Friday, May 27, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: “Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra”

Paul D. Gilbert; Publisher: Robert Hale (April 1, 2011)
“That is as maybe, but as Watson will certainly attest, I have long insisted that most men have only the ability to see, without making a worthwhile observation.  It is the equivalent of reading a great book whilst lacking the power of comprehension.  It is a futile waste of time and energy!” (38)
I wonder if anyone has ever done the math on this.  Of all the stories taking up residence in Dr. John H. Watson’s tin dispatch box at Cox & Co., in Charing Cross; of all the tales of circus belles, Hammersmith wonders, paradol chambers, amateur mendicant societies, and parsley sinking into butter on a hot day—stories that either went unwritten or unread by the general public—which story has inspired the most authors to pick up the pen and try their own hand at it?  When the package from Amazon arrived containing a brand-new copy of Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra, by Paul D. Gilbert, I immediately thought of a half dozen other novel-length versions, and at least a dozen short story adaptations, of the “story for which the world is not yet prepared.”  I wondered how Gilbert’s take on the story could possibly distinguish itself.
Paul Gilbert is the author of two other Sherlock Holmes outings: The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes and The Chronicles of Sherlock Holmes, which are collections of short pastiches from some of Dr. Watson’s “unpublished” accounts.  Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra is his first novel-length rendering, and he is currently at work on a fourth volume, which will return to the short story format.  Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra picks up in the aftermath of “The Mystery of the Mumbling Duelist,” a story that appears in The Chronicles of Sherlock Holmes.  Holmes is still staggering under the repercussions of the case, although it has been some weeks since its conclusion.  In his familiar, characteristic fashion, the Great Detective finds himself once again in need of mental stimulation, but he is also haunted and uneasy, before he and Watson are even called down to the London docks to investigate the abandoned tea cutter, the Matilda Briggs.  Holmes has developed the mental equivalent of a “thousand-mile-stare,” and Watson is quite worried, despite Holmes’s repeated attempts to reassure his friend.
And so, Gilbert’s story immediately sets itself apart from the very first paragraph.  There are no plague ships here, no genetic mutations or diabolical scientific experiments gone awry that seem so prevalent in other renditions of the tale of the “Giant Rat.”  There is no hideous “Dr. Moreau”-style compound, filled with grotesque transmutations of the animal kingdom.  And there are also no dangerous, desperate treks to Sumatra.  Holmes and Watson stay firmly ensconced in London.  The reader makes the trip to the wild, Indonesian jungle through the story that the client—Daniel Collier—shares, but it is a story told from the safety of an armchair, one neatly secure in front of a fireplace, in the familiar setting of the Baker Street sitting room
But, perhaps most importantly, Gilbert’s Sherlock Holmes speaks with an authentic voice.  He is expertly and faithfully rendered.  From the moment Sherlock Holmes sets foot aboard the ghostly Matilda Briggs, there is no mistaking the Master Detective and what he has come to do.  Nearly every one of his famous “methods” is present—from his knowledge of obscure powders and rare cyphers, to his intuitive understanding of the subtleties of handwriting and body language:
“This time he took out his lens and began slithering around on the boards like a viper in pursuit of its prey.  Every so often he would pause for a moment or two and examine something or other with minute diligence.  Occasionally he would emit a loud grunt of disappointment.  Then again he might laugh to himself as he made a more positive discovery although, of course, the nature of each find would remain a mystery to the rest of us for some time” (35).
The famous Baker Street Irregulars are also present, with Wiggins at the helm, and the reader is treated to a brief glimpse of the affection Holmes feels for his collection of “Street Arabs.”  The Detective provides Wiggins with instructions and wages for the group, including extra pay for some additional information.  But Holmes is absolutely adamant that the extra money be spent “…on new mittens, Wiggins, not a noggin of gin” (174).  In the canon, Holmes is quite open about his faith in the abilities of these ragged children, but Gilbert provides some insight into the Irregulars equivalent faith in Holmes. 
