Inspection Report V
the Segregation of the
|When A. Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet was
first published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, a “partner” to narrate
the story and marvel at the skills of the detective hero was not a new
idea. Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, Edgar Allen Poe’s detective, already
had such an “associate” in his three mysteries The Murders in the Rue
Morgue (1841), The Purloined Letter (1842) and The Mystery
of Marie Roget (1850), and other mystery writers also utilized this
mechanism to tell their tales. (To trace
the origin of the device, one only need recall Johnson and his Boswell.
In late November of 1887, the “Boswells” of the mystery genre were not
called “Watsons” as they are often called today. This was an honor not
to be bestowed upon Doyle’s Watson until the immense popularity of the
Sherlock Holmes tales was well established.)
In order to explore this well-worn path (see Sayers, Evoe and others for more on this topic), we must first ask our question: Should John H. Watson MD be diagnosed as having an “hysterical dissociative reaction”, as multiple personality was called in those days? Does he have a dual nature, with one Watson who is bright, intelligent and articulate and another who is stodgy, dull-witted and mumbling?
With the query stated, it is instructive first to take a brief look at the character of Watson and the other companions of the mystery genre. In looking at the similarity between Poe and Doyle’s respective “partners” it is striking how similar they are. Consider, for example, this remark taken from The Murders in the Rue Morgue after Dupin had broken into his companion’s musings with a revelation about his colleague’s very thought processes:
"Dupin," said I, gravely, "this is beyond my comprehension. I do not hesitate to say that I am amazed, and can scarcely credit my senses. How was it possible you should know I was thinking of --?" Here I paused, to ascertain beyond a doubt whether he really knew of whom I thought."
Simply replace “Dupin” with “Holmes” and this could be the voice of John H. Watson MD.
It is compelling to note that many of the “Watsons” of the mystery world seem to share the same incredulity, astonishment and befuddlement at the deductions of their companions as is reflected above in the quote from Poe. This seems to be true regardless of the fact that they are usually normal, intelligent and competent individuals with the highest of morals and loyalties. Except for intentionally comic roles such as those found in film comedies or humorous stories, it is the exception rather than the rule for the “Watson” to be foolish or silly.
From the Sacred Writings, there are comments made by the great detective that indicate his respect for his colleague. In A Scandal in Bohemia, published in The Strand Magazine in 1891, we find the following brief exchange between Holmes and Watson:
W: "I think that
I had better go, Holmes."
and from The Man with the Twisted Lip:
H: "Now, Watson," said Holmes, as a tall dogcart
dashed up through the gloom, throwing out two golden tunnels of yellow
light from its side lanterns. "You'll come with me, won't you?"
In addition, Holmes defers to Dr. Watson for medical examinations of individuals who play a part in their cases. As a practicing physician, this would be most a most appropriate utilization of Watson’s skills. Consider one such instance chronicled in The Stockbroker’s Clerk, where Holmes says:
H: "What do you think of him, Watson?" asked Holmes.
Watson then examines the man's health status, clearly showing his command of the situation.
To the most unenlightened reader, these simple interactions should be clear indications of the esteem and affection with which Sherlock Holmes held his friend and long-time companion. There are many other such examples in the Canon, but it would be impossible to list them all in this monograph. They contain a variety of references to Watson’s courage, his straightforward nature and his lack of divisiveness, his generally "up-front" qualities and honorable bearing. They all bear witness to Holmes’ statement in A Scandal in Bohemia: “I am lost without my Boswell.”
Even in most pastiches, his friend holds Watson in high esteem. Prisoner of the Devil (Michael Hardwick’s pastiche from 1979), for example, involves Holmes’ participation in the famous Dreyfus case, where Captain Alfred Dreyfus was accused of treason against France and eventually sent to Devil’s Island. In it, Holmes made the following request as he encouraged a reluctant Watson to wait in Baker Street to hear the story of the Captain’s brother:
H: “My dear Watson,” he said, “I beg you to do me the favour of remaining. A half-hour of your time at most, perhaps. This gentleman has come from France especially to see me, I gather at some risk to himself. I must hear him out and make my own judgement. I should prefer your reliable witness to what he has to say, not to mention the benefit of your invaluable opinion afterwards.”
This example is from one of the finest Sherlockian scholars and writers and is one of the most widely recognized and praised of all of the literally hundreds of pastiches. It, like the Canon, is suggestive of the characterization of Watson as a valued friend and partner.
Another example comes from The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes by Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr. In the story The Wax Gamblers, Watson has just “grassed” Sir Gervase Darlington with a fine left for his trouble after ungentlemanly behavior, threatening and displaying himself as a man of rather low order. After Watson explains his reasons for the action, Holmes says:
H: “Good old Watson!”
