#121: On the Many Wonderful Faces of Dr. John H. Watson, MD – Part 2 of 2

Sherlock Holmes collection covers

So, as established yesterday, there’s much more scope in Watson than there is in Holmes.  The obvious question then becomes: So what do you do with this?

Take the simple cosmetic changes out of the equation — the casting of Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson in the US series Elementary, for instance, easily one of the least disruptive changes it’s possible to get away with — and what you’re left with is the fact that Watson, being our entry into the Holmesiverse, is allowed to do anything that reflects the experience and perspective of the reader.  As discussed yesterday, there are aspects of the character, the constants I referred to, that don’t become him — making him the proprietor of a burgeoning dog-walking business, or a respected scholar of nineteenth century Gothic poetry, or giving him a form of OCD which means he must always cross his legs in the opposite manner to Holmes unless it’s a Tuesday in which case…, etc — but let’s put this aside as given and look at the way certain authors have expanded on Watson without desecrating him beyond all recognition.

Firstly, Watson’s unchanging nature in the original stories makes him a fine folly for a populace who were unschooled in the more subtle aspects of the detective story.  But, as more pastiches have been written and as the detective story has developed as a form alongside this, we readers have become wiser to what is going on.  Consequently, having a Watson who continues to look astounded as Holmes deduces from mere trices of information is going to get rather dull if that’s all he ever does: “My dear Holmes, how on Earth…?” “A scant folly, Watson, you see…” — yeah, okay, we get it, especially when some of the deductions are spurious at best.

Watson Liu

We as readers became rather more switched on — you’ve unravelled the scheme at the heart of a detective novel or short story in your time, of course you have — and so Watson being continually bamboozled no longer fits with our view of this undertaking: hell, if I can do it, surely a trained medical man has at least enough intelligence to be able to get there ahead of Holmes once or twice.  This is new in the sense that Conan Doyle never used it in his canon, but easily admissible under what we can accept from the character without stretching too much or veering into hitherto-unmentioned areas of specialism (“But, Holmes, a Gothic poet from pre-1850 would never use the Latin subjunctive when referencing a bastardised form of a Greek myth…”).

Stephen King’s locked room Holmes pastiche ‘The Doctor’s Case’ (1987) does precisely this.  It’s not at all satisfying from a reader’s perspective as it relies on two visual clues that are inadequately described — almost as frustrating as having the realisation stemming from characters smelling something, though one of John Dickson Carr’s pastiches inevitably managed to do this very well — and so it falls to a Sudden Moment of Brilliant Realisation on the part of our poor medic.  It would have been beyond us as readers to solve this particular case, but it makes up for the simplicity of some of the later Holmes stories where the answer stares you in the face from pretty much the statement of the problem (let’s say, oh, I dunno, ‘The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger’, though you’ll probably have your own in mind).  This insufficient declaration of all the clues actually fits in very well with Conan Doyle’s modus operandi for much of the Holmes canon and in that regard probably helps the story feel more legitimate than it otherwise might.

Veiled Lodger

Let’s not forget, Holmes has a legitimately canonical history of not always being right: I’m thoroughly sick of everyone going on about ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, but he is undeniably (and, admit it, unconvincingly) out-foxed there by (sigh) The Woman.  He’s even wider of the mark in ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’ — probably an Olympic record miss for the Heroic Detective archetype — but, as we know, there isn’t anyone who steps in and solves these cases in his stead.  The solutions are revealed independently of Holmes’ involvement, the implication being that if its beyond Holmes then it’s beyond anyone else as well.  So King’s story updates this very well from this perspective, and we can’t deny that it’s lovely to see Watson get one over on the Great Detective just this once.