Gilbert’s Sherlock Holmes is also unique in that the author has no secrets and makes no apologies about who inspires his vision of the Great Detective.  With a single glance at the cover of the “Giant Rat” (or any of Gilbert’s books), even the most feeble deductive mind sees Jeremy Brett in the starring role of these stories.  In an October 15, 2010, interview with the Harrow Observer, Gilbert says:
"He was a great actor and when I write, Jeremy Brett is my Sherlock.  His family have read my books and I believe they have gone down well with them… I owe a lot to Jeremy Brett.  I never met him but my interpretation of Holmes owes a lot to his character."
And there is so much of Jeremy Brett’s portrayal in the book—from Holmes’s mannerisms, to his speech patterns, to even the descriptions of his wardrobe—but it is the details that are truly charming.  It’s nearly impossible to envision Jeremy Brett as the Sherlock Holmes of this story, and not also see the rest of the Granada cast in their respective roles—Edward Hardwicke as Dr. Watson (the story takes place 1898, after all), Colin Jeavons as Inspector Lestrade, and Rosalie Williams as the much put-upon Mrs. Hudson. 
And there are shadows of the Granada series throughout Gilbert’s writing.  When Watson worries about his friend’s mental state, and surreptitiously checks a private drawer of Holmes’s desk for the infamous “neat morocco case,” there is an echo of a similar scene from the 1993 episode, “The Eligible Bachelor.”  In both instances, Watson finds the needle and cocaine solution present and untouched, much “to [his] intense relief” (13).   And later, when Holmes grapples with the villain at the climax of the novel, Gilbert says, “Holmes’s normally well-groomed hair was constantly falling down over his eyes and as he pushed it back, time and again, I noticed that there was evidence of numerous facial cuts and bruises that were beginning to swell around his eyes” (197).  It’s quite easy to remember Brett and Patrick Allen engaged in a similar brawl, as Sherlock Holmes and Colonel Sebastian Moran, in the 1986 episode of “The Empty House.”  The allusions to the Granada series are more subtle than overt, and are worked expertly into the plot—finely crafted, adding depth and dimension.
The challenge to writing any version of the “Giant Rat of Sumatra” tale is that it has a pretty heavy reputation that precedes it.  To an author, it can be challenging, or even quite daunting, to attempt to write a “story for which the world is not yet prepared.”  It’s a tall order, and one that not every writer is able to fill with success.  Paul Gilbert’s rendering of Sherlock Holmes and the Giant Rat of Sumatra has no such problem.  The plot is original, and inventive, and more than capable of revealing why this was once a story that would have shaken a man to his core.  Gilbert’s Sherlock Holmes is authentic and familiar, like that comfortable chair in front of 221B Baker Street’s fireplace.  That’s where some of the best stories are told, after all.
Paul D. Gilbert is available on Twitter, and Facebook.
Congratulations to Chelsea Kiser!  She is the winner of the Sherlock Holmes trivia contest and the copies of Sherlock Holmes Handbook, by Christopher Redmond, and Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley.  For those interested, the answers to the trivia questions are as follows:
1.   In later years, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used a Parker Duofold fountain pen—specifically, the “Big Red” model, which was introduced in 1921.  References to this bit of trivia can be found in Graham Moore’s The Sherlockian, and in the 2010 series, Sherlock, in the episode: “The Great Game.”
2.   In The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Dr. Watson states that “The Lion’s Mane,” “The Mazarin Stone,” “The Creeping Man,” and “The Three Gables,” are “forgeries by other hands than mine.”  Watson also claims to have himself made up “The Final Problem,” and “The Empty House,” to disguise the timeframe in which Sherlock Holmes was seeking treatment for his cocaine addiction.
3.   The answer I was steering readers towards was “Kilravock House,” as stated in Alistair Duncan’s Close to Holmes.  I also accepted "Beaulieu Lodge," or “Hazelwood,” from Leslie Klinger’s annotations.  
There will be a new contest, complete with prizes, on June 27, so please check back for a new chance to win!  Thank you to everyone who participated.  I hope you enjoyed the thrill of the hunt!