There are, of course, questions regarding the quality of many of these stories by Doyle’s son and Mr. Carr. But, while the characterizations of Watson are generally Canonical, the remaining interactions between the friends are mostly superficial in the balance of the stories.
A review of other pastiches would take up far too much space for a short monograph, but it would be fair to suggest that most writers attempt to capture the fundamental character of Watson and the interactions of the two friends as Canonically as possible.
What about the Watsons of the film industry? Consider, for example, Donald Houston of the movie A Study in Terror and Edward Hardwicke and David Burke of the famous Granada Series (to name but three… there are others actors who portrayed Watson equally well). All of these men (and the writers who wrote the screenplays) developed wonderful characterizations of John H. Watson as an intelligent, articulate, bright and witty English gentleman who knew when and how to be tolerant (or, as is sometimes the case, intolerant) of their companion’s behavior. Consider this brief excerpt from The Hound of the Baskervilles (Granada Television) with Jeremy Brett as Holmes and Edward Hardwicke as Watson:
After Watson discovers Holmes has been in the moor during his entire investigation (from the chapter, “The Man on the Tor”), Watson exclaims his dismay that his reports to Holmes have been “wasted”. Holmes replies that he has gotten the reports from the post and that they are “well thumbed”. He then makes the following remark regarding how he got the reports and the level of Watson’s work:
H: "I had to subvert the local Post Office… Brilliant, my dear fellow, brilliant.”
After this comment, an exchange of glances between the two men took place that clearly indicated the depth of respect they held for each other.
In summary, then, brief glances at the Sacred Writings, pastiche and film such as these reveal no indication that Watson was stupid, a buffoon, a "duffer", ineffective or ignorant. Although he may have been baffled, surprised, unobservant, “thickheaded” (to quote Julian Symons from his book Bloody Murder) and otherwise “not up with Holmes”. He was clearly no fool.
With respect to Watson the buffoon, we can look to the same three resources for implications. In the Canon, Holmes was not always so kind to his friend’s abilities. Consider the following from A Scandal in Bohemia:
W: "When I hear you give your reasons," I remarked,
"the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could
easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning
I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my
eyes are as good as yours."
It was quite common for Holmes to suggest that Watson use his methods to ascertain the facts or to make inferences (from The Sign of the Four: “You know my methods. Apply them, and it will be instructive to compare results.”). Unfortunately, Watson generally fails to achieve anything even approaching the level of skill of his friend. An example of this comes after Watson’s examination of Dr. Mortimer’s stick in The Hound of the Baskervilles:
W: “…I was proud, too, to think that I had so
far mastered his system as to apply it in a way which earned his approval.
He now took the stick from my hands and examined it for a few minutes with
his naked eyes. Then with an expression of interest he laid down his cigarette,
and carrying the cane to the window, he looked over it again with a convex
After this comment, Holmes, in the kindest manner, explains the precise deductions that could be drawn from the stick, clearly showing that Watson missed all of the important points.
While neither of these examples are representations of Watson as a fool, they are certainly marks of a man who has not fine-tuned his deductive skills to the razor sharpness of those of his companion. (Of course, we must remember that this is only with respect to areas of inquiry outside the realm of medical diagnostics. This was an area that Holmes rightly should have and usually did leave to Watson.).
Of course, a comedian Watson is to be expected in intentionally humorous pastiches and parodies. Obvious examples of jibes at Watson include The Adventure of the Two Collaborators by Sir James M. Barrie, How Watson Learned the Trick and The Field Bazaar by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, himself, and any parody with close ties to the characters (such as Robert L. Fish’s Schlock Homes and Dr. Watney). And these are just a few! There are MANY others.
In The Adventure of the Two Collaborators (1893), a very short apocryphal pastiche by Sir James M. Barrie in memoriam to he and Doyle’s failed theatrical collaboration, Jane Annie, the following comment is made by the character of “Doyle” after a brief deduction had been made by Holmes. It is important to know that at each remarkable event prior, Watson had “sprung to the ceiling” in amazement:
W: "I was about to jump to the ceiling when
the big brute interposed.
They did not wait long. 1893 was as good a year as any to begin buffooning Watson.
It is more difficult to find references to the buffoon in “serious” pastiches. In Sherlock Holmes and the Sacred Sword (Frank Thomas’s pastiche from 1980), Holmes and Watson are in the Middle East attempting to stop a Holy War. In one of the action sequences of the story, the following narrative occurs as Watson’s horse breaks away and he inadvertently “leads the charge” on the enemy:
W: “…I had cocked my weapon, an insane thing to do on horseback, and was bouncing like a rubber ball with every leap of my noble Arabian. As a result, I lost both my stirrups and my Webley blasted off into the night, not aimed at anything.”
