The Dissecting Room . . . June 1998
Why It’s Great To Be Dr. Watson
No man in history ever got away with as much as John H. Watson, M.D.
Modern Americans may marvel at the ability of their president to face scandal after scandal and remain popular, but even “Slick Willy” Clinton can’t keep up with the teflon coating on “Slick Johnny” Watson when it comes to escaping public ridicule for one’s mistakes.
The mistakes are there, yes, indeed. We know that for a fact. In the course of a mere sixty cases, Watson is married one minute, single the next. He’s nursing a wounded leg one minute, and reckoned “fleet of foot” the next. He investigates a crime near Esher, England with a partner that is supposedly half a world away in Tibet and dead to the world. And he innocently tells us that a dead and gone master criminal is entertaining Scotland Yard men with a lamp and a globe.
Yes, the mistakes are there.
But Dr. Watson’s readers not only tolerate these shortcomings — they revel in them. Where anyone else’s readers would make red-faced excuses and try to shove their favorite author’s mistakes under the carpet, Watson’s following boldly launches into entire treatises that they publish and circulate, as if proud of Watson’s foibles.
And if Watson had gone so far as to have a rather sordid affair with one of Mrs. Hudson’s maids (the closest thing to an intern at 221B) would it have mat-tered? If the doctor chose to drink to excess, messing up the details of a case or two after he had imbibed a case or two, would that have made a difference?
For if you look for the one true rea-son that Dr. Watson is so popular, you will also find out the one thing he could have done to lose his teflon coating.
Suppose Watson had been on a drinking binge when Sherlock Holmes decided to test the mysterious talc on the lamp in “Devil’s Foot.” Or suppose Watson had been off on a wild weekend with the downstairs maid when Holmes was lying ill at the Hotel Dulong. Or suppose he had moved away from Baker Street with the first wife he found, never to return.
Envisioning any of these scenarios gives us a quick perspective on the primary attraction of John H. Watson. It’s not his “everyman” quality. It’s not his charming prose. It’s the friend thing.
We like John H. Watson because he is the best friend a man ever had. Sure, we may call dogs “man’s best friend,” but that’s only because we don’t have a Watson in every household in America. Watson is reliable, caring, and has an unquestioning loyalty that even a faithful dog would have trouble keeping up with.
And we tend to think of Watson as our friend, as well as the friend of Sherlock Holmes, with good reason. A man who could tolerate the strange habits of a Sherlock Holmes and remain loyal and true would have little problem befriending those of us who don’t inject cocaine on occasion or shoot up the walls. He, like so many of our fellow Sherlockians, is simply a friend we haven’t met yet... yet one we know so well.
He’s worth knowing well, too. Can even the most meticulous student of the Holmes Canon among us find even one instance where Watson had anything but the best intentions? He’s never petty or mean, selfish, or pursuing anything but the good of his fellow man.
What more could anyone ask for in a friend?
And the thing about our friends . . . we tend to defend them to the bitter end. Even if they make mistakes. Even if they seem a bit addled on occasion. Even if they foul up the chronology of what should have been a series of lectures on the art of the consulting detective.
There’s a lesson in all this, of course, for those who think this monthly sermon should have a lesson: Being a good friend can make up for a boatload of mistakes.
None of us are quite at Watson’s level, it is true. If you misplace a spouse, your friends probably aren’t going to come up with the sort of stories we’ve come up with to explain Watson’s recurring bachelorhood (and thank heavens your friends aren ‘t going to come up with such stories!). But mistakes are going to happen, and you might want to have the best insurance policy going.
While it may sometimes seem really great to be like Sherlock Holmes, being like Watson may actually be the best way to go. Sure, Holmes had to have made fewer mistakes than Watson in the course of his life ... he was a genius, of course, and wise in the ways of the world as well. But Watson, good old Watson, has been forgiven for so many mistakes that when the final accounting comes at the Pearly Gates he’ll probably get to use the express line, while his friend Holmes is left waiting with the rest of us.
(Printed in Plugs & Dottles, June 1998)