(Yes, I fully realize I used that in part for a previous entry, but that one wasn’t Sherlock-related so it doesn’t count. Plus? It fits.)
Back in week two, I covered point of view (POV) while talking about “The Musgrave Ritual” and “The Gloria Scott.” POV is a pretty important thing when you’re talking about a series told by a specific first-person narrator for 90% of its run. That’s the kind of detail that starts to feel like an expectation. When you read the Sherlock Holmes stories, you expect to hear them told in John Watson’s voice. To suss out the story threaded through Watson’s perceptions and recollections.
So it’s weird and maybe a little bit jarring, then, to open a story and see the following staring up at you from the top of the page:
It was pleasant to Dr. Watson to find himself once more in the untidy room of the first floor in Baker Street which had been the starting-point of so many remarkable adventures.
It’s not even the slightly awkward sentence structure that’s so jarring. Watson should never be a “he;” we’ve been conditioned by three short story collections and four novels up to this point to expect him as the “I” at the beginning of every tale. By the time we reach “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,” we can’t really believe any other possible way exists.
And then we’re proven wrong.
Point of view is one of the most important decisions a writer makes when beginning a project. Who tells the story sets the tone for absolutely everything and provides a lot of the rules and boundaries your story will fit within from the first letter to the last. (I say this should be decided at the beginning because deciding it at the end and having to rewrite the whole thing in a new POV is a bitch that I’m pretty sure I’ve already whined about. More than once. To everyone who knows me. For the record? I still found third-person pronouns hiding in my 4th round of edits.). The choice of narrator also determines a lot about the style and delivery of the piece.
It’s also why “Mazarin Stone” bugs me so much.
(Yes, I realize a lot of things have bugged me lately. I’m a woman of many moods, most of them irritated, obviously.)
It’s a good story, don’t get me wrong. Reading it right after “Empty House” was kind of amusing, since it makes it seem like having a wax dummy set up in the bow window to tempt air gun-toting snipers is just a “thing” around Baker Street. To borrow the joke from season six of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” – “Someone’s trying to shoot Holmes with an air gun. It must be Tuesday.” The plot revolves less around the threat of imminent death than the recovery of yet another one of the crown jewels. I think we’ve watched Holmes find and return about three of those by now – the Beryl Coronet, the Blue Carbuncle, and now the Mazarin Stone. It makes you wonder how good the security is around the Royal Family and their related holdings if precious stones, salacious letters from foreign rulers, and important treaties go missing so often. But, if they didn’t, I guess Holmes and Watson wouldn’t have anything to do. (Watson apparently already has nothing to do, but I’ll get to that later.)
The thieves this time around are a cold-blooded count with a penchant for big game hunting (Holmes potentially fitting that description, apparently) and his boxer right-hand man. I’m getting the impression, between this story and “The Three Gables” that professional boxers in England did a lot of side business as ruffians-for-hire. Sam Merton, the one in this story, is a far less sympathetic creature than Steve Dixie, but it still makes you wonder if this was standard secondary employment for pugilists of the era. Neither Mr. Merton or Count Sylvius appreciate Holmes’ interference in their little enterprise, thus the current threats against his life. Both, of course, end up outwitted by the wily detective. This is a Sherlock Holmes story – he always outwits (nearly) everyone.
Here’s the part that bugs me: remember back in the discussion of “The Three Gables,” when I basically said we were missing all the “Sherlock” in our Sherlock Holmes? Somehow, in taking the pen out of Watson’s hand in “Mazarin Stone,” Doyle essentially removed the good doctor from the story. We see him in the beginning long enough for Holmes to unload all the usual exposition, then at the end when he needs an excuse to show off. For the rest of the story, though, Watson is dismissed to play fetch the cops while Holmes plays cat and mouse with the crooks. This feels like an absolutely horrible use of Watson, who has always before been more of a partner to Holmes. Here, he’s relegated to little more than a valet. It’s almost as if Doyle didn’t know what to do with his narrator when he wasn’t actually narrating.
This dismissal of Watson, the treatment of him as an unnecessary tag-a-long who plays little part in Holmes’ actual success, is something early stage and movie adaptations ran amuck with. He was often left out entirely – leaving Holmes to solve everything brilliantly on his own – or made into a bumbling buffoon of a sidekick only existing to make Holmes look smarter or give the audience something to laugh at. Seeing his creator shove him aside this way just reminds me of that poor treatment, and makes me even more grateful for the more modern representations of our beloved doctor.
I’ve already come out as a Watsonite. The annoyance there should be no surprise at all by now.
So, why would Doyle decide to use third person suddenly? This is the second time he does. (The first instance, in “His Last Bow” is…well, kind of necessary. Spoilers.). Maybe he enjoyed the narrative distance her achieved with It in the previous story and felt like doing so again. Maybe by the time he got to The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes he’d gotten kind of bored with Watson and sick of his voice and needed a break. Or maybe he did it on a dare. Who knows. I mean, I once wrote 4,000 words about Rory Williams meeting Jack Harkness during Rory’s time as a Roman Nestene duplicate just because of a Facebook meme and a dare from a friend. Writers write things for all sorts of reasons. Even if sometimes they’re wrong.
Not like this is the first time I’ve disagreed with one of Doyle’s choices. Probably not the last either. We’ve still got plenty of canon to get through, after all.
Speaking of writing things on a dare…I may have just dared myself to write a Charlotte-verse story for this week from a previously unseen POV. I’d tell you which, but where would be the fun in that?