Of the fifty-six short stories that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Sherlock Holmes, a whopping fifty of them are told in the first person point of view of Dr. Watson. All four novels are also told, for the most part, by Watson (not counting the third-person side trips, as previously seen in A Study in Scarlet). The remaining six stories are divided equally between three categories: those stories told from Sherlock in the third-person (“The Mazarin Stone” and “His Last Bow”), from Sherlock in the first-person (“The Lions Mane” and “The Blanched Soldier”) or related mostly in Sherlock’s first-person through Watson’s dictation of the story his friend tells him (“The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual”). Those six stories are the only real chances we are ever given to have Holmes tell his story himself, even if the last two are still filtered through Watson’s retelling of the narrative dictated to him.
“The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual” are also interesting in that they are tales of cases that Holmes took on before he met and befriended Watson. These are his earliest forays into the world that would become his primary occupation: these are the events that led him to style himself into the world’s first (and only, he would remind you) consulting detective. Here are Holmes’ first steps; the first practical applications of his notorious method to solve true mysteries. Well, “solving” and “real mysteries” might be defined a little loosely here.
In “The Gloria Scott,” the boys are having a quiet winter evening at 221B, in between cases by all appearances, and Holmes presents Watson with “the message which struck Justice of the Peace Trevor dead with horror.” While still an aimless university student, young Holmes befriends Victor Trevor (the how involves Victor’s dog deciding Holmes’ ankle looks tasty and mauling it, as all budding friendships do) and is invited to spend the summer holiday with his new pal and his father at their estate in Norfolk. Mr. Trevor is friendly enough, until Holmes makes a few typically Holmesian observations and sets his host on edge. After that, Mr. Trevor spends the rest of Holmes’ visit deeply suspicious of his son’s guest, enough so that Holmes decides to cut his trip short.
His last day at the estate, an old associate of Mr. Trevor’s shows up unannounced, asking after another acquaintance and requesting a little hospitality. By the old man’s reaction, it’s not a happy reunion, but Holmes sets out the next day for London without spending too much time on the how’s and why’s of his host’s behavior. Fast forward to two months later, and Holmes receives an urgent request from Victor to return to Norfolk. Mr. Trevor is dying, and the cause is the strange, benign message shown to Watson at the beginning of the story. Holmes decodes the message and it becomes clear that the uninvited visitor – Hudson, no relation – knew something about Mr. Trevor’s past that he planned to reveal to the world. The shame and fear of everyone finding out his greatest secret kills him.
I said that “solving” and “real mysteries” were loosely defined above, and that mostly relates to this story. Holmes only really cracks the coded message. The mystery of why it did Mr. Trevor in is solved by the old man himself, via a handwritten confession he leaves for his son. Holmes doesn’t do a whole lot of the deducing in the story, really, which is almost a let-down.
The telling of “The Musgrave Ritual” is less an attempt to avoid boredom and more an attempt for Holmes to avoid cleaning up after himself. Watson just wants Holmes to put his papers away and maybe stop leaving criminal relics – I really, really want more detail about that, by the way, because my imagination defines “criminal relics” pretty broadly in this case – strewn about the place and, apparently, in the butter dish. Yes, Doyle did just confirm that Holmes and Watson are Oscar and Felix from “The Odd Couple.” Anyway, Holmes is not in the mood to tidy the flat, so he decides to distract Watson instead by pulling out the box he keeps all the bits and pieces of his pre-Watson investigations in. Under the auspices of wanting Watson to put the case to paper, he tells his friend/biographer all about “the adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.”
Now out of school, Holmes is lodging in London and lending his talents to small mysterious matters that get directed his way, usually from former classmates that had seen how his remarkable brain worked. One of those was Reginald Musgrave, a vague acquaintance whose butler had been acting funny and then nanaged to disappear without a trace – or his belongings – just before he was supposed to quit. If that wasn’t odd enough, one of the estate maids – who was “involved” with the butler – had been acting strangely right before walking off from the house and tossing a mysterious bag into the pond on the property and disappearing herself. Holmes is engaged to find out what happened and where the missing persons might have gotten to.
In his typical brilliant fashion, Holmes uncovers the truth about an old rite of passage the Musgrave family has carried on for several generations and how it directly ties into the butler’s unfortunate fate. He also figures out the real worth of the objects in the mysterious bag at the bottom of the pond – apparently, Henry VII’s crown wasn’t destroyed, just hidden by some supporters of Charles I until his true successor could retrieve it – but he’s left stymied by the fate of the maid, who is never found.
Do you know what’s also probably never found? Any of the furniture buried under Holmes’ endless stacks of paper. The story never spells it out, but I imagine Holmes finishes the story and Watson sets off to scribble it down in his journals while Holmes goes back to his chemistry set or his violin. I imagine this Holmes, now free of Watson’s nagging for the rest of the evening, looks supremely smug about how easy it was.
This is why I’m always surprised Watson doesn’t mention punching Holmes on a frequent basis throughout the length of their friendship.
The mysteries in both of these stories are more puzzles than cases. No one is really brought to justice in either of them, and you could argue that the deaths that happen in both are caused by the actions of the deceased more than an outside source. Trevor’s own fear of scandal and a weakened disposition did him in; Brunton the butler might not have gotten left behind in the hidden vault if he hadn’t been a greedy, philandering SOB. The central questions in both cases is more “why did this happen?” than “who is responsible for it happening and how can we bring them to justice?” But then, Holmes is just dipping his toes in the ocean at this point in his career. He won’t really dive in head-first until much later. This is Holmes still wearing his floaties, in a sense. The deep end is still to come.
