Doctor Watson


SPOILER WARNING: this blog reveals key plot details of two Sherlock Holmes stories: The Speckled Band and The Adventure of the Retired Colourman .

I’ve recently been re-reading the complete Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s really interesting to see these stories with new eyes. Some of the ones that I enjoyed most in my childhood now seem utterly fantastic and absurd, such as The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot (from His Last Bow) or The Adventure of the Creeping Man and The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire. The Gothic elements that excited me as a child no longer have the same effect, and yet the stories retain a kind of magic.

The strange thing is that this magic comes from the descriptions of everyday life, with the piece de resistance being 221b Baker Street itself. It is a cocoon of safety in the midst of a dark, foggy and dangerous metropolis: “In the third week of November, in the year 1895, a dense yellow fog settled down upon London. From the Monday to the Thursday, I doubt whether it was ever possible from our windows in Baker Street to see the loom of the opposite houses… But when, for the fourth time, after pushing back our chairs from the breakfast table, we saw the greasy, heavy brown swirl still drifting past us and condensing in oily drops upon the window-panes,  my comrade’s impatient and active nature could endure this drab existence no longer” (from The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans.)

It was a surprise to my adult self to learn that Holmes does not actually own these rooms, despite his implied wealth, which has come from dealings with royalty as well as the major industrialists of his age. To my younger self, Mrs Hudson seemed to be a sort of maid or servant, rather than the landlady that she really is. No doubt this false impression came from the disdain with which Holmes treats the owner of his home.

So if part of the pleasure in the Holmes mysteries comes from the sense of place, surely we owe our thanks to the putative ‘author’ of the tales: Doctor Watson, the implied narrator of almost all of the stories. The question for me now is, to what extent is Watson a reliable narrator?

In his own words, Watson often suggests that he is a bit of a duffer, who’s constantly astounded and perplexed by the mysteries that come his way. But if that were the case, would the misanthropic Holmes really choose to spend so much time with him? We know that Watson is something of an adventurer himself, having survived a war in Afghanistan. He certainly never balks at any of the outrageous actions that Holmes would have him do, which includes, among others, outright burglary.

Within the stories, Holmes himself often mocks Watson for his perceived disingenuousness. For example in The Copper Beeches, Holmes mocks Watson when he gives his biographer  his own opinion of “these little records of our cases which you have been good enough to draw up, and, I am bound to say, occasionally to embellish”. Later, when forced to narrate a tale on his own, The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier,  Holmes gives Watson somewhat more credit for his sensationalist approach: “I have often had occasion to point out to him how superficial are his own accounts, and to accuse him of pandering to popular taste instead of confining himself rigidly to facts and figures … and I am compelled to admit that, having taken my pen in my hand, I do begin to realise that the matter must be presented in such a way as would interest the reader.” Later in the same story, Holmes also confirms what many readers have suspected, that Watson is a great deal more intelligent and practical that he would have us believe: “Watson has some remarkable characteristics of his own to which in his modesty he has given small attention amid his exaggerated estimates of my own performances.”

I began wondering how reliable Watson was as a narrator when I came to The Speckled Band. In this tale, Holmes, as usual, swiftly deduces the circumstances behind the death of Miss Julia Stoner, but chooses not to reveal the true facts behind the case to Watson until his suspicions are confirmed. Be that as it may, Holmes is quite content to ask Watson to set up a secret nocturnal vigil with him in a darkened room. Their purpose is to discover how a poisonous swamp adder has been used to kill an innocent girl. This snake could enter the room at any time. In effect, Holmes is asking his friend to spend all night in an unlit room with the risk that “the deadliest snake in India” could be slithering around them secretly in the dark, and he doesn’t bother to tell Watson anything about it!

As if that wasn’t enough, in one of the very last stories, The Adventure of the Retired Colourman, Holmes sends Watson off to a village near Frinton-on-Sea in the company of one Josiah Amberley. Once there, finding that there is no train back to London, Watson finds that he must spend the night with this mysterious client. At no point in this escapade does Holmes deem it necessary to inform Watson that Amberley is a serial killer with a couple of bodies in his basement. Perhaps because that might have impaired Watson’s enjoyment of the near twenty-four hours that he is forced to spend in this murderer’s company.

In each of these stories Holmes’ decision to withhold information is bizarre, callous, and reckless as regards the safety of his only friend in the world. However, I suspect that on both these occasions, Watson had been instructed on the truth of the matter earlier, but had instead chosen not to mention this to his readership. It is a trick that he uses with some skill, and only makes one small error in the stories as far as I could tell.

In one early adventure, The Sign of Four, Holmes sets off for the docks disguised as an elderly sailor. Later, Watson narrates the appearance of an aged seaman in Baker Street, who refuses to divulge any information to the police inspector waiting there, insisting that he will give information only to the great detective himself. After stringing his visitors along for some time, this salty sea dog suddenly reveals that he is Holmes, and has been in disguise all along. Watson and the inspector profess to be astonished, which is stretching credibility a little too far, as Holmes left Watson wearing this selfsame seaman’s garb only a few pages before (Chapter 9 – A Break In the Chain).


Photo source: The Hollwood Reporter:

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