Welcome! Like the book of the same name, this blog is an eclectic collection of Sherlockian scribblings based on more than a half-century of reading Sherlock Holmes. Please add your own thoughts. You can also follow me on Twitter @DanAndriacco and on my Facebook fan page at Dan Andriacco Mysteries. You might also be interested in my Amazon Author Page. My books are also available at Barnes & Noble and in all main electronic formats including Kindle, Nook, Kobo and iBooks for the iPad.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Importance of John Watson

Today we are honored to have as a guest blogger Amy Thomas, Baker Street Babe and author The Detective and the Woman, which I praised in an earlier post.
When I was about nine years old, I heard an audiobook version of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I remember thinking to myself that this Watson narrator guy was really not very clever. By the time I had reached “The Final Problem,” however, I was heartbroken on behalf of the same man who had previously seemed like an idiot in comparison to his brilliant friend. 

In short, I fell for John Watson when Sherlock Holmes fell from a cliff (only he didn’t, which my older sister soon told me to relieve my misery).

When I reread the canon as an adult in 2010, my impressions couldn’t have been more different. From the very beginning, Watson’s wry humor, bravery, loyalty, and kindness stood out to me as much as Holmes’s brilliance and deductive skills. I finally saw him as an equal partner to the world’s greatest detective, albeit one with vastly different strengths and weaknesses. The subtlety that had eluded me as a child was richly evident to me as an adult.

Was I correct in my initial assessment of Watson as a flawed, slightly silly man with an extraordinary friend, or was I right to see him as a hero with unbreakable loyalty? Which  Watson was the real Watson? In a word: Both.

Watson has extraordinarily silly and unobservant moments, such as the times he fails to recognize his best friend in disguise or when he observes something and flies off on a tack of totally flawed reasoning. At the same time, he has moments of great practicality and extreme bravery, and he fails to complain about the many hardships Holmes subjects him to, not the least of which is Holmes’s faked death. 

Watson admires his friend, but he’s not in awe of him, and he isn’t afraid to make light of Holmes at times. Sherlock Holmes is a superhero of sorts, but John Watson is everyone.

Watson illuminates Holmes for us in two main ways—through comparison and through narrative sleight-of-hand. The first way is obvious. We see the brilliance of Holmes as a scientist and as a detective when his lightning-quick mental gymnastics are compared and contrasted with Watson’s more conventional thought processes. As Holmes says in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson serves as a “conductor of light,” and for the audience, he also amplifies and increases Holmes’s light by showing us an ordinary intellect in comparison with the mind of a genius.

The second way Watson is essential to us as an audience is far more subtle and arguably shows that the doctor has a cleverness all his own. That way is through his narrative style. Within the context of the stories, Watson is writing about cases that have already occurred. As a result, he has the knowledge of the end of a problem before he starts writing the beginning. Instead of taking us through a straightforward, police-report style of storytelling, the doctor chooses his details carefully and even lets us see his failures and confusions during a case so that we will be the more surprised and delighted when the end is finally revealed. He shows us Holmes at work, but he keeps enough back to keep us interested. The skill required to maintain this delicate balance is acknowledged by Holmes himself when he narrates “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier.”

I didn’t include Watson as a character when I wrote my novel The Detective and The Woman, which might seem like some sort of assertion that he’s unimportant. It’s exactly the opposite, though. 

Like many writers before me, I didn’t give Holmes the Watson, but I did give him a Watson. In my story, Irene Adler serves many of the same functions that the doctor did in the original canon. In my view, this is Watson’s greatest legacy—the fact that no matter how far afield writers go from the original stories, very few of us can get away from the need for a Watson-like character to serve as a comparison and a biographer for Sherlock Holmes.

We may draft a different set of shoes to fill the same space, but there's forever and always a John-Watson-size  space to fill.

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