#811: Reflections on Detection – The Knox Decalogue 9: The Watson

The end of the Knox Decalogue is in sight! This week it’s Watsons, next week it’s Twins, and then — oh no! — there’s a final Tuesday in the month that I have to fill with something. A flashy dance routine, perhaps?

Here are the links to everything:

I’ve already gotten my feelings about the use of the term “Watson” off my chest, so let’s look at the rule itself, which Monsignor Knox parses in the following way:

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. This is a rule of perfection; it is not of the esse of the detective story to have a Watson at all. But if he does exist, he exists for the purpose of letting the reader have a sparring partner, as it were, against whom he can pit his brains. ‘I may have been a fool,’ he says to himself as he puts the book down, ‘but at least I wasn’t such a doddering fool as poor old Watson.’

There is a lot to unpack in this Nelson of words, and I shall try not to overstay my welcome, so let’s get into the finer points by choosing a few of its own phrases.

“Good show, what?”

“It is not of the esse of the detective story to have a Watson at all.”

First and foremost, the fount from which a fair deal of the feelings discussed above springeth. However you choose to define the role of the Watson — and now you appreciate why I recorded that podcast episode, to save us 50,000 words today — the existence of a detective story does not automatically provide the exigence for a Waston. As a narrator, the third person is readily available; as an assistant, you may divide roles among as many minor characters as you choose; as a point of trust and observation, you may assure your reader of the honesty and uprightness of what is about to unfold via other means — see, after all, the words with which John Dickson Carr greets us early on in The Hollow Man, a.k.a. The Three Coffins (1935):

Therefore it must be stated that Mr Stuart Mills at Professor Grimaud’s house was not lying, was not omitting or adding anything, but telling the whole business exactly as he saw it in every case. Also it must be stated that the three independent witnesses of Cagliostro Street (Messrs Short and Blackwin, and Police-constable Withers) were telling the exact truth.

This is far from subtle, but it obviates the need for the narrator/trusted sidekick if that is all their role is to be, and enables the third person to narrate with a free hand. We can be misled by being informed of the literal truth of what the characters saw and throught and felt just as we can (if this falls into the remit of our Watson…) by having first-person access to the same information of a single character. It is incumbent upon the author to have a reason for making the choice they do: that, say, a range of scenes must be observed at which the necessities of the plot preclude the presence of a omnipresent first-person narrator, or the first-person narrator’s literal interpretation of events is in itself part of the misdirection, or any one of the sundry other possibilities.

Heretofore, we shall assume that the presence of a Watson is necessary for whatever reasons the authors designs, and so the objection of ‘Ah, but only if there is a Watson…’ may be dismissed as irrelevant.

“His intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.”

If the Watson of GAD is there to befuddle and mislead the reader while the Great Detective holds forth to the amazement of all, it is crucial that the emprise the reader enters into never runs the risk of condescension. Watson may be nonplussed, and the reader may well be nonplussed alongside him, but it must never seem that inductive mountains are being constructed from materials sufficient only for a single molehill. The Watson is the ally of the reader as well as the detective, and being forced to spend time with an idiot is no fun at all…which is why Nigel Bruce goes down somewhat in ignominy.

“Good sh- What?!

In much the same way that being shown around a house by an estate agent while they tell you which rooms are the bedroom and which is the kitchen palls quickly — at least, I imagine it does, as I live in London and so will never have cause to even pretend I can afford a house — being accompanied through a detective story by someone whose company makes you want to scratch out your eyes (c.f. The Saltmarsh Murders (1932) by Gladys Mitchell) is no-one’s idea of fun. Watson is the buffering presence that allows us some glimpse of the lofty intellectual delights of our unknowable genius detective, and for the detective to be that lofty, unknowable genius to the narrator, the narrator must be sufficiently intelligent. I’m trying to think of a universal standard, and can only lean into the likes of the Three Stooges: it would be difficult to take seriously a detective novel in which Mo is only a genius to Curly because Curly is himself something of a prize idiot.

The arguable raison d’etre of the genius detective is that the concluding solution should come as a surprise as much to us as anyone in the book…and, of course, because we have read hundreds of detective stories and this Watson may only have appeared in a few, we doubtless suspect that we are slightly ahead on a few points. So the Watson needs to be intelligent at least in part to assure us that the detective is worth following, the case is sufficiently esoteric and/or brilliant to be worthy of our time and attention. The limit of the intelligence being that of the average reader is in part one of access — imagine Holmes telling you a story of someone magnitudes more brilliant than he solving a crime far beyond his own powers of detection, it’d be like reading a seven-dimensional treatise on moral philosophy — and partly to provide us the chance to perceive as Watson perceives and yet als reocnise that more is possibly going on. From such fertile ground does the best detective fiction spring.

