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Friday, September 2, 2011

The Many Watsons

No, you have not stumbled onto Kieran McMullen's excellent blog by mistake. I have simply borrowed his title for this blog post.

My point here is that every narrator-assistant in detective fiction right up to Jeff Cody in my forthcoming No Police Like Holmes traces back to the original Watson, Dr. John H.

Poe never even gave the narrator of his Dupin tales a name, much less a personality. Only in John H. Watson, M.D., did the Great Detective’s less perceptive narrator become a real person with virtues (incredible loyalty in the face of often shabby treatment by his friend) and vices (he gambles too much).

Hence, a “Watson” has become to mystery writers and critics a generic name for the first-person narrator of a mystery who is not the sleuth.

The Watson device was used by a legion of nineteenth and twentieth century detective story writers, including Agatha Christie, R. Austin Freeman, S.S. Van Dine, Sax Rohmer in his Fu Manchu stories, and Erle Stanley Gardner in his Bertha Cool novels written under the name A.A. Fair. Perhaps the most successful Watson – after the original, of course – is Archie Goodwin in the Nero Wolfe stories by Rex Stout.

Stout, a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, once wrote an essay on “What to Do About a Watson.” In it he quoted this exchange from “The Red-Headed League”:

“Evidently,” said I, “Mr. Wilson’s assistant counts for a good deal in this mystery of the Red-headed League. I am sure that you inquired your way merely in order that you might see him.”
“Not him.”
“What then?”
“The knees of his trousers.”
“And what did you see?”
“What I expected to see.”
“Why did you beat the pavement?”
“My dear doctor, this is a time for observation, not for talk.”

Stout added: “That’s the way to do it!”

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