Sunday, January 13, 2013

“At four yards, I could deceive you.” (DYIN): The Art and Necessity of Deception in the Stories of Sherlock Holmes

“The relations between us in those latter days were peculiar. He was a man of habits, narrow and concentrated habits, and I had become one of them. As an institution I was like the violin, the shag tobacco, the old black pipe, the index books, and others perhaps less excusable. When it was a case of active work and a comrade was needed upon whose nerve he could place some reliance, my role was obvious. But apart from this I had uses. I was a whetstone for his mind. I stimulated him. He liked to think aloud in my presence. His remarks could hardly be said to be made to me – many of them would have been as appropriately addressed to his bedstead – but none the less, having formed the habit, it had become in some way helpful that I should register and interject. If I irritated him by a certain methodical slowness in my mentality, that irritation served only to make his own flame-like intuitions and impressions flash up the more vividly and swiftly. Such was my humble role in our alliance.” (“The Creeping Man”)

Most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, wouldn’t have been able to live with Sherlock Holmes for very long. I’m sure there would always be a stalwart few who would soldier on under any circumstance – convinced that the benefits of living with the Great Detective would far outweigh any “minor” annoyances. But I’m not one of them. When I was in college, I had a roommate that inexplicably began leaving the peanut butter in the refrigerator and the resulting animosity nearly ended our now decades-long friendship. (Sorry Claire, but have you ever tried to spread cold peanut butter? Have you?) So, if I’m clearly that sensitive about my sandwiches, can you imagine how I feel about my personal possessions, my living space, my life? The first time I arrived at Baker Street to find the sitting room filled with papers and noxious chemical fumes, 221B would suddenly be minus one tenant.

Clean. Up. NOW.
But Dr. John Watson was no such person. He seems to find certain behaviors charming when most other people would find them intolerable. He mentions the Detective’s numerous, dangerous chemical experiments off-handedly, merely describing them as “weird” (DYIN) and “malodorous” (SIGN), when others would have expressed more palpable concern. “My flatmate might kill me,” some might have said. Even Holmes’s indoor pistol practice doesn’t seem to bother the Doctor too much: “I have always held, too, that pistol practice should be distinctly an open-air pastime” (MUSG), he says flippantly, when for others this would have been serious cause for renegotiating the terms of the lease. “My flatmate is going to kill me,” would have certainly been a logical deduction. But Dr. Watson certainly seems to take most of Holmes’s eccentricities in stride.

But certainly some eccentricities are more serious than others. It is one thing, for example, to cleverly execute a disguise in the semblance of a wizened, old sailor (SIGN) or elderly woman (MAZA). Watson, after all, is always so amused when Holmes sheds a disguise to reveal himself beneath it. Amused, and often charmingly befuddled. As in The Sign of Four, when the cantankerous sailor in the Baker Street sitting room is replaced with the Detective, Watson says, “Holmes! […] You here! But where is the old man?” Is it a tribute to Sherlock Holmes’s skill in the art of disguise, or to Dr. Watson’s guilelessness that he cannot, at first, conceive that his friend might have played a lighthearted trick on him? On the other hand, Watson does get angry with Holmes, earlier in the same story, when he presents Holmes with a pocket watch and asks him to deduce what he can of the watch’s former owner. Holmes is successful, of course, in divining the existence of Watson’s unfortunate older brother. At first Watson is furious – convinced that Holmes already somehow knew about his sibling and is trying to play him for a fool – but once Holmes reveals precisely how he made his deductions, Watson is contrite: “It is as clear as daylight… I regret the injustice which I did you. I should have had more faith in your marvellous faculty.”