Though, actually, you’re not restricted to enjoying it only once.  Colin Dexter, better known for the Inspector Morse stories, also had the same idea and explores it far more convincingly in his pastiche ‘A Case of Mis-Identity’ (1989).  The unctuous reframing of an existing title aside, this is an absolutely brilliant way to give Watson the upper hand, and reads far more convincingly than King’s take precisely because we’re privy to all the information needed.  This feels like more of an update of ‘Yellow Face’ with now the added understanding that Holmes isn’t necessary the oracle he’s made out to be, and it works superbly and extends Watson’s possible remit without so much as a twinge of hesitation on our part: it still feels like the character, operating well within the loosely-defined parameters that have been set for him.

Stretch this idea slightly further, then: could Watson regularly be ahead of Holmes?  Well, no.  That would change the dynamic in a way that made them closer to equals, which they’re definitely not, and that notion of the imbalance between them must be maintained.  David Stuart Davies took this idea and reversed it in a way that was really quite brilliant in his novel The Veiled Detective (2004): suppose Watson isn’t the dimwit he appears, but instead a plant by Professor James Moriarty (him again) put in place to keep an eye on Holmes and report back on his progress that Moriarty fears may hinder his own criminal undertakings.  It seems sacrilegious at first — it’s one thing Watson getting the upper hand on an occasional basis, but having him ahead of Holmes from the very off is surely just…wrong — until you consider the opportunities it opens up for a reinterpretation of the canon.

Moriarty AS

The genius of this is that we’ve always assumed Watson is a reliable narrator inside of his limitations, but this completely flips that on its head and, for my money, gives us a side of the character that’s so completely out of what we’ve come to expect that it actually works brilliantly and is superbly admissible under the terms of the character we’ve known to date.  Sadly, Davies’ novel singularly fails to exploit this in any meaningful, worthwhile, or interesting way (seriously, it’s not worth a read at all — but then I’m getting used to Davies being a disappointment), but the potential, while squandered, was definitely there for the using.  And in many ways this comes out of the exact point I started off making: that Watson is the unknown who can be changed without it poisoning the well too greatly.  So long as Holmes remains largely true to his origins, totemic and unwearied by the passing of time, we’re free to enjoy whatever fripperies we can concoct to surround him.

There will be other authors who have found their own wrinkle in Watson, but to exhaustively list all the meaningful attempts at the character would take up most of my life and your patience.  If you now of another interesting and competent take on the character, I’d love to hear of it.  I’m almost more interested in him than in Holmes now that I’ve taken the time to think about this, and while it would be folly to suggest that this was ever in Conan Doyle’s mind that this be possible, you have to take a moment to admit the genius of a creation that is still admitting new variations over a century later which retain so much of their origins.

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29 thoughts on “#121: On the Many Wonderful Faces of Dr. John H. Watson, MD – Part 2 of 2

  1. Great post and you’ve definitely hit the nail on the head with the idea of Watson being able to be adapted and changed, whilst still maintaining his essential character. I actually thought John Watson’s transformation into Joan Watson worked and that Lucy Liu played the part well, being changed by Holmes e.g. learning detecting skills and also having a changing effect on Holmes himself. Similar thing happens in Sherlock (my favourite recent adaptation) and again Martin Freeman plays him well – though I think Watson is more intelligent in Elementary than in Sherlock.

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    • I saw one episode of Elementary and they had a fairly standard dynamic, so I’m guessing it was an early one (can’t even really remember it, to be honest). Intrigued by the idea of Watson learning skills to better support Holmes…even that wouldn’t be out of place in stories set contemporary to the originals, as Watson would doubtless do whatever he could to be useful. I’m pleaed to hear they’ve developed the characters a bit, and must check the show out further at some point.

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      • I prefer Sherlock in terms of plot trajectory as Elementary tends to have a very formulaic narrative structure. Only seen the earlier series, bit behind now. They also developed the character of Mycroft a lot in ways I definitely didn’t expect.

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        • haha okay well SPOILERS EVERYBODY

          Mycroft and Joan Watson “spend” the night together and the internet shows that in seasons I haven’t watched there is some interest on both sides to form a relationship.
          Mycroft is also shown to more morally/ legally ambiguous – getting into dangerous pickles and situations which affect his brother.