Friday, May 20, 2011

“The Meaning of This Extraordinary Performance” (COPP): Granada Television’s “The Greek Interpreter”

Sherlock Holmes describes his older brother, Mycroft, as a “curiosity.”  I’ve always liked that term; it implies something that’s meant to be studied.  A “curiosity” should be put up on a shelf, examined thoroughly under glass, picked over with tweezers, and dusted compulsively.  A curiosity bestows knowledge begrudgingly, only after much effort on behalf of the investigator.  Its secrets are kept close to its chest, impermeable and unreadable to all but a select few.  Such is the case with Mycroft Holmes, whose very existence Sherlock neglected to mention to Dr. Watson for the first seven years of their friendship.  But in Granada Television’s adaptation of “The Greek Interpreter,” the relationship and interactions between Sherlock Holmes and his older brother reveal layers of personality and depth of character that a simple reading of the original text leave open to interpretation.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Mycroft Holmes makes two appearances in the canon stories—“The Greek Interpreter,” and “The Bruce-Partington Plans”—and is mentioned in two others—“The Final Problem” and “The Empty House.”  In the Granada Television series, Mycroft Holmes was played by Charles Gray, famous for his roles as the James Bond villain “Ernst Stavro Blofeld,” in Diamonds Are Forever, and as “The Criminologist” (the narrator), in the film version of The Rocky Horror Picture ShowGray was cast in the Granada series due, in part, to his role as Mycroft in the 1976 film adaptation of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (based on the novel by Nicholas Meyer), starring opposite Nicol Williamson as Sherlock Holmes, and Robert Duvall as Dr. Watson.  
Charles Gray as Mycroft Holmes
in 1976's "The Seven-Per-Cent
Solution." (GoneMovie.Com)
Gray’s Mycroft Holmes made four appearances throughout the series—first in the canonical episodes, “The Greek Interpreter,” and “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” but then later making special appearances in “The Mazarin Stone” (when Mycroft filled in for Sherlock’s role, due to Jeremy Brett’s illness), and then in “The Golden Pince-Nez” (filling in for Edward Hardwicke, who was filming a movie).  Gray’s interpretation of the elder Holmes brother is at turns jovial and pensive, but in his first appearance in “The Greek Interpreter” seemed far older than the mere seven years that are supposed to separate him from his younger sibling—an effect that was lessened as the series went on.  He seems eternally amused and flabbergasted by Sherlock—much in the way of most older siblings—but also pleased with his abilities, saying with an affectionate turn of his lip and shake of his head—“Sherlock has all the energy in the family”—in response to a list of suggested tactics from his brother.
Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock seems likewise amused and flabbergasted by Mycroft, but his reactions are more subtle, often flitting across the screen like an errant firefly.  According to Richard Valley, the late proprietor of, “The underlying affection between the Holmes boys, rarely displayed in earlier interpretations, is largely revealed through Jeremy Brett’s subtle facial expressions as young Sherlock.  As always with Brett, the personality of his Great Detective holds at least as much interest as the mystery itself.”  Indeed, Brett’s facial expressions are as much a clue as any physical evidence.  Upon first seeing his brother perched on a stool in front of the window in the Stranger’s Room of the Diogenes Club, Sherlock looks, at first, awestruck, then suddenly embarrassed, when he realizes that Dr. Watson will have to bear witness to the brothers’ game of deduction.  Later, he looks as shocked and disbelieving to find Mycroft lounging in the Baker Street sitting room as if he had encountered Father Christmas there instead.   
