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From May 2000

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The Secret of the Tantalus

By Brad Keefauver

Sometimes, being a Sherlockian is like being an Old West prospector.

This metaphor occurred to me not long ago while I was sifting through the myriad thoughts produced by that eldest of electronic Sherlockian groups, the Hounds of the Internet. Every single day, I’d been heading down to the old on-line stream with my brain-pan, and shaking the posts of the day around in it to see if any gleaming nuggets of inspiration remained when the sifting was done. And as with prospecting for gold, sometimes you hit it big and sometimes you just have to sit and enjoy the sparkle of iron pyrites (which can still look pretty darn good, even if you can’t make anything out of it). But on one particular day, I struck pure Sherlockian gold in the shape of a tantalus. And here’s how it happened.

A Hound who goes by the moniker of “De Merville” (that’s Sue Dahlinger for you kids at home) had brought up another one of those interesting non-Canonical entities that fill out the legend of Sherlock Holmes. She pointed out that the tantalus, commonly thought to be on the sideboard at 221B Baker Street, was actually an invention of Christopher Morley and not something found in the actual Watsonian text (at least not at 221B Baker Street). Now, as much as I trust my fellow Sherlockians, such a statement seemed to require a little checking out. After all, the tantalus is such an integral part of Sherlockian lore that not only was it included in the great recreation of the sitting-room at 221B Baker Street done for the 1951 Festival of Britain, it was also mentioned prominently in the “Buy-laws” of the Baker Street Irregulars. And if grand old Sherlockians on both sides of the Atlantic seemed to think that a tantalus was found in the sitting room of Sherlock Holmes, well, how could it not be so?

So I turned to the lazy Sherlockian’s friend, the Canonical search engine, and began plugging in words. The word “tantalus,” I quickly discovered, does indeed appear only in “The Adventure of Black Peter” . . . and only in the cabin of Captain Peter Carey. But upon searching for the tantalus’s best known associate, the gasogene, I discovered this passage from “A Scandal in Bohemia”:

“With hardly a word spoken, but with a kindly eye, he waved me to an armchair, threw across his case of cigars, and indicated a spirit case and a gasogene in the corner.”

There’s the tantalus, I thought, satisfied that all was once again right with the Sherlockian world. But as any picker of nits will be all too happy to point out, while a tantalus is definitely a spirit case, a spirit case is not always a tantalus. But why would Christopher Morley, a man as intimate with the Baker Street scene as anyone, call the 221B spirit case a “tantalus” if it were not one? And why would such notable fellows as Bernard Darwin and Anthony Howlett, who advised the builders of the Festival of Britain 221B, allow such an imperfection to exist? Unless, perhaps, they had inside information . . .

Our Sherlockian forebears were much closer to the period of Holmes than we are now, and I have to think they knew what they were talking about, especially in so slight a matter as the difference between tantalus and a plain old spirit case. And what is the chief difference between a tantalus and the more nonspecific model of spirit case?

A lock.

A lock to keep one’s alcoholic beverages out of unwelcome hands.

Now, in the quote from “A Scandal in Bohemia,” we see Holmes pointing the visiting Watson to the “spirit case,” and Watson refers to it as if both it and the gasogene were unfamiliar to him. This would mean they appeared at 221B after Watson had moved out on the occasion of his marriage. Did Holmes buy the new spirit case and gasogene himself? Were they gifts from a client? Or did Holmes take a new roommate after Watson moved out, and were the new furnishings a part of the new lodger’s things?

The Morley insistence upon the tantalus at Baker Street adds one more wrinkle to this theorizing. If this spirit case was indeed a spirit case with a lock, whom would Holmes have been locking out of the booze? Mrs. Hudson? Billy?

Peter Blau suggested to me that Holmes might have been trying to keep the waiting clients (and Scotland Yard men) out of his liquor, and that seems like a pretty solid conclusion. If Holmes was out on a case, and some nervous client was making himself at home, as Dr. Mortimer did in The Hound of the Baskervilles, wouldn’t he be tempted to calm his nerves with a nip from an available bottle? (A dangerous act at 221B — who knows what an eccentric chemist like Holmes might decide to keep in an old liquor bottle?) Peter also made the amusing suggestion that Holmes might have returned home to find a passed-out Lestrade one evening, and that was that.

But I was still intrigued by the “second roommate” concept that new furnishings could imply, and trying to spot the drinker among our old friends Lestrade, Billy, and Mrs. Hudson requires a bit more imagination than the ideal reasoner would like to indulge in. So I turned to the Canon once more for some hard evidence, and immediately a known drunkard rose to the forefront: Dr. Watson’s brother.

A known drunkard . . . and a perfect candidate for Watson’s replacement as fellow lodger.

On the verge of meeting his new bride in The Sign of the Four, Dr. Watson decides to test Holmes’s powers of deduction with a watch “which has recently come into my possession.” Holmes immediately concludes that it belonged to Watson’s father, and then his brother. Holmes continues spewing data indiscriminately, saying, “He was a man of untidy habits — very untidy and careless. He was left with good prospects, but he threw away his chances, lived for some time in poverty with occasional short intervals of prosperity, and finally, taking to drink, he died.”