How, then, to assure you of the intellectual capacity of such a narrator? Arthur Conan Doyle and R. Austin Freeman carved themselves a shortcut to intellectual respect by making the detective’s “stupid friend” a medical man, and one whose ability in this field was sufficient to earn the respect of Holmes (c.f. ‘The Adventure of the Dying Detective (1913) — though earlier examples will probably suffice) and Thorndyke (c.f. practically everything) respectively. Captain Arthur Hastings, in the Poirot novels of Agatha Christie, might be the notable exception to this expectation, but then Christie tired of Hastings fairly quickly and probably for this precise reason. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), with Poirot an unknown quantity, Hastings’ quaint assertion of his own plans to become a detective is charming and has about it some promise. By the halfway point, not so much. Ye gods, imagine if Hasting had narrated every single one of Poirot’s cases.

Actually, don’t. This last year has been horrible enough.

As society became more egalitarian between the First and Second World Wars, the Watson stand-in — all those Jeffs who trail around in the vast wakes cast by Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale in Carr’s novels under both his own name and as Carter Dickson — became more everyman-ish: oftentimes we have no sense of their profession, and know them simply as men (and their accompanying women) who react with intelligence to unpredictable situations. As the archetype was established, accepted, and then amended to suit the changing face of the genre’s interest in rule 8’s declaration of clues, the narrator could be increasingly trusted to be someone of pluck, wit, competence, and an inherent honesty (to reader and detective both — witness the narrative agonies when we know they are holding something back) that mimics what the detective story reader fondly imagines their own attitudes in a similar situation. As society developed out of the thrall of ‘respect because of profession’ and came to rely more on the judgement of a person by their conduct or attitudes, so the Watson facsimile came to represent that change.

“Back up a minute, old boy…”

The stupid friend…must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind.”

We restrict ourselves here solely to such thoughts that are relevant to the crime, the people and settings concerned, and the events which unfold in those settings and involving those people — mostly on account of rule 8, so that we do not reach the end and feel we have been mulcted out of an opportunity to “spar” with Watson on our way to the solution. I have never been able to shake the feeling that the phrasing here is a little loopholish — almost as if Knox is encouraging a sort of detective-narrator equivalent of The Demolished Man (1952) by Alfred Bester in which a Watson hides his actions by overwhelming us with his thoughts. It’s far simpler than that, I know, because the principle is that each the actions the character undertakes must have some thought or reasoning behind it…but this part of the rule leaves me a little itchy, like the narrator could be hypnotised and perform actions they are then told to forget, so the reader need not be aware of them…

I think it’s fair to say that 20% of my life is lived in fear of “he was hypnotised all along!” being an explanation for a piece of seemingly brilliant narrative legerdemain — that short story where people’s jewellery disappears over breakfast because a special gas freezes them in place and wipes their memories has clearly left a deep wound.

This part of the rule feels in part a reaction to the frank unfairness of a trick played by an author in a well-known book about three years before this decalogue came into being, wherein if the reader is made privy to all the narrator’s thoughts and/or actions at a crucial time the game is up and away in no time at all. I find it fascinating that the book in question seemed to trespass upon something sacrosanct, some indefinably bijou element of the detective novel, and got people up in arms enough for sentiments such as this to spring so thoroughly to the fore. It also makes me reflect on how much Knox would hate the unreliable narrators of the modern age — he and I are in sympathy there, and in most of this Decalogue — and how much easier the surprise is to spring when everything you tell doesn’t need to be everything.

Okay, I think that’s all for now. Have a lovely day!

2 thoughts on “#811: Reflections on Detection – The Knox Decalogue 9: The Watson

  1. You know, Jim, the problem with “the Watson being slightly less intelligent than the average reader” is that it’s a notion based on speculation of what an average reader is. Not only that, it doesn’t take into account the intelligence of the author himself. If you, the reader, are more clever than the author, the Watson will be an idiot by default. Know you can also have a stupid Watson by design, for comic relief. If a novel is too dark or gruesome, they can ease the tension with their antics.
    The formula of clever (or regular) man and stupid sidekick is a cornerstone of comedy (which is much, much harder to do right than drama), and a high art in places like Japan with their classic manzai skits.


    • Haha, now. You’ll probably not believe this, but the reason this post ends so abruptly is because I went into a whole spiel about the funny man/straight man duality of most comedy and how the nature of the comedy is often derived from the funny man sharing their every thought (“I am playing the right notes…just not necessarily in the right order”, etc)…but it seemed to me that I was getting off topic and so I cut it and could think of nothing better to replace it. Great minds, Andrés, great minds!

      And, yes, I had failed to consider the dim author — though, I suppose, an author of less-than-average intellgence probably doesn’t write much in the way of Genius Detective fiction (or, if they do, very few people read it…). But, yes, we can certainly agree that a certain amount of author nous is required to make a compelling Watson.


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