And then finally, when Sherlock makes an unkind (if not inaccurate) assessment of Sophy Kratides, and Mycroft says, “You still retain your low opinion of women,” Sherlock’s head snaps back.  His eyes are narrowed and brows are raised.  His lips are pursed.  Mycroft has apparently strayed too closely into a realm of information best kept between brothers.
Gray’s Mycroft Holmes is also a bit more involved in this televised adaptation than in the original text—thanks to an added subplot where Sherlock, Watson, and Mycroft chase down the villains while aboard a train.  The trio arrives at the rail platform, just as the train is beginning to pull away.  Sherlock and the Doctor race deftly after it, but the larger Mycroft slips behinds and yells, “I’m not built for running, Sherlock!”  This leaves Sherlock in the position of physically pushing his brother onto the moving train, while Watson pulls him from his position onboard, and Mycroft gives a cartoonish cry. 
The decision to bring Mycroft along is an interesting one, for a number of reasons.  First of all, Mycroft, a man who “has no ambition and no energy,” seems a rather unlikely candidate for voluntary participation in an active criminal pursuit such as the one that develops at the end of Granada’s version of GREE.  His presence suggests that Sherlock believes his older brother would be needed or even necessary (perhaps for his diplomatic or government connections) at the close of the case.  Sherlock even goes to great lengths to make sure that his brother has boarded the train, when he probably would have left anyone else behind on the platform.  Certainly, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Sherlock Holmes leaving a dawdling and wheezing member of Scotland Yard behind, while waving patronizingly as the train pulls away. 
But then, after going to such trouble make sure his brother was on-hand, Sherlock leaves his “sleeping” brother behind as he goes to locate his quarry’s compartment.  “No,” he says to Watson.  “Don’t wake him.  There’s danger enough for the two of us.”  Of course, Mycroft is not sleeping, and his eyes slowly open as his companions leave the compartment.  As Sherlock and Watson corner Harold Latimer and Sophy Kratides in their quarters, the audience watches as Mycroft dines companionably with the third villain, Wilson Kemp, the dining car.  There’s a moment of confusion, where the audience might wonder what Mycroft is up to or if he even knows who he is sharing wine with, but all is revealed when Mycroft arrives at the perfect moment to save his brother and the Doctor, pulling out the weapon that he had deftly lifted from Kemp’s pocket without his knowledge.  Sherlock, for his part, looks pleased, proud, and not at all surprised to see his older brother save the day.     
As the episode closes, Sherlock Holmes watches with distaste as Sophy Kratides is lead away.  “It is not a crime to have a cold heart and not a single shred of compassion,” he says, before turning sharply, and walking away—alone—into the fog.  If the intention was to create a silence of isolation, reinforce the idea of Sherlock Holmes as a unique and unmatched phenomenon, then this adaptation of “The Greek Interpreter” was probably the wrong place to do so.  What this episode effectively demonstrates is that, far from being a remote, untethered being, Sherlock Holmes has several moorings that keep him in place.  His brother is one of them, though Sherlock may have kept Mycroft’s existence close to his chest.  But like any remarkable curiosity, Mycroft Holmes has a lot to tell the persistent Sherlockian devotee, and Granada’s interpretation of GREE is just one example of how much he might have to say.
One day left to enter the Sherlock Holmes trivia contest!  You have until 11:59p.m. EST, on Saturday, May 21, to submit your answers and qualify to win a prize package of Sherlock Holmes reference works.  The winner will be announced on Monday, May 23. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