Holmes, quit waving that fake beard at me. I need to figure out where that old man went!
But neither of these ruses is quite on the same level as, say, a long and protracted ploy in which Watson is led to believe that Holmes is dying of a rare tropical illness. Even worse, Holmes does not want Watson to help treat him or even assist him beyond bringing Culverton Smith to Baker Street – a man who isn’t even a doctor (DYIN). A clever disguise can hardly be equated with leaving Watson to his own devices in Dartmoor, where he conducts a supposedly solitary investigation into the “ugly, dangerous business” and unknowingly cavorts with the most sinister of villains – all while Holmes watches on, but does not act, only revealing his presence when he finds Watson sitting in his den (HOUN). Oh, and of course, there was the time that Sherlock Holmes let Dr. Watson, and the world, believe he was dead. For three years. And then shows up on Watson’s doorstep – in disguise, yet again – making only a passing reference to the Doctor’s late wife, instead suggesting dinner and a quick skirmish with an assassin (EMPT). It’s enough to make the reader feel angry on Dr. Watson’s behalf, even if it seems he can’t quite manage the emotion on his own.
"I'm not dead! Let's have dinner."
And there’s the rub – Dr. Watson doesn’t really seem to be bothered by any of these things, from the most innocent disguises to the most devious, emotionally-charged deceptions. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson is positively relieved that Holmes has arrived (“…a crushing weight of responsibility seemed in an instant to be lifted from my soul,” he says), rather than put-out that the Detective has apparently had him running through hoops while he watched. In “The Empty House,” Watson’s initial response to Holmes’s apparent resurrection is to faint, and when he comes back to himself, he announces, “My dear chap, I’m overjoyed to see you. Sit down, and tell me how you came alive out of that dreadful chasm” – as if it were no small thing for a previously dead friend to be alive and well and standing before him in his consulting room. Fans of the BBC’s “Sherlock,” can expect a different scene from the modern adaptation’s take on EMPT. According to series’ creator Mark Gatiss, "I always found it a little unlikely that Dr. Watson's only reaction was to faint for instance – as opposed to possibly a stream of terrible swear words." The only exception from the examples above is "The Dying Detective" – where the reader doesn’t get to experience Watson’s reaction to Holmes’s deception at all. The story ends with Holmes explaining his process, and one supposes it’s too much to imagine that Watson slugged the Detective once the story closed.

There’s a range of trickery and deception present in the Canon, but for the most part, Dr. Watson’s reactions to those instances don’t seem to vary. Rather than turning to a discussion about the reliability of Watson as a narrator (perhaps he did slug Holmes at the conclusion of DYIN, but if he left it out of the manuscript, how would the reader ever know?), is it equally as likely that Watson merely understood Holmes’s process even more than he would ever let himself realize? The deductive steps may have always been a mystery to him in varying degrees (such as his reaction to Holmes’s pocket watch analysis), but that didn’t mean he didn’t appreciate the result. Watson could have wasted valuable time and energy getting upset when Holmes let him run about Dartmoor to seemingly little end, or he could just skip right to being relieved that Holmes had arrived. What is the benefit in arguing whether or not Watson should have been angry about Holmes’s three-year deception, when the fact remains that he was, in fact, overjoyed to see his friend? Whenever Holmes managed to mislead Watson, whether it was a small trick of disguise or a large-scale deception, the Doctor was always able to move right to the necessity of it. And he was invaluable to the Detective’s process by always appreciating the art of it.


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  1. You know, it only just dawned on me how much Jeremy Brett mimics the "arms out" pose in EMPT.

    And you have to wonder about Watson's family background. I always got the impression that remembering his brother was a painful thing, and that was behind his reaction. And his willingness to accept all sorts of difficult behavior...something in your background teaches you to do that, at least at first. In the end, fortunately, Holmes isn't abusive or anything...he's just quirky and rather thoughtless. But it's fascinating how, in the end, their needs and personalities mesh together...and not in a slashy way, either.

  2. Is Watson overly patient, immensely kind, too laid back? Maybe all three. I couldn't live with Holmes either, except maybe if I were a fly on the wall.

  3. Perhaps Watson was an early practitioner of Rational Emotive Therapy and forestalled hostile emotions by slaying such irrational thoughts as "My friend should have told me he wasn't at the bottom of the falls" or "My friend should have let me know he was back in town rather than appearing in costume."

    Thanks for this altogether witty and warmly humane reading of their interactions involving the trickster side of Holmes.