In the last blog, we ended with Holmes saying, “I am lost without my Boswell” referring to Watson’s efforts to document his adventures. It is Watson’s descriptions of Holmes methods and his detailed information about the cases that we rely upon to help us solve the crime. As readers we would be lost without our Watson as chronicler.
And in this blog just like in the stories we’ll let Watson tell the tale. We’ll learn more about his writing from his stories.
How does Watson get started as the teller of tales about Holmes? It officially begins at the end of the first story, A Study in Scarlet, when Watson is annoyed that Scotland Yard is getting credit for the case that Holmes solved
“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.
Although Holmes gives Watson permission to chronicle the stories, he is often critical of Watson’s presentation. Holmes feels that a story shouldn’t be weaved around characters
and plot but around the facts of his scientific observations and deductions. Holmes states his opinion in The Sign of Four.
Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have
attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.
Watson continues to produce stories in the format the reader enjoys, but he does provide insight into how Holmes works and his methodology. Also in A Study in Scarlet Watson points out Holmes ability to reason analytically.
In solving a problem of this sort, the grand thing is to be able to reason backward. That is a very useful accomplishment, and a very easy one, but people do not practice it much. In the everyday affairs of life it is more useful to reason forward, and so the other comes to be neglected. There are fifty who can reason synthetically for one who can reason analytically.
The next question is how does Watson select the stories? Watson explains in The Yellow Face, that he tends to select those cases where Holmes has been successful in his deductions.
In publishing these short sketches based upon numerous cases in which my companion’s singular gifts have made us the listeners to, and eventually the actors in, some strange drama, it is only natural that I should dwell rather upon his successes than upon his failures. And this is not so much for the sake of his reputation—for, indeed, it was when he was at his wit’s end that his energy and his versatility were most admirable —but because where he failed it happened too often that no one else succeeded, and that the tale was forever without a conclusion. Now and again, however, it chanced that even when he erred the truth was still discovered.
He indicates in The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger that the selection of materials benefits the clients because he protects “that the honour of their families or the reputation of famous forebears may not be touched, have nothing to fear.” In this same story Watson makes another reference to the vast number of cases he has at his disposal.
When one considers that Mr. Sherlock Holmes was in active practice for twenty-three
years, and that during seventeen of these I was allowed to cooperate with him and to keep notes of his doings, it will be clear that I have a mass of material at my command. The problem has always been not to find but to choose. There is a long row of year-books which fill a shelf, and there are the dispatch-cases filled with documents, a perfect quarry for the student not only of crime but of the social and official scandals of the late Victorian era.
Holmes also compliments Watson on his story selection in The Adventure of the Abbey Grange. Holmes is discussing that every time policeman Hopkins calls him in on a case it has been justified and Watson has written about all of them. But Holmes once again notes that Watson is a story teller and not properly documenting his scientific work.
“I fancy that every one of his cases has found its way into your collection, and I must admit, Watson, that you have some power of selection, which atones for much which I deplore in your narratives. Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations. You slur over work of the utmost finesse and delicacy, in order to dwell upon sensational details which may excite, but cannot possibly instruct the reader.”
But here I take issue with Mr. Holmes, Watson does instruct the reader. He is excellent at describing the details and methods of Holmes. His instruction allows us to investigate the
crime and occasionally discover the solution along with the master detective.
And the tables are turned on Mr. Holmes when he takes up the pen to relate a story in his own hand. In The Adventure of the Blanchard Soldier. Holmes comments on how
difficult a task it is to record the story.
Perhaps I have rather invited this persecution, since I have often had occasion to point out to him how superficial are his own accounts and to accuse him of pandering to popular taste instead of confining himself rigidly to facts and figures. “Try it yourself, Holmes!” he has retorted, and I am compelled to admit that, having taken my pen in my hand, I do begin to realize that the matter must be presented in such a way as may interest the reader.”
Oh thank heavens for Dr. John H. Watson’s approach as story teller and not as scientific writer of Holmes adventures. It is the characters, the descriptions and the puzzles that keep us engaged and trying to match wits with the great detective. As readers we don’t mind an occasional dose of the scientific but its Dr. Watson’s romantic approach that entices us to want more of Sherlock Holmes.