Sherlock Holmes on Screen: “The Sound Which a Mouse Makes” (NAVA)

Sometimes, I worry that I’m beginning to take myself too seriously.  It wouldn’t be hard, considering that I spend most of my time enshrouded in fog, in unsavory locales, usually in the dead of night; and following around characters that spend most of their time investigating crimes that are, at best, gut-wrenching, or, at worst, gruesome and violent.  That’s not to say that the stories in the canon are all seriousness.  “The Blue Carbuncle” is famously lighthearted; for all that it is a Christmas story, and literally a wild-goose-chase.  And in “The Noble Bachelor,” when Holmes describes the vanishing of Lady St. Simon, “This is more interesting than it promised to be; quite dramatic, in fact”; Watson responds pithily: “Yes; it struck me as being a little out of the common.”
Oh, Watson...look how shiny!
But when I find myself irritable, hostile, and a hair’s breadth away from snapping at my husband to put down my copy of William Baring-Gould’s Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street because doesn’t he know the spine is about to fall apart and all my notes are written in the margins of that edition and he should remember how important that book is and if he doesn’t put it back on the shelf where he found it right this minute because I have a system
…well.  Let’s just say that I occasionally find myself in need of a reminder that hobbies are supposed to be soothing, and not bring about symptoms that I suspect may be similar to the onset of a stroke.  When that happens, there are some films which I sometimes liken to the cinematic equivalent of a cup of tea and a biscuit, and oddly enough, two of them involve mice.
Based on a series of children’s books by Eve Titus, the titular character, “Basil of Baker Street,” lives in a mousehole beneath 221B, known as 221 (and one half) Baker Street.  He shares the residence with his landlady, “Mrs. Judson,” and eventually, “Dr. David Q. Dawson,” who has just returned to London after his service in Afghanistan.  Titus named her mouse detective after the legendary Basil Rathbone, star of fourteen Sherlock Holmes films, though it’s worth mentioning that Sherlock Holmes was known to occasionally don the guise of a sea captain, whom Holmes referred to as “Captain Basil.” [For more, see: “The Adventure of Black Peter.”]
For their part, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson only appear in the film as shadows on the wall, and as disembodied voices (and violins) from off-screen.  Rathbone himself voices Holmes in a clip taken from a recording of “The Red-Headed League,” saying: “I observe that there is a good deal of German music on the programme…It is introspective, and I want to introspect.”  Obviously, Basil is quite like his human counterpart—he is unbearably untidy, susceptible to erratic and dangerous gunplay, adept at disguise, and possessed of an archenemy that he refers to as “the Napoleon of Crime”—Professor Ratigan.  He is capable of black moods and fits of boredom.  From 221B, he borrows a bloodhound named “Toby,” presumably the same hound that Old Sherman lends to Dr. Watson in “The Sign of Four.”  He seems unable (or unwilling) to learn his client’s name.  Basil is even an accomplished chemist.
Dr. Dawson is shades of Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of John Watson—a little bumbling, a little foolish, but earnest and sincere, and largely unsure of his new friend’s behavior.  Dawson becomes moony-eyed and blushing over a pretty dancing girl, and drinks unthinkingly from a glass, the contents of which later turn out to be drugged.  At the same time, he responds with military precision to Basil’s orders, and is heartbroken when it seems that he is responsible for the loss of their young client.
Toby may be my favorite
Disney character ever.
But for all their similarities to the Master Detective and his Doctor, Basil and Dawson are still just mice, and cartoon mice, at that.  Toby is not just a tracking animal; he is also a method of conveyance for the tiny little creatures.  During a fight scene in a toy store, Basil finds himself tangled in the pull-string of a talking doll, and bounced up and down like a yo-yo.  Dawson rides in the space beneath carriages (while what appears to be the shadowy silhouette of Dr. Watson rides above).  Mrs. Judson keeps her tenants well-supplied with cheese crumpets.  And one of the most imminent threats of danger is a large, fluffy cat with an indiscriminate appetite. 
According to Films and Filming magazine: “The approach to the mousehole at 221B Baker Street, which duplicates life in the famous apartments upstairs, with Doctor Dawson explaining his recent history and service in Afghanistan to the bereft Olivia Flaversham, is more affecting than… set pieces disproportionately filled with gloating violence” (Davies 140).  Basil’s and Dawson’s lives below Baker Street indeed duplicate and parody the lives of the men living above them, but they never interact.  Basil is a detective in his own right, but it’s hard not to imagine what would happen if the Great Mouse Detective was able to sit (literally) on the shoulder of Sherlock Holmes.
Unlike The Great Mouse Detective, where Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are relegated to the background and give up the spotlight to their mouse counterparts, the Detective and Doctor share the spotlight with the famous Tom and Jerry.  Jerry, living in a mousehole in the wall of 221B, first appears on screen as  Holmes's tiny lab assistant, and Tom, a messenger, seems to get corralled into the mystery by mere chance (and his omnipresent need to catch Jerry).  During the film, Tom and Jerry try to emulate the methods of Holmes and Watson, largely without success (though Jerry looks remarkably dapper in a tiny deerstalker and Inverness); they seem to fail at every turn and cannot even get their client to safety.  In fact, they lead her right into the heart of danger, appropriate hijinks ensuing, of course.  For their part, Holmes and Watson don’t fare much better, at first, and are off literally chasing geese in the countryside.

