John H. Watson: doctor, Army surgeon, ladies man, biographer, narrator, Doyle’s likely self-insert, friend. No one word best describes the man that Sherlock Holmes refers to as “my dear Watson.” He is the heart of every story, the lens through which we thrill at and observe the mental gymnastics of the most progressive fictional detective of any era. He is a fiercely loyal and steadfast friend who provides an anchor for a mind that you are left to believe might lose itself to the cosmos without someone holding on. He is, simply, the best friend Sherlock Holmes could ever ask for.
Despite all that, we spend most of the canon hearing Holmes correcting Watson on one missed or misinterpreted deduction after another, and watching the good doctor following Holmes into one adventure or another. While Doyle never gave us the bumbling sidekick of early adaptations, the time spent reaffirming Holmes’ brilliance at Watson’s expense set the stage for that possibility. It’s not until The Hound of the Baskervilles that we get to see Watson being clever without correction, and Watson diving into adventures all his own. When he does? It is a glorious thing to behold.
Hound is the novel Doyle wrote by protest – or, more accurately, because he really needed the money- after dropping Holmes off a cliff in “The Final Problem.” It took him eight years to get around to revisiting his most famous character, and would take him another two to actually resurrect the Great Detective. Like so much of Doyle’s work, Hound is written out of continuity, taking place before Holmes’ demise. Unlike the rest of the canon, Holmes himself is absent for a good 70% of the novel (I’m guesstimating here; I’m not sad enough to count pages yet). That means we spend the majority of the narrative watching Watson discover clues, make deductions, and lay the groundwork for Holmes’ eventual triumph.
The narrative is a fairly standard quasi-gothic mystery. I say “quasi-gothic” because it turns on the idea of a horrific, supernatural creature haunting the moors and running down baronets in sadistic glee, but the focus is never really fully on the beast or the horror enough to qualify it a gothic. Besides; you know going in that it can’t be a real monster. This is the world of Sherlock Holmes, where order and rational logic trump all. The monster is of course going to be proven to be a perfectly normal animal by the end.
(Full disclosure – a world where magic and Sherlock Holmes coexist tempts me on a daily basis, no lie. I have a whole other series in my head with a Holmes descendant who is a medium and haunted by the ghost of her dead Great Uncle Sherlock, who twists her arm into solving crime and aggravating local law enforcement. Or maybe his good friend Watson is the spook. Maybe “good friend” is archaic Victorian code and he’s hanging about to look over the subsequent generations of his, ahem, friend’s, family. Or it’s Watson’s descendant with Holmes doing the watching over from beyond the grave. Because a Holmes should never be without a proper Watson. Anyway. Welcome to my brain.)
Watson gets to be absolutely brilliant in this book. For once, we’re allowed to see that, even if his cleverness is different than Holmes’, that doesn’t diminish its worth in anyway. We know, because Watson notices, that there is something squirrely about Stapleton (and, to a leaser degree, his “sister”) from the moment we meet him. (Thanks to every police procedural I’ve ever read or watched, so did I; always suspect the person who tries to insert themselves in the investigation, guys). Watson puts two and two together about something being wrong with the Barrymores. He even figures out which of the characters in the village will be the best source of useful gossip and knows the perfect way to interrogate him, too. Watson is one clever, cagey son of a bitch and he’s obviously learned a thing or two from watching his friend at work.
The chronology of this one bugs me, and I only bring it up – having sworn off doing so weeks ago – because of Beryl Stapleton. Nothing about her specifically, but more Watson’s reaction to her. We know Watson is fond of the ladies, but he spends an awful lot of page space talking about how pretty Miss Stapleton is. This bothers me only because of where everyone agrees the book falls – after Sign of the Four and before “The Empty House.” After Sign, we know Watson is a married man. He’s not a widower until after “Empty House.” But the opening of the book has him talking as if he’s living at Baker Street again and he’s really keen on how pretty Sir Henry’s neighbor’s sister is. Things like this, and the odd mentions of a wife in stories Doyle set before the timeline of Sign are why people argue over how many times Watson was married.
I said before that Sign of the Four is my favorite Holmes story, but Hound has to at least come in a close second, if not a tie for first, and it’s the focus on Watson that cinches it for me. I may love Holmes and playing with how he thinks and who he really is at the core, but I absolutely adore everything about Watson. I always have. Maybe it’s all those qualities I listed above. Maybe I just have a thing for men who were formerly in uniform. At the heart of it, though, I think it’s because Watson is the kind of friend we all want, and that we’d all like to be. Everyone hopes that the people they depend on are worthy of that trust; that we’ve chosen comrades who will have our back and to whom we can turn, no matter the day, time, or situation. And we want to be that sort of person to others, too.
The world would be a much better place with more Watsons in it, don’t you think?