Dr. Watson’s Five Greatest Moments
When you write a book about Sherlock Holmes—as I just did, in the form of The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes, which explores the whole history of mystery fiction’s most famous character—you soon discover something surprising: you’re actually writing a book about John H. Watson.
Ah, Watson! He is, as I put in the book, the dark matter of the Sherlockian universe. No one really knows how his relationship with the prickly and brilliant detective can possibly work, but somehow it does. Arthur Conan Doyle’s most brilliant move was to take Edgar Allan Poe’s nameless and personality-deficient narrator from “Murders in the Rue Morgue” et al and infuse him with wit, soul, and the occasional propensity to get too deep into the claret. For all the talk of Sherlock’s observational powers, it’s Watson who does all the seeing and reporting; through his eyes, not those of Holmes, we get the 60 glittering tales of Victorian intrigue that enshrined the mystery genre in our culture. (Well, okay, there are the odd stories either narrated by Holmes himself or told in the third person, but in some cases the less said about them, the better.)
Holmes gets the glory, of course. To redress the balance a bit, I hereby offer an overdue accounting of Dr. Watson’s Five Greatest Moments in Conan Doyle’s original Sherlockian tales.
1 The Sign of the Four
After sketching his detective and his new roommate in A Study in Scarlet, Conan Doyle really fleshed them out in the second Sherlockian novel, a tale of lost treasure and colonial misdeeds come home to roost that I argue is the saga’s finest artistic achievement. In a surreal, nocturnal narrative, Watson shines as the brave man of action and sensitive soul he is: trooping with Sherlock across a muggy nighttime London, packing his service revolver at the slightest hint of danger, and even getting the girl. Although Conan Doyle would soon realize that Mary Morstan, Watson’s swoon-worthy love interest in this story, was nothing but an impediment to criminal adventures, this story gives us the one full glimpse we get of Watson the ladies’ man. And in the action-packed conclusion, Watson and Holmes stand side by side on a boat deck, firing bullets into the gloom. Devotion takes many forms!
2 The Hound of the Baskervilles
Watson’s longest solo outing in the whole saga comes when Sherlock dispatches him to Dartmoor to babysit Sir Henry Baskerville, the charming but somewhat witless Canadian heir to a cursed feudal house. Everyone is pretty sure that a spectral demon dog will soon be dining on Sir Henry’s jugular, so Watson’s stout presence is necessary. The good doctor proceeds to bumble along, courageous and incompetent, for several chapters, while mysterious figures lurk in the background. Where is Holmes, anyway? For a few dozen pages, at least, no one cares.
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3 That time he saves Sherlock Holmes from the clutches of drug addiction. We don’t actually get a full accounting of this, Watson’s greatest service to his friend, only an oblique reference. But Watson makes it clear that Sherlock’s volatile personality and gravitation to oblivion would have damaged or destroyed the Great Detective. The good doctor’s patient and sensible counsel—and, we can assume, high-quality medical services—bring Holmes back from the edge of the abyss.
4 “The Final Problem” / “The Empty House”
Speaking of the abyss…Who can forget Watson’s quiet desolation during the traumatic episode in which Holmes is suddenly hunted to a remote corner of Europe by the greatest criminal of all time, then apparently murdered? Conan Doyle, in his temporary (but recurring) eagerness to put an end to Sherlock Holmes’s rampant popularity, inflicts some serious emotional abuse on his long-suffering narrator. Watson ends “The Final Problem” convinced that Professor Moriarty, the heretofore unknown but apparently very sinister crime lord Conan Doyle invented to kill Holmes, flung the detective into Switzerland’s Reichenbach Fall. In “The Empty House,” the comeback story Conan Doyle devised for financial reasons about a decade later, we learn that Watson somehow soldiered on, living his life, trying (without success) to follow the criminal news. So sad! And yet this unwitting training leaves him well prepared for Sherlock’s shock reappearance, and yet another classic adventure across London.
5 “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client”
When all is said and done, Holmes comes to rely on Watson more than most readers ever appreciate. Any time Sherlock needs something done, he turns to Watson. Delightfully, in this late-period Conan Doyle classic written in the 1920s, Holmes orders Watson to learn all he can about Chinese pottery. Chinese pottery? Yes, Chinese pottery. Because it’s for a case, that’s why. And be ready to fake your way through a high-stakes conversation with a sensationally evil Austrian scam artist, murderer, and—aha!—Chinese pottery fanatic. Watson does it all without complaint, and even proves to have some investigative resources of his own stashed away, which enable him to pull off this gambit. He looks ridiculous doing it, but he doesn’t care: the move cracks the case, and in any case, as always, Watson does it for love.