The Magazine

One Hit Wonder

Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, and that's enough.

Aug 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 46 • By BARTON SWAIM
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What a chasm gaped between their old life and their new! And yet how short was the time and space which divided them! Less than an hour ago they had stood upon the summit of that rock, and had laughed and chattered, or grumbled at the heat and flies, becoming peevish at small discomforts. Headingly had been hypercritical over the tints of Nature. They could not forget his own tint as he lay with his cheek upon the black stone. Sadie had chattered about tailor-made dresses and Parisian chiffons. Now she was clinging, half-crazy, to the pommel of a wooden saddle, with suicide rising as a red star of hope in her mind. Humanity, reason, argument--all were gone, and there remained the brutal humiliation of force.

It's almost as if the Holmes stories were written by somebody else. And in fact, they were--by Dr. John Watson. Watson, of course, has no opportunity to discourse eloquently on the nature of the situation unfolding before him for the excellent reason that he didn't understand it. Watson is a dry man with the medical doctor's habit of recording only the empirically observable facts. He is always a step or two behind Holmes, whose reluctance to vent his suspicions ensures that Watson remains more or less in the dark until the climactic moment when the truth is known to all.

Whatever Conan Doyle's strengths or weaknesses as a writer of fiction, he understood one essential thing: "The final court of appeal," he observed in an 1890 essay on Robert Louis Stevenson, "must always, in the long run, be public opinion." The Holmes stories pleased Conan Doyle's readers, and he had the good sense not to experiment with them. "I do not wish to be ungrateful to Holmes," he once wrote, "who has been a good friend to me in many ways. If I have sometimes been inclined to be weary of him, it is because his character admits of no light or shade. He is a calculating machine, and anything you add to that simply weakens the effect. .  .  . I would say a word for Watson also, who in the course of seven volumes never knows one gleam of humour or makes a single joke."

What saved the Holmes stories from the frequently cloying and preachy narrative style of Conan Doyle's other fiction was a simple business calculation not to alter a successful formula. And the essential characteristic of that formula is that Dr. Watson, plain, humorless Watson, is the narrator. Dr. Watson is certainly dull by comparison with Holmes, but his dullness is precisely what raises these stories to the level of high art. His lucid style, together with his inability (as it seems) to understand exactly what's happening, gives the stories that character of understated intelligence that is unique in English literature.

Here is a passage from "The Red-Headed League."

Our visitor bore every mark of being an average commonplace British tradesman, obese, pompous, and slow. He wore rather baggy gray shepherd's check trousers, a not over-clean black frock-coat, unbuttoned in the front, and a drab waistcoat with a heavy brassy Albert chain, and a square pierced bit of metal dangling down as an ornament. A frayed top-hat and a faded brown overcoat with a wrinkled velvet collar lay upon a chair beside him. Altogether, look as I would, there was nothing remarkable about the man save his blazing red head, and the expression of extreme chagrin and discontent upon his -features.

Sherlock Holmes's quick eye took in my occupation, and he shook his head with a smile as he noticed my questioning glances. "Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else."

If only John Watson had written the rest of Conan Doyle's books.

Barton Swaim is author of the forthcoming Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere.