopeless series of attempts to show up Poirot, which only makes the Belgian shine that much brighter AND provides a delightful soupcon of humor. And, as Byrnside said above, the Watson humanizes the sleuth. I have said before that Nero Wolfe would be unbearable without Archie pulling the rug out from under his plans or reminding his boss that they’re dealing with human flesh, not – wink – characters in a murder mystery. In Carr’s world, the many “Jeffs” often serve to drag Fell or Merrivale into the action, but just as often they come upon the situation and find the sleuth has already been called in. In The Punch and Judy Murders, Sir Henry drags Kenwood “Watson” Blake away from his own wedding to do undercover work, and for the life of me, I can’t remember why this is necessary to the plot. However, it does prove to put the spotlight on the Watson in one of the funniest escapades in GAD. So . . . viva Watson!
Gasp! I’ve just noticed that an anagram of FAMILY COMMITMENTS is I HATE BRAD! Sure, there’s FMLYCOMMIMNTS left over and you need to add HABRD, but it seems to me that Caroline has some explaining to do…
I’m a fan of seeing the likes of Fell, Merrivale, Poirot, and others through the euyes of some sort of Watson-proxy. Hell, I thoroughly enjoy seeing Joseph French through the eyes of the criminals who find him so unprepossessing. There’s some sort of frisson that comes from knowing a character means well and yet is miles away from the truth…perhaps this is an element of enjoyment to be gleaned from this style of telling too.
I think of Knives Out and how for the majority of the movie you don’t actually know if Daniel Craig’s detective is any good. The thick Southern accent and good-ol-boy manners might be cloaking a brilliant intellect, or he might turn out to be a patsy who is easy to gull into missing the correct solution. It’ll be interesting to see how they approach that in the sequel, because now we know what sort of sleuth he is and so the reactions of the other characters to him are no longer our reactions.
Yes, this is the sort of thing that fills my brain. Hopefully now you understand why I started this blog.
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I really enjoyed this episode, your musings on the nature of the Watson character being of particular interest for someone whose love of the Holmes Canon runs so deep and served as my gateway into the GAD world. I have found when writing my own Holmes pastiches that I tend to approach Watson more in the Golden Age style, where his presence on the page is a bit more tangible and a bit more incidental than in some of Conan Doyle’s writing. It’s an interesting thing to note that oftentimes the strongest stories in the Canon are the ones where the characters are on equal footing – Watson becomes just as much a detective as Holmes (it’s one of the reasons, I think, that Hound of the Baskervilles has remained so popular) and the weakest ones are the stories in which Holmes comes to Watson having worked out all the details of the case already and asks him to merely accompany him to see it through. (On a tangential note, I just finished reading 221 BBC by Bert Coules, his history of working on the BBC radio adaptations of the Canon starring Clive Merrison, Michael Williams, and later Andrew Sachs, and he writes that one of the tenets of the series was to give Watson more to do, more deductions to make, and more prominent placement in the episodes to make him an equal partner in the goings-on and, more importantly, the heart and soul of the series.)
This all makes one wonder where the line between narrator and Watson ends. Watson is the narrator of the stories, but he is also, vitally, a character. No one can make the claim that the Van Dine character in the Philo Vance novels is anything more than an interested party seated in the corner. And, as Brad pointed out above, what do we make of the Carr narrators, many of whom play a fairly minor role in the case itself, but from whose perspective we so often see the whole thing unfold. Perhaps their (intentionally?) bland persona helps ground the story in some kind of reality? Are we more inclined to accept the baroque machinations of The Three Coffins because Carr has shown us that these Gothic goings-on are very much set in our world, populated by characters like you and me? I will end this diatribe with another question: what of the de-facto Watson? Nurse Leatheran in Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia serves as both the narrator of the story and Poirot’s assistant in the case. Though she is worlds away from both Dr. Watson and Captain Hatsings, is she still classified as such due to her role in the novel?
Food for thought…
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Interesting question, Nick! I’m not going back to Mesopotamia until I have to (Spoiler Warnings, 2026??), but, as much as anything, Amy serves as Poirot’s eyes in that case. She’s one of those characters (like a few of Carr’s “Jeffs” or “Kens”) who are onsite to witness the lead-up and follow-up to a crime and provide lots of information to the detective. Does she ever offer an opinion or insight to Poirot, or does she save all that for her inner monologue? I can’t remember . . . And what to make of Katherine Grey, who is an even more active part of the plot than Amy: the nurse is an outsider, through and through, while Katherine is romanced by all the men and laid claim on by the women, all for various reasons. And yet, she and Poirot dine and talk and he gets a lot of valuable information from her.
I would say that early Watsons are pretty much always in the presence of the sleuth, at least once the sleuth enters the scene. Hastings is at Styles first – that’s how Poirot is introduced to the affair – and then he never leaves Poirot’s side. In Murder on the Links, Hastings is given enough solo interaction with “Cinderella” to set him up for a wedding, but otherwise he’s joined at the Belgian’s hip. In all subsequent cases, he’s very much a Dr. Watson figure, only around to be witness to what the detective sees and says, in order to inform the reading public of the sleuth’s greatness. And that’s how it is . . . until Curtain, which is a very strange book in that there’s nothing “outsider-ish” about Hastings there.
On the other hand, Archie Goodwin is with his boss perhaps 50% of any book and spends the other half being Nero Wolfe’s eyes and ears. What makes Archie so special is that he has to use his own brain to get in with the suspects he’s tailing and get out of scrapes. He has a different kind of brain to Wolfe, more of the private eye’s “think fast” brain, and as so many better folks before me have said, it’s the brilliant straddling between classic detection and hard-boiled that makes this pairing one of a kind.
This is the same function that Mrs. Oliver serves in the later Poirot’s, although I think she would bristle to be called his “Watson.” What I think is hilarious is that Ariadne is capable of coming up with fiendishly clever murder plots for her books and yet can’t solve a “real life” plot (that must resemble the ones she writes) to save her life – except by guessing, which she does brilliantly in at least two books.
Is it a coincidence, though, that what is widely regarded at the best Sherlock Holmes story — The Hound of the Baskervilles — is also the case in which Watson arguably spends the least tme on Holmes’ hip (apart from the two he’s not in, of course)?
I mean, probably not, but that Goodwin comparison got my gears turnin’…