          Not sure either of these elements work well in reference to the original stories, but I suppose they wanted to develop the character other than what we see in stories.

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        • Interesting. I’m informed by a friend — and he’s quite incensed about this — that there’s no reference to Conan Doyle’s works made in the credits at any point in Elementary; while them being in the public domain doubtless doesn’t require it, I wonder if developments like this are at least partially behind it in any way. Like, really, once you’ve got Watson and Mycroft spending the night together you’re so far off the reservation that you might as well not be using those characters anyway.

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  2. Your post made me think of two very different ways of portraying Watson in videogames. Frogwares has been making games about Sherlock Holmes for a long time now (with 2016’s The Devil’s Daughter being the most release), but until 2014’s Crimes and Punishments, they /really/ didn’t know what to do with Watson. This is because there is an inherent contradiction to the existence of “the master detective” in games: on one hand, the player wants to become the detective themselves, on the other hand, they also need to be surprised by the deductions of the detective. But you can’t have both. So Frogwares would always let the player play both Holmes and Watson, with Holmes being used as a character to allow the player to sleuthing themselves (i.e. the fun parts of the game), and Watson only being used at specific points in the story to provide an extra POV, so Holmes could surprise the player (and sometimes Watson was allowed to fetch a map or something from the other side of the room…). It really didn’t work, as you can’t *be* both Holmes and Watson at the same time. You can’t be collecting evidence and deducing as Holmes one moment, and then surprise yourself (as Watson) the next minute.

    2015’s Dai Gyakuten Saiban (‘The Grand Turnabout Trial’) for the 3DS, a spin-off of the Ace Attorney series, on the other hand had a very unorthodox version of Sherlock Holmes. This Holmes was presented as a slightly goofy person, who was at least at smart as the one from the Doyle stories, but the starting point of his deductions is usually wrong, and his deductions often lead him *just* beyond the truth (in the game, you play a Japanese exchange student in London who sometimes has to ‘correct’ Holmes to get his reasoning back on track). This Holmes wasn’t portrayed as the perfect detective and in essence, he was ‘just’ another character in the story, so there was a lot more room to create a Watson whose character wasn’t just there to complete Holmes’ role in the story. Well, in this game, it’s Iris Watson, daughter of John Watson, who actually writes the Strand stories (and she is a brilliant medic/inventer on her own), who is Holmes’ partner. And while many are probably prone to cry out about the changes, her character actually really forms a good partnership with the Holmes from this game, as she is actually the more adult character of the two (despite appearances), and while she has learned from Holmes, she is actually a lot more realistic and that’s why her reasonings are often correct, in comparison to Holmes’. I think it’s interesting here to note that Holmes and Watson are not at the center of the story: they are part of the main cast, but they aren’t even there for half of the game. Because the focus is not on Holmes, it’s easier to portray Holmes and Watson as equal characters.

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    • Wow, my near-total ignorance of current gaming means I had no idea this kind of thing even existed; certainly the second example you give sounds like a more workable and appealing use of the Watson character…and how cool to be able to interact in that way, and contribute to the ‘correct’ line of reasoning. If my time was so obsessively filled with books, this alone would make me investigate the possibility of games of this ilk…perhaps at some point in the future, hein?

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      • It’s actually an Ace Attorney game, so you should be investiating it anyway. 😉

        And Holmes in that game is glorious. He’s smart, with a good eye for detail….he just notices the wrong details, so his deductions are always off.Sadly, I haven’t seen Watson yet. (Well, I have. Kinda. Long story. 😛 )

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  3. I had to give up on Elementary after one or two seasons because, except for the identity of the two leads, it really was just another standard CBS procedural. Maybe someday I’ll go back.

