Sherlock Holmes is having another cultural moment, and as usual, I’m all in. I was raised on the original stories — thanks to a family friend who was a Baker Street Irregular — and this winter, I’ve treated myself to another trip through the canon.
This time, though, my sympathies aren’t so much with Sherlock as with the stories’ chronically underrated narrator, Dr. John H. Watson. For my dear Watson is, in many ways, a science writer like me — and he’s dealing with (not to mention living with) the world’s most exasperating source. For his equanimity in the face of withering insult, and his calm insistence on telling the human story behind the scientific solution, Dr. Watson deserves our profession’s equivalent of the Purple Heart.
Here’s a typically Holmesian review of Watson’s work, from The Sign of Four:
“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.”
“But the romance was there,” I [Watson] remonstrated. “I could not tamper with the facts.”
“Some facts should be suppressed, or at least a just sense of proportion should be observed in treating them. The only point in the case which deserved mention was the curious analytical reasoning from effects to causes by which I succeeded in unravelling it.”
Oh, Sherlock. As Watson himself writes, “his ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.” Poor Holmes doesn’t know that the earth revolves around the sun, and he also has no idea how to tell a story. The 21st-century Sherlock of the current BBC series isn’t much better off:
SHERLOCK: Do people actually read your blog?
JOHN: Where d’you think our clients come from?
SHERLOCK: I have a website.
JOHN: In which you enumerate two hundred and forty different types of tobacco ash. Nobody’s reading your website.
SHERLOCK (sulkily): Two hundred and forty-three.
The original Holmes keeps up his complaints through most of the fifty-six stories and four novels, accusing Watson of romanticism, sensationalism, superficiality, and “meretricious finales.”
Finally, though, Sherlock tries this writing lark himself, and in one of the two first-person Holmes adventures, he concedes that Watson may be on to something. “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,” he writes. Ah. Both the head and the heart, then. More than a hundred years’ worth of Arthur Conan Doyle fans emphatically agree.
Part of the fun of Holmes and Watson, in all their incarnations, is that both their characters and their relationship are compelling but unfinished, hinting at great depths but essentially mysterious. The detective and his partner are archetypal sketches, and readers, writers, and filmmakers get to fill them in, each to her own satisfaction. Maybe Watson is the heart to Holmes’ head, the action to his reflection, or, to us science writers, the story to his solution. Or maybe all of the above. What’s certain is that either without the other is greatly diminished — and that once in a while, the good doctor does know best.
Top image: Martin Freeman as John Watson, in a still from the BBC Sherlock episode “The Hounds of Baskerville.”