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!