    The real gift to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is Martin Freeman’s Watson. Freeman has created a dynamic between them that truly is the heart of the show. He’s not an idiot by any means, but his correct deductions are few and far between. He both relishes and rebels against being Holmes’ sounding board. I love his long-suffering takes when Holmes rattles off one of his observations. Perhaps because there is a suggestion in this version that Holmes is on the spectrum and that his “gifts” are also a problem for him that they’ve upped Watson’s position as a caregiver and protector. I loved all the little jokes at the top of the series suggesting that two men living together are more than friends, but there is definitely love and need between these two guys that enriches the cases they tackle. It’s also fun that Mary Watson is a true character and such a dynamic one (they did this in the radio program too, but that version was quite bland).

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    • Yeah, Freeman is the soul of Sherlock, he has absolutely made that show in a role that would stifle the entire enterprise if played by someone less skillful. And the way his Watson’s relationship with Mary has progressed is just wonderful, with Amanda Abbingdon also doing marvellous work that it would be easy to overlook because of how well she’s taken it on. Very excited for what these two are going to be given in series 4. Roll on, 2017!

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  4. One of the more interesting takes on Watson can be found in Robert Ryan’s “Dead Man’s Land”. Here Watson is an aging doctor in World War I. and with Holmes already retired in Sussex he gets to do some investigating on his own when he finds out about some suspicious deaths. Even though there is still some help from Holmes at the end, this is pretty much a Watson-centric novel and a nice change of pace from the usual pastiche. Ryan has written a whole series of these books, but I’ve only read the first one so far.

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    • This kind of rings a bell, but then there are so many books and movies in my head that I’m most likely conflating several different things to end up with this. Either way, thanks for bringing it up, shall definitely check this out.

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  5. I’ve read a couple of Robert Ryan’s ‘Watson’ books and they are an enjoyable read. It’s hard to re-invent Sherlock Holmes himself – maybe our image of him is too firmly set – although the Sherlock series does a pretty good job. However, it’s perfectly possible to re-invent the other characters in the canon, and there are many examples of this; the ones I’ve enjoyed include Michael Kurland’s Moriarty series (Moriarty as hero/detective/protagonist); M J Trow’s Adventures of Inspector Lestrade; and the excellent (and very funny) re-invention of Colonel Sebastian Moran by Kim Newman in The Hound of the D’Urbervilles. Honourable mentions also to Sam Casimally’s Irene Adler trilogy, and the cosier Mrs Hudson series by Martin Davies. I find that the trick when reading all of these variations is not to expect faithful reproductions of the canon – we’re way past that – but to enjoy them on their own merits and regard the occasional presence of the Great Detective himself as, well, incidental.

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    • I guess the trick is finding the pastiche that does what you want well, as there’s certainly no lack of Holmes Universe alternative takes. The Kurland books — well, the two that I’ve read — are a load of fun, and an example of taking that idea in an uncommon direction and running with it really well. Not enough of that goes on…

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      • One whole wall of the Mysterious Bookshop in NYC is taken up, floor to ceiling, with Holmes pastiches. I also find it interesting (and constantly irritating) that Barnes and Noble, the only major book chain left in the U.S., won’t carry any of the small press reprints we all clamor for, but they too have a couple of shelves of Holmes-ian pastiches available in all stores.

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        • Yeah, loved that wall at The Mysterious Bookshop. In fact, loved those three solid walls of books at TMB. And the three walls downstairs, too. Aaah, Heaven.

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        • There’s a DOWNSTAIRS?!?!?!?!?!??!

          That may explain why I saw NO Agatha Christie in the room! Where the #@$@$#$ was the downstairs?????

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        • Well, er, I dunno what to tell you. I got talking to one of the guys who was working at a computer on the desk towards the back and asked him if there were any decent impossible crimes he could recommend, He had a bit of a look on the sstem and then one of the other guys suggested taking me down to look around “Otto’s study”. I don’t think it’s generally open for anyone to just go and see — we had to walk through their stockroom to get there — but I got the impression it’s a common enough thing to show people around as it seemed to contain a lot of overstocks they didn’t have room for upstairs. Consider it a nice bonus for the next time you visit 🙂

          And the reson you couldn’t find any Christie is, let’s face it, because that’s probably the first thing most people look for when they go in there!

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