Later in the narrative, it turns out that this aimless shot took out a sharpshooter who had been causing havoc, substantially contributing to Holmes and Watson’s victory in the story. In examining this excerpt, it is necessary for us to recall that, while John H. Watson MD was not a cavalry officer in Her Majesty’s service, this would not have precluded basic training in how to ride a horse. And, the main mode of transportation in Victorian times was walking, horseback, horse-and-carriage, trains and tri- and bicycles, anyway. Horseback would have been even more significant in wartime… especially in the wilds of the Middle East (as in this case) or Afghanistan. Given this, it is surprising, indeed, that Watson was “bouncing like a rubber ball” on horseback. City-bred, uncomfortable and not a “great rider”, he may have been. But a bouncing rubber ball? Probably not.
Additionally, cocking a firearm on horseback would not necessarily be considered “insane”. It would have been necessary if you intended to fire a single action weapon and would have been, therefore, a requirement of riding into battle. Unfortunately, the Webley (probably a .455 Army Service Revolver) was both single and double action, so simply pulling the trigger would cock and fire the pistol. For sharp shooting, you might wish to cock the weapon, but not otherwise. It is, therefore, unlikely that Watson would have cocked the weapon at all. We must remember that Holmes asked Watson to bring his service revolver so often and Watson did so with such calm and self-assured presence of mind, it would be unreasonable to infer that he was unfamiliar or unable to effectively handle the weapon. On top of it all, it would be silly for his “accidental” shot to have won the day.
In this example, Watson is painted as a “man out of his water”, bumbling and bouncing about and helping his friend only by accident. Frank Thomas, author of Sacred Sword, is a well-known writer, whose work, Sherlock Holmes: Bridge Detective (1973) is considered one of Shaw’s Basic 100. Regardless of this, his pastiches are not of the highest quality and his characterization adds to the “buffooning” of John H. Watson MD.
But, just how influential were these works? It would be a fair conclusion that most of the public has never seen nor read The Adventure of the Two Collaborators. Of course, it is equally likely that most have never seen many of the other humorous writings. The Thomas pastiches are difficult to find and are highly collectable… mostly because they were paperback originals. Given this, it would be unlikely that the general public would have been given the perception of Watson as a buffoon from these resources, so… what about film?
The “Watson” of Universal Films (1939-1946) is suggestive. In these movies, Watson is portrayed as a bumbling, stuffy old English gentleman who fumbles and huffs and puffs his way around, following Holmes rather like an obedient puppy. Lines to the contrary, there are no indications that Holmes is “lost” without this “Boswell”. It is almost as if Bruce played Watson as a negative stereotype of an Englishman… distinctly unflattering except in his apparent kindliness and deeply likable nature. Interestingly, Rathbone said, in his 1962 autobiography, "There is no question in my mind that Nigel Bruce was the ideal Dr. Watson... There was an endearing quality to his performance...” While Bruce’s Watson may have been endearing, in many ways he was not very Watsonian.
In Dressed to Kill (1946), there are a number
of instructive interactions. The story centers on stolen plates for
bank notes hidden by the thief in the home of Samuel Johnson. The
clues to the plates’ whereabouts are smuggled out of prison in the form
of a code in music boxes, which were sold to the wrong people. The
thief’s accomplices, of course, go after the music boxes so they can find
In the same scene, as Holmes and Watson leave the house, Stinky suggests that Holmes is taking the theft of this cheap, wooden music box from his collection too seriously. Watson makes the following comment:
W: “…Must agree with… um…. Old Stinky.
Seems to me that you are rather making a mountain out of a moleskin…”
Yet another example occurs when Watson is comforting a young girl of about 10 after being rescued from the closet of her home where she was tied up by the antagonist. Watson kindly says:
W: “Would you like to hear Old… Uncle make a noise like a duck?”
The little girl doesn’t really say “Yes”, but without
much ado, he then quacks… and quacks… and quacks. There were few
signs of this comforting the child.
W: “Oh… um… sorry….” and looks away, confused.
These three examples from only one of the Universal films are enlightening. In the first example, although Watson might have been enchanted by the fine music boxes in Stinky’s collection, he would have taken pains not to appear foolish. He was, after all, a dignified Doctor of Medicine and English gentleman. In the second, it takes no great thinking to realize that Watson WROTE the Canon and would surely know the difference between “molehill” and “moleskin”! Besides, it was not late at night and none of these were “old men” in need of an early bedtime. And, in the last example, as a bachelor, Watson may have had little understanding as to how to comfort a child, but his behavior is clearly not what one would expect from a reserved English gentleman who did not know the child in question. And I have yet to find any reference to Watsonian quacking in the Sacred Writings.