In classic fashion, the cat and mouse team are chased, pummeled, harassed, and pushed into a variety of unsafe situations, including (but not limited to) the pipes of a church organ.  At one early point, Jerry is pressed into the size and shape of a coin, while trying to fetch a newspaper for Holmes (and the newspaper itself is reduced to mere scrap before it reaches Baker Street).  Holmes seems to take it all in with an uncharacteristic, if a bit put-upon, aplomb.  He perches Jerry on his shoulder during investigations, and listens thoughtfully to any tiny clues the mouse might find.
Well, my magnifying glass is bigger.
But Sherlockians will probably enjoy the more subtle jokes even more—the ones placed throughout the movie for seemingly no one’s enjoyment but our own.  Dr. Watson races into Baker Street from the “Rathbone” public house to tell Holmes about a new case.  Holmes and Watson (and Tom and Jerry) meet their client at the “Bruce Nigel” Music Hall.  Holmes finds a button that leads him to “Brett Jeremy,” the tailor.  It’s the sly nudges and winks and “I-see-what-you-did there’s” that make this movie so enjoyable.  It’s not remarkably sophisticated humor; the plot is not complex.  A straight-to-DVD film is hardly ever elegant, or layered, but this one seems to keenly understand its demographic, knows the right buttons to push, recognizes what the audience wants to see, and to what they will respond.
I spend a lot of time researching and obsessing over (to the point of clinical neurosis) names, dates, and the position of slippers and jackknives in the Sherlock Holmes canon.  I’ve given hours of my life to the pages of books, and the details and minutiae that they contain.  I’ve thought long and hard about the name of Sherlock Holmes’s father, John Watson’s mother, and Mrs. Hudson’s missing husband.  I’ve dreamt of red-headed men, veiled lodgers, and spectral hounds.  And every moment has been wonderfully worthwhile.  But sometimes, I wonder if every Sherlockian should just take a minute to sit back, have some tea, and watch a mouse in a tiny hat ride a dog.  If we all take a minute to laugh at ourselves, then it’s easier to remember why we love the things we love. 
And maybe my poor husband won’t risk losing a hand the next time he reaches for my bookshelf.      
There’s one week left to enter the current blog contest!  Brush off your knowledge of Sherlock Holmes trivia and win a prize package of reference works.  Entries are being accepted until May 21.
Other sources used in this post include Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen (2007 Edition), by David Stuart Davies.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Currently on Twitter...

As part of an ongoing project on my Twitter feed, I'm delivering stories from the Sherlock Holmes canon in tiny installments of 140 characters or less.  On Monday, I finished-up "The Adventure of the Three Garridebs," and I hope everyone enjoyed the story of "Killer" Evans and his nasty little plot that almost took Watson's life .

The current story is "The Adventure of Black Peter" and when the story is over, let me know if you think 1895 was really the year that Sherlock Holmes was in his best form, physically and mentally.  Or if Stanley Hopkins was really one of Scotland Yard's rising stars, or just an annoying little sycophant.  

Check out my Twitter feed for a daily installment, though I am usually inspired to post more than once a day.  And don't forget that you can read through the original canon stories online


There is less than two weeks left to enter the current blog contest, and win a prize package of Sherlock Holmes reference works.  So brush up on your Sherlock Holmes trivia!  Entries are accepted until May 21.

Friday, May 6, 2011

“The Sequence of Events as Narrated” (NOBL): Trusting Watson as Narrator in the Sherlock Holmes Canon

