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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

No Holmes Without Watson

Dr. John H. Watson and friend
Steven T. Doyle’s fascinating Baker Street Journal Christmas Annual for 2015 quotes Nicholas Meyer as saying this about his third Sherlock Holmes novel, The Canary Trainer: 

“I know there are good things in it. But ‘good things in it’ doesn’t add up to a good book. It just doesn’t. It’s a book, for instance, where Watson really isn’t in the book, and as a lot of people have pointed out, there may be no such thing as Holmes without Watson.” 

The book had a few other problems. I, for one, was disappointed that the Canary was a singer, although S.S. Van Dine did the same thing in The “Canary Murder Case in 1927. 

Nevertheless, Meyer’s comment reminds me of a story the late John McAleer, biographer of Rex Stout, once told me. As I remember it, an elderly woman asked a librarian if she had any of those “Archie books.” After a few moments of head-scratching, the librarian said, “Oh, you mean Nero Wolfe!” “Nonsense!” the patron replied. “We know who does all the work!” 

McAleer observed that one realizes while reading In the Best Families, where Wolfe is largely absent, that there could be Archie stories without Wolfe, but not Wolfe stories without Archie. Similarly, the three of the four Holmes stories not narrated by Watson are among the least successful in the Canon. 

I thought that with the formation of the John H. Watson Society a few years ago the Good Doctor was finally receiving long-overdue recognition. But that is far from true. In reading over some of the first issues of the Baker Street Journal, I’m impressed by how many of the articles written in those early days are Watson-centric.  

Ed S. Woodhead took up his pen “In Defense of Dr. Watson” in Volume 1, Number 1. Dirk J. Struik lauded “The Real Watson,” “stalwart veteran and crack shot,” in Volume 2, Number 2. Those just happen to be the two most recent issues that I’ve read. And they serve to illustrate a conviction I have had for some time and articulated here before:
Scratch any true Sherlockian (or Holmesian) and you will find a Watsonian as well.

1 comment:

  1. Speaking of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin: I agree that there could be Archie stories without Wolfe. In fact, I helped to reveal one, in a small way.

    In the Wolfe novel "In the Best Families", Wolfe is absent for a great deal of the time - for so long that Archie opens his own detective agency. Granted, on the first day it's open, Archie does about five minutes of work and then decides to close up and take the rest of the day off and go buy a Sulka tie. But as that summer without Wolfe wears on, he actually accomplishes quite a bit, which he relates in passing in the book.

    So I decided to add to the list of what Archie did that summer he was in business for himself. Did you happen to see the story that I "edited" in The Wolfe Pack "Gazette" a couple of years ago, called "By His Own Hand"? It started out as an Alphabet Hicks short story by Rex Stout, narrated in first person. It opens with Hicks being confronted by Purley Stebbins - the same Stebbins from the Wolfe books. I realized that this wasn't actually a Hicks story at all. Rather, it was really one of Archie's cases from that summer when he had his own agency, while Wolfe was missing. I re-worked it just a little bit, so that it was now told (again? Had it been altered to be a Hicks story by Stout from Archie's notes to begin with?) by Archie, and "The Gazette" published it. I was very happy to add a tiny stone to the Great Wolfe Mosaic. (Charles Burns made the same changes to a couple Tecumseh Fox book in "The Gazette" as well, converting it to a Wolfe story.)