So then, Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Buffoon: There is virtually no canonical reference to Watson as a fool, which makes it difficult to find the foundation for the label of “buffoon” there. If we consider the Apocryphal writings (Two Collaborators by J.M. Barrie in 1893, TRIK (1924) and BAZA (1896) by Sir A.C. Doyle) and any of the parodies or other intentionally humorous writings, we know that poking fun at Watson has been a tried and true pastime of writers since the late 1800’s. It is compelling, however, to note that in these cases, we know Watson is going to take a hit. These have certainly contributed to this problem. Although in this short monograph we cannot adequately reflect the influence of the pastiches that have appeared since most of the Canon has gone out of copyright (there are literally hundreds of them), at least some responsibility lies there.
In terms of whodunit, it seems unmistakable that John H. Watson MD was most significantly cast as a buffoon in the public eye by the film industry. And most directly, we can censure Universal for this character assassination. This much is clear: The buffoon Watson we see in newer books and films since the late 1940’s is probably due more to this influence then any other.
Let us look more deeply at the culprit. The Universal movies were often the start of a life-long passion for the characters, the stories and the times for many current Sherlockians, including, I must confess, myself. Regardless of their timeless nature and influence on generations, there are many difficulties with Bruce’s characterization of Watson in them. Was it necessary for Bruce to characterize Watson this way to emphasize the brilliance of Rathbone’s Holmes? Clearly, no. There was no need for Burke or Hardwicke to do so to make Jeremy Brett's Holmes shine in the Granada Series. Like Rathbone, he fairly glowed. The stories and characterizations did all of the necessary stage setting.
In this examination, one cannot help but wonder if Nigel Bruce, who was born in 1895 and educated in England, was not one of those young boys who stood in long queues to buy the newest Sherlock Holmes story in the Strand Magazine. Surely he was very much aware of the real John H. Watson MD? Although it is reported that he “threw” himself into the part with gusto and enjoyed playing Watson, could he not have considered the characterization inappropriate? Perhaps so, but he was a professional actor who was called upon to play a written part. It is interesting to note that Bruce made many other films, often appearing as a similar English character. Perhaps he was "typecast" as "stuffy English gentleman" and was asked to play the part of Watson, accordingly. The huffing, puffing, comedic role Bruce played bears little resemblance to the Watson of the Canon… even the less flattering Canonical references noted above. Even though the filmmaker and screenwriter's intention may have been to add a bit of comedy relief, the real Watson was no jester. He had a "…vein of pawky humour…” to quote Holmes in The Valley of Fear, but he was no court jester.
Would a less foolish Watson improve the Universal films? Perhaps, even probably, but the films would then be different... and how would we feel about these changes? After all, we are fond of these old films, foolishness and all, and probably would not have them any other way. Besides, there is reason to believe that these films were typical of a time when movies were made to be enjoyed by a mass audience… rather like television is today. It would be appropriate to consider them in the light of the statement: “We are going to The Saturday Matinee at the Cinema to escape from the Depression and the War and all of that horror.” A humorous character would plainly allow the films to reach a broad audience.
There is an additional inference which can be made regarding films of this period: Many of them utilized a sort of "formula”: a comedic foil as an adjunct to the hero. It takes no great effort to arrive at this inference: simply consider Number One Son in the Charlie Chan films and Gabby Hayes in the Roy Rogers films. Was Number One Son stupid? Not really, but being young, impulsive and exuberant, he frequently did things which caused dismay to his father, the hero. Was Gabby Hayes an idiot? Of course not. He was just an old and irascible cowboy whose testy behavior was a foil to the hero. This, then, was the formula: The heroes (Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, Roy Rogers) and their comedic sidekicks (John H. Watson, Number One Son and Gabby Hayes), bouncing off each other to keep intense moods from becoming too much so. The only misfortune here is that it was Watson who was relegated to this role rather than other characters (notwithstanding, Lestrade, who was played as a bumbling policeman by Dennis Hooey in many of the Universal films.).
After all is said and done, then, we all know the real John H. Watson MD. He was a practicing Doctor of Medicine, an articulate, well-read and mannerly English gentleman who, in addition, wrote most of the stories from which we draw our conclusions, with a turn of phrase that is the envy of us all. Regardless of Watson playing the clown in some media, it is no surprise to us that the Canon is still a joy, the pastiches are still fun to read and the films are still a pleasure to watch. Surely, this is what exemplifies the nature of our affection for these characters. Therefore, in our Observations upon the Segregation of the Buffoon, let us be aware of the origins of the fool but look forward, following the lead of the Master. Let us celebrate Watson as Holmes did in His Last Bow:
"Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a
changing age. There's an east
(c) Copyright 2000, David N. Cisler, All Rights Reserved