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Friday, October 25, 2013

Dr. Watson, Press Agent?

Did you ever think of Dr. Watson as Sherlock Holmes’s press agent?

In A Study in Scarlet, a young Holmes sagely remarks to Watson: “What you do in this world is a matter of no consequence. The question is, what can you make people believe that you have done?” Holmes always gives the impression that for him – as he once put it – “The work is its own reward.” He often tells Scotland Yard officials that they can take the credit, and Watson more than once says that he is averse to publicity.

And yet . . . Holmes always makes sure that Watson is at his side so that he can later write an account of his triumph. He is quite insistent about this: “Come at once if convenient. If inconvenient, come all the same.”

Now, there are several reasons why Holmes desires Watson’s company. He makes a great sounding board for Holmes’s ruminations as the detective ponders a case, and Watson’s army training makes him a good man to have in a tight corner. But I think that Holmes mostly wants him around as his admiring biographer. Watson is never less than adulatory, even when Holmes speaks harshly to him. As early as “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes says, “I am lost with my Boswell.” Samuel Johnson was famous before James Boswell wrote his Life of Johnson, but he probably wouldn’t be nearly as well known today if Boswell had stayed in Scotland and never met Johnson.

In many of the stories, clients and villains make it clear that Holmes is well known as a detective. “I have heard of you before,” says Dr. Grimesby Roylott in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” “You are Holmes, the meddler.” Where did he hear of him before? It wasn’t from the newspapers – they always lauded Scotland Yard and either ignored Holmes or mentioned him only in passing.

No, Holmes’s carefully cultivated reputation comes from Watson. “I hear of Sherlock everywhere since you became his biographer,” Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft tells Watson. In one of the last stories written, Holmes tries to put off a former American senator by saying, “I do not think that I am in need of booming,” Well, of course he didn’t – he’d been boomed by Watson for almost forty years by that point!


  1. I have to disagree. Only three stories were published while Holmes was actively detecting: STUD (1887), SIGN (1890) and HOUN (1901-2). Adventures and Memoirs were published after Holmes' presumed May 1891 death and the Return saw print as Holmes was retiring. Holmes was indifferent to Watson's plan to publish the details of the Jefferson Hope case. ("It is wonderful!" I cried. "Your merits should be publicly recognized. You should publish an account of the case. If you won't, I will for you." "You may do what you like, Doctor," he answered.)

    When STUD saw the light day Holmes was less that complementary ("Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it." etc.) and later jokingly complains that he has to go out in disguise because the criminal classes are too familiar with Watson's work. In fact by the time STUD appeared in Beeton's, Holmes' name was already ringing through Europe due to his exposure of Baron Maupertius' colossal schemes in the Netherland-Sumatra Company fraud. By that time he needed no PR guy. He was the consulting detective to three reigning houses of Europe before the Strand adventures hit the streets. When Holmes returned from the Great Hiatus, he forbade Watson from publishing anything before he retired in 1903. The one exception is HOUN which is told as a past case and as if Holmes was still dead.

    As for Roylott, SPEC took place in 1883 and it is obvious that Roylott was familiar with Holmes: ""Fancy his having the insolence to confound me with the official detective force!" The no-good doctor must have overheard Helen talking with Mrs. Farintosh about Holmes and assumed he was with the official police ("Holmes the Scotland Yard jack-in-office.").

    Maybe Holmes did want Watson to be his Boswell, but as with Boswell, wait until he was dead or at least not in active practice before publishing. Holmes rarely show anything other than a disregard and contempt for Watson's efforts--even when he called him his Boswell or biographer there was just the unsuccessful and unread STUD in print. It may have been more gibe than complement.

    1. The sentence should read "As for Roylott, SPEC took place in 1883 and it is obvious that Roylott was *not* familiar with Holmes..."