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.
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.
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.
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.