Sherlock Holmes was famously unappreciative of Dr. Watson’s literary efforts on his behalf.  Though it stands to reason that Watson’s published stories about Holmes and his adventures brought the Great Detective both notoriety and new clients, Holmes was more concerned about the manner in which his talents were perceived: “Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner.  You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid” (SIGN).  But Watson was undeterred by his friend’s distinct lack of enthusiasm, and of the fifty-six short stories and four novels in the canon, only four of them are not written from the Doctor’s perspective.  “The Blanched Solider” and “The Lion’s Mane,” from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, are written from Holmes’s perspective; and “The Mazarin Stone” and “His Last Bow” are written from a third person perspective.  And in “The Gloria Scott,” and “The Musgrave Ritual,” Sherlock Holmes relates the primary mystery to Watson from his own memories, but the Doctor still frames and narrates the initial story.
"I was annoyed at this criticism
of a work which had been specially
designed to please him" (SIGN).
It’s quite easy to be distrustful of Watson as a narrator.  He’s often absent from the crucial aspects of Sherlock Holmes’s work—either by Holmes’s request or by the fact that he often inconveniently had his own life that kept him away from Holmes.  And as is stated in the title of James Krasner’s essay, “Watson Falls Asleep: Narrative Frustration and Sherlock Holmes,” Dr. Watson was often prone to napping at inopportune moments.  Furthermore, he seems unable to focus on the elements that a reader would, presumably, find most interesting.  As Krasner states, in his analysis of Watson’s narrative during Holmes’s famous “three pipe problem” during “The Red-Headed League”:
“In the course of two sentences, fifty minutes have passed, yet all the reader receives, and all Watson seems to think about, are the particulars of Holmes’s odd physical position on the couch.  Rather than speculating about Holmes’s thoughts, or about the case, Watson apparently just sits and stares at Holmes.  While a more imaginative narrator, or one more interested in intellectual acts, might speculate on Holmes’s thought process, Watson just gazes at Holmes’s body until the sight puts him to sleep.”
It’s hard to forget that Dr. Watson is oftentimes the reader’s only access to Sherlock Holmes.  He is the one that introduces the audience to the Detective, and Dr. Watson is the one that parcels out information in whatever size literary morsels he deems fit.  And Krasner believes that this is sufficient reason for the reader to be resentful, or even angry, at the Doctor, because “…just when Holmes is at his most brilliant, Watson turns his gaze to the angle of his pipe or the color of his dressing gown.”  But as a writer and a reader himself, Watson was uniquely aware that the building blocks of a narrative are contained, not just within each individual story as it is told, but across the series of stories that will ultimately be conveyed. 
In A Study in Scarlet, Watson introduces the reader to Sherlock Holmes for the first time.  From the manner in which he chooses to title his very first chapter (“Mr. Sherlock Holmes”), the reader is instantly aware around who this narrative will focus, at who the reader’s attention should be intrinsically drawn.  I’ve spoken elsewhere of Holmes and Watson’s first meeting, and how the scene forever colors the ways we perceive both men.  When Watson first sees Holmes, he is alone and consumed by his work, much as Sherlock Holmes will always be throughout their partnership.  Furthermore, Watson states that Holmes shook “…my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit.”  With this statement, Watson lays the foundation of Sherlock Holmes as a man of mysterious and unassuming strength.  This characteristic may not manifest itself to its fullest extent in STUD, but it becomes a brick upon which Watson can build off of in other stories.  In “The Speckled Band,” Holmes untwists the cast-iron fireplace poker which the villainous Roylott had destroyed (“I am not quite so bulky, but if he had remained I might have shown him that my grip was not much more feeble than his own”); and in “The Three Gables,” Holmes easily fends off an aggressive and agitated prizefighter (“But he is really rather a harmless fellow, a great muscular, foolish, blustering baby, and easily cowed, as you have seen”).  Watson started weaving the fabric of this aspect of Holmes’s character in the very first story, in the very first chapter, even though he did not use it to its fullest ability until later in the canon.
And Watson is not just aware of how to present Holmes’s skills as a detective, but also aspects of his personality—those particularly enticing clues that so tantalize the reader.  In “The Naval Treaty,” a story from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the Detective delivers a seemingly uncharacteristic, philosophical soliloquy on the nature of—of all things—flowers:
What a lovely thing a rose is! […]There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion…It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoned.  Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.  All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance.  But this rose is an extra.  Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it.  It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”
It’s certainly an odd tangent for a man who once claimed to not know that the sun revolved around the earth, simply because the information was not relevant to his work (STUD).  What use could philosophy and existential meditations on nature have in Holmes’s often vaunted “Science of Deduction”?  But if nothing else, this monologue puts softer edges on the detective, making him seem more human and aware of life’s delicate—often superfluous—details; things that are good, simply for the sake of being good.  And so the path is paved for Watson to present the reader with an entirely different aspect of Sherlock Holmes, one that isn’t much seen until “The Three Garridebs,” when Watson is injured.  Holmes shouts, “You’re not hurt, Watson?  For God’s sake, say that you are not hurt!” and perhaps there is a subtle reminder of the Detective from NAVA, who spoke so eloquently about the goodness of “extras,” and the reader wonders if the Doctor is not an “extra” himself, or perceived as one, in some way.
In short, Watson knows exactly what he’s doing as a narrator, and a writer.  He may not always be present—or even awake—when the reader would like him to be, but he sees the larger picture and understands what he needs to do.  In MAZA, Holmes tells his biographer: “Watson…you have never failed to play the game.  I’m sure you will play it to the end.”  Particularly in the very early stories, Watson is constantly leaving clues and signs that lead the readers on the path to Sherlock Holmes’s true nature, making the definitive character of the Great Detective as much of a mystery or a challenge as any of the canon’s adventures.
There are two weeks left to enter the Sherlock Holmes trivia contest, and now, there’s a new way to win!  Win a prize package of reference works by showing off your knowledge of the Detective, his world, and his creator.