The first draft of The Mad Strangler, written in a caffeine and Twizzler-fueled National Novel Writing Month frenzy, was a third-person narrative from Charlotte’s point of view, broken up by first-person vignettes from the villain. I didn’t want inside Watson’s head. We’re always inside Watson’s head. I wanted inside Holmes’; he’s always been the more intriguing character to me. I also wanted to fill in some of those blanks of who Holmes is and why he is the way he is that canon denied me, which is easier to do when you aren’t filtering the story through a second-hand account. The book remained a third-person narrative until I’d finished the first round of edits – the perfunctory “let’s check for spelling and grammar errors and make sure character names and attributes didn’t change halfway through and, oh yeah, remove any instances of ‘RESEARCHPLEASE!’ tossed in during word wars when I didn’t have time to pause and Google” edit.
Round two started with me deciding – and by me, I mean the character, in my head, who refuses to shut up, ever – that it really needed to be told in first person instead. In Charlotte’s first-person point of view. I don’t ever recommend rewriting 70,000 words in a different point of view if you value your sanity, by the way. I admit, removed from the process by a year and a half, that the story does work better that way. I like letting Charlotte tell her story. I like seeing the world through her eyes. Yes, it makes it more difficult, too, and involves having to try to sound far smarter than I am and work out the deductions and the process of reaching them a lot more minutely. But it’s worth it, I think, in the end. The biographer’s bias is removed. We lose that filter.
Which doesn’t make Charlotte any more a reliable narrator than Watson, by the way. We all lie better to ourselves than we do to others, most of the time. That just makes the lying worse.
But let’s focus on a different one of Charlotte’s faults for now, while also investigating one of her firsts.
“CHARLOTTE ELIZABETH HOLMES!” Anne’s voice radiates through the brownstone like a clap of ominous thunder and drags me, flailing, from my light doze on the couch. As I tumble to the floor in a tangle of limbs and opened books, I topple a haphazard stack of papers set on the floor beside me.
“I could have cracked my head open on the floor, Anne,” I say with an indignant huff.
“Your endless mess would have clearly broken your fall.” My aunt stands over me. Her hands rest on her hips, leaving smudges of flour on her black apron. “You’ve been home a week and you’ve already turned the study into a litter heap!”
I lift my head from the floor and peer about the room in question. Admittedly, the room is a bit of a shambles. Since arriving home from Girtons for the summer break, a collection of random miscellany had accumulated around me: hungrily read newspapers – a means of catching up on all I might have missed while I was gone; correspondence in need of reply (mostly from Mycroft, who at least understands my tendency to lose track of such things while focused on my studies and not hold the silence against me); and a dozen or so books in various stages of perusal. To me, such a sight feels welcoming. I am, if nothing else, a creature that thinks best in some degree of chaos.
“Calling it a litter heap insinuates a lack of order.” I pull myself to my feet and reclaim my original seat. “While it may look a bit unkempt…”
Anne scoffs. “A bit unkempt? You’re the queen of understatement, niece.”
“…it is, in fact, a highly systematic organizing of materials. I know the contents of every pile, and could find any singular item if needed from amongst them.”
“Which should make it that much simpler for you to gather it all up and put it away, shouldn’t it?” Anne picks up a stack of books teetering on the edge of the mantle and drops them in my lap. “The ladies from the knitting club are arriving at four. I’d like to make use of the study, so we’re not cramped around the kitchen table.”
I drop my head back against the cushions and groan. “Not the knitting ninnies again!”
“Charlotte!” Anne steps behind the couch and tugs my left ear. “Don’t be rude.”
“I can’t help it. They’re all so…short-sighted! Always nattering on wondering when I’m going to be sensible and give up ‘this foolish education nonsense and find a good husband.’ It’s none of their business. And it makes for asinine conversation.”
“Something you’re well versed in?” I glare up at Anne from my position. She smiles smugly back at me. “Rant all you like on the topic, but you still need to make sense of this room.”
I lift my head and glance at the books situated in my lap. The topmost, a well-worn copy of Dante’s Inferno, lights the spark of potential distraction. As Anne turns to leave, I pluck it up and shove the rest onto the couch.
“Did I tell you about Agatha Moore? What happened to her this past term, that is?” I spin about so that I’m kneeling on the couch and hanging nearly over the back of it. “It was quite an interesting bit of scandal.”
“Unless it’s the scandal of how she plans to get this room cleaned, I’m not interested.”
“Far more interesting, in fact. You see, Agatha was halfway interested in this young man back home. They’d been out together at several rather formal occasions over the last two summers. She expected a proposal any day. I suppose some women find excitement in that sort of thing. Personally, I’ve little interest, but…” Anne picks up my coat from the floor beneath the hook and tosses it at me. I duck to allow it to land on the couch instead. “Unimportant detail. Really, all of it is entirely pointless except the letter she noticed one of our classmates received, in the young man’s handwriting, which held the absolute strangest message. It made little sense at all, until I realized that the letter was actually a fairly simplistic cipher that…”
Anne strides over and plucks the book from my hand. “Let me guess. When decoded, it indicated that the classmate and the young man were secretly having a sordid affair right under his intended’s nose. Sounds like a thrilling story. What sounds more thrilling, however, is you doing as I asked and tidying up this mess.”
“But don’t you want to hear how I cracked it? It really was a masterful bit of…”
“No!” Anne leaves the room in a swirl of flour-dusted wool, slamming the door behind her. A heartbeat later, the door opens and she pokes just her head back through the crack. “By four o’clock, Charlotte, or you can cook your own dinner tonight.”
Sighing, I slide from the couch and begin gathering the detritus, muttering to myself. “Someday, someone’s going to find all this interesting. Just you wait.”