Watson is incensed by Holmes’s callous description of his brother, and our immediate conclusion is that Holmes is correct in every detail. But Holmes doesn’t seem to know, outside of his deductions, that Watson’s brother is dead. And, if the watch had come to Watson upon his brother’s death, as most Sherlockians assume, wouldn’t he have mentioned the event to his roommate of six years? These gentlemen were not that secretive with each other, as evidenced by Holmes’s earlier statement, “Your father has, if I remember right, been dead many years.” Holmes knows something of Watson’s family, and a recent death would certainly not have gone unremarked until after the deceased’s possessions turned up.

When Watson hands Holmes the watch and asks, “Would you have the kindness to let me have an opinion upon the character or habits of the late owner?” Watson is, to my thinking, referring to his father, the late H. Watson. Holmes’s sudden digression upon the doctor’s unhappy brother, therefore, takes Dr. Watson by surprise, making him all the more angry with Holmes. Especially at a time when Watson seems about to mend fences and try to help his brother.

The common assumption that the brother’s watch could only come to Watson upon his death overlooks the fact that the elder brother pawned the watch whenever things were going bad for him. Watson could just as well have gone to recover the watch himself . . . and probably would have done so, had he determined to help his poor brother straighten himself out. Would we expect any less from the good doctor?

And if Watson wanted to help his brother find a place to stay, just about the time Watson himself was moving out of 221B Baker Street for marital bliss, what could be more natural than a Watson taking the place of a Watson in sharing the rent with Mr. Sherlock Holmes?

At this point, the golden nugget of that tantalus really begins to shine. In order to aid the elder Watson in resisting temptation, Holmes added the tantalus to 221B, locking up the liquor just as he locked up his new roommate’s checkbook to keep him from throwing away his money if he did fall into his old ways. (Remember “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”?). And the prospect of this second Watson partnered with Holmes is a Sherlockian’s dream come true.

We have a Canon full of inconsistencies, most of which revolve around a man named Watson who was wounded in two different places, was married at two different times, is called by two different first names, and often seems to have problems remembering where he was on any given case . . . just as if he were two different men. Two Watsons rooming with Holmes suddenly makes all these problems vanish. (Not only that, but it even makes the mid-series cast change in the Granada Sherlock Holmes series much more palatable. David Burke was just the younger brother, and Edward Hardwicke the ex-alcoholic elder.)

The concept of two Watsons has been with us in one form or another since the very origin-point of the Grand Game in 1912, when Ronald Knox wrote the following words in his classic essay, “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes”:

“Yet this error gave the initial impetus to Backnecke’s theory of the Deutero-Watson, to whom he assigns the Study in Scarlet, the Gloria Scott, and the Return of Sherlock Holmes. He leaves to the proto-Watson the rest of the Memoirs, the Adventures, the Sign of the Four, and the Hound of the Baskervilles.”

The Deutero-Watson is again referred to by S.C. Roberts in the very first issue of The Baker Street Journal in 1946, yet both Roberts and Knox seem to take the second Watson as merely a second writer, possibly writing less-than-authentic tales of Holmes. But as Sandy Kozinn quickly pointed out on the Hounds of the Internet, once the two-Watson theory had surfaced: “. . . it’s amazing that they had the same writing style.”

As pasticheurs have tried (and failed) to capture the one true Watson style for over a century now, I think we can safely say that no two Watsons, even brothers, could have matched writing abilities like those we find displayed in the Canon. (The son of another author, one Adrian Conan Doyle, tried to mimic his own father and quickly demonstrated that writing style is hardly genetic.) But just because two different Watsons may have roomed with Sherlock Holmes, we do not have to assume that both Watsons wrote up the stories. Watson was constantly telling us things like “When I glance over my notes . . .” It’s entirely possible, and actually quite probable, that the non-writing Watson simply recorded his adventures with Holmes as notes, letting the writing brother flesh out the tales into their full-blown form.

The implications and evidence of two Watson brothers at 221B Baker Street are legion, and I won’t even try to follow them all up here. It’s a Grand Game in itself, and I wouldn’t want to deprive any other players the fun of finding their own facts on the second Watson. And as it isn’t an entirely new concept, I’m sure some parts of the tale may have been told before. The body of Sherlockian scholarship is now so huge that not even the best Sherlockian among us is entirely sure he or she isn’t repeating something that someone else has already postulated. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun exploring the terrain all over again . . . if you don’t remember it, chances are your friends don’t either.

As Sherlockians, we find ourselves between our own specialized Scylla and Charybdis . . . the Tantalus and the Gasogene. The object that swirling legends say was at 221B and the object that rock-hard evidence says was at 221B. Playing the Game often means dancing between the two, and as we can see by the secret of the Watson brothers hidden therein, it is often well worth it.

(The inspiration and assistance of the members of The Hounds of the Internet, both those named within this article and those unmentioned, in the ideas behind this article are gratefully acknowledged.)