Saturday, January 21, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: “Watson’s Afghan Adventure”

Kieran McMullen; Publisher: MX Publishing (January 2011)
“’…by the way,’ [Sturt] said looking around, ‘don’t flinch in front of the men.  Bad form, old boy, gets them concerned’” (62).

Continuing on the theme of character history and backstory, reading Kieran McMullen’s Watson’s Afghan Adventure made me realize how important it is to give consideration to Dr. Watson’s early life.  It isn’t that readers don’t care about the Doctor’s early life—his adventures and experiences before he took up residence at Baker Street—it’s more that readers already think that they know so much about him.  Unlike Sherlock Holmes, who only takes up the pen and speaks to the reader directly twice throughout the canon (BLAN, LION), Watson, on the other hand, voices fifty-six stories (with LAST and MAZA being written from an omniscient third-person perspective).  Sometimes, it seems as if we, as readers, are in constant conversation with Dr. Watson, and that he has revealed much more about himself than he truly has.  It might even be fair to say that readers know much more about Sherlock Holmes’s early life than we do about Dr. Watson’s, because the Doctor took the time to ask questions and wheedle information out of his friend.  And if Holmes ever did the same, then it never quite made it into print.
But McMullen’s novel goes a long way towards remedying that deficiency.  Watson’s Afghan Adventure opens with a package being delivered to Baker Street by Watson’s old orderly, Murray, who is on his way to a new life with his family in America.  Inside the package, Watson finds: “…one glass phial containing two bullets, a ruby of approximately 5 carats and a medal with the likeness of St. Peters Basilica on the reverse with the date of 1880 and on the obverse a likeness of Pope Gregory XVI and subscribed ‘John H. Watson’” (8).  These items are remarkable enough, but when Holmes proclaims: “I am of the opinion that these two bullets make my friend out to be a liar,” the reader realizes that Dr. Watson is not just a teller of tales, but perhaps a keeper of secrets as well (8).  That Dr. Watson may have had a rich inner life and a complex history before he ever met his equally enigmatic friend.
Watson provides a brief sketch of his early life, but focuses primarily on his early days as both a doctor and a soldier.  The Doctor acquires some very early companions—Lieutenants Sutter Sturt and Arthur McMullen—and it is these friendships that ultimately frame and map the course he will take during his military career.  When Sturt makes a surprisingly revelation—a map that supposedly leads to a long-lost treasure—Dr. Watson finds himself drawn into a centuries-old treasure hunt.  The journey will take him from London to India to Afghanistan and back again.  It is not long before Dr. Watson experiences the awfulness and injustice of battle, along with the general unfairness of the life and circumstances.  McMullen’s battle scenes are deliciously detailed, filled with military strategy and impeccable historical knowledge.  And while those details serve to provide context and authenticity to the story, they might also prove a bit dense for those unfamiliar or uninterested in such terminology or techniques.
The cast of characters that moves in and out of Watson’s life is varied and rich, and McMullen manages to successfully flush out each and every one, even the most transient ones.  It slowly becomes clear why Watson would happily find companionship in a man like Sherlock Holmes—a man who was not a predictable figure, necessarily, but was at least somewhat constant.  The reader even gets a little taste of the “experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents” that Watson boasts of in The Sign of Four.  Slowly but surely, the Dr. John Watson of the canon comes into view, with each new acquaintance, and each new experience: “…the result of these actions would lead me to a wonderful place in the end.  It would lead me to Baker Street” (145).
Because behind the scenes, McMullen is telling the story of how John Watson became.  It is difficult for some readers to imagine that there was once a Dr. Watson who flinched in the face of gunfire, that there was once a time in his life when danger and fear were abnormalities, instead of de rigueur.  It’s difficult to picture a Dr. Watson who is unsure of himself around weapons, and who hesitates—if only briefly—in the face of a crisis.  A Dr. Watson who had a family—immediate, biological relations instead of just an eccentric flatmate and a put-upon housekeeper.  But McMullen does an admirable job of constructing a Dr. Watson that readers recognize.  He lays the foundation for the man readers know from “The Empty House,” who is able to take on Colonel Sebastian Moran when the Great Detective finds himself incapacitated: “…I struck him on the head with the butt of my revolver, and he dropped again upon the floor.  I fell upon him, and as I held him my comrade blew a shrill call upon a whistle.”

In Watson’s Afghan Adventure, Kieran McMullen reminds readers that we may not know Dr. Watson as well as we think we do, and also why it would behoove us to get to know him better.  McMullen’s John Watson is not just a teller of tales, and a keeper of secrets, but a man with a complex and layered inner life—before he ever set foot in Baker Street.
Kieran McMullen’s second novel, Sherlock Holmes and the Irish Rebels, is now available from MX Publishing.  Order the book here.
Watson’s Afghan Adventure, by Kieran McMullen is available in paperback from MX Publishing, and Amazon.  It is also available for the Kindle.  You can also follow the author on Twitter and on Facebook.  His blog is available here.
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  1. Wonderful review - definitely a book I want to read. It's great to see someone put so much care and effort into telling Watson's story, something I always wanted more of in the Canon.

  2. @KateM: Thank you, and I definitely agree! Have you had a chance to read "The Private Life of Dr. Watson," by Michael Hardwick? It's in my constantly growing "To Read" pile, and I was hoping to get someone's perspective on it before I attempted it.