IN DEFENSE OF DR. WATSON
Poor Dr. Watson.
He is often chaffed for the inconsistencies in his stories. He gets dates wrong. He can’t remember where his wound was. Maybe he was too embarrassed to admit where he got his real wound, slung across that pack horse in Afghanistan, so he said it was somewhere else – and then forgot where that was. Shoulder? Leg? Both?
But I must speak in his defense. I think he did the best he could, and, while some gaffes may be laid to faulty memory, others probably were deliberate and under Holmes’ orders.
IN REGARD TO DATES
Many are missing, so they must be inferred from the story’s content. Sherlockian scholars have labored to create chronologies and they don’t always agree.
One point where they tend to agree is that Watson only published two stories prior to Holmes’ assumed demise at Reichenbach, and they were the two novellas: “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Sign of Four.”
It wasn’t until after Holmes’ “death” that the short stories flowed quickly from Watson’s pen. We know this, because “A Scandal in Bohemia” was first published in 1891 – the year Holmes “died.”*
I suspect Holmes didn’t want too much publicity. He wanted neither the notoriety nor the attention, so he laid a prohibition on Watson from writing too much.
After Holmes “died,” Watson apparently felt he was released from this prohibition. Also, I think, his writing about his friend’s abilities and achievements (and also about their friendship) was a form of grief therapy.
But time had passed between the events and their recording. Any journalist might admit how hard it is to pick up notes that are even a few weeks stale and try to recall the exact details. This might account for some of Watson’s mistakes.
Also, one must remember his grief. Maybe he was not as clear-headed as he might have been, had Holmes been there to help him keep the facts straight.
While it’s easier to imagine that Watson published the first two collections of short stories in chronological order, beginning with “A Scandal in Bohemia “ and ending with “The Final Problem,” if one takes the actual dates in the stories into consideration, this is not the case.
There are many skips forward and backward glances. According to dates, the first case Holmes and Watson collaborated upon after “The Sign of Four” was actually “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” not “Scandal.” The second was “The Resident Patient,” not “The Red-Headed League,” and so on.
Watson picked and chose and probably had to trust his grief-addled memory for a lot of it.
After Holmes’ return, restrictions once more were placed on Watson and he didn’t publish the collections starting with the “Return” until after Holmes had retired. We know this based on Holmes retirement date and the publication of “The Empty House.”
And again, he didn’t publish in chronological order. Some of the cases in the later collections occurred before Holmes’ disappearance.
Also (probably upon Holmes’ orders) Watson deliberately made it hard for readers to recognize who Holmes’ clients really were, to spare them embarrassment. He invented place-names so clients’ true identities wouldn’t be revealed.
For example, the college town written about in “The Creeping Man” (a scandalous tale, to be sure) was “Camford.” Was it Cambridge? Was it Oxford? We’re not really supposed to know.
So let’s go easy on Dr. Watson. His inconsistencies force us to do our own detective work, figuring out what he was REALLY saying. And isn’t that half the fun?
*This is all predicated on whether you play “The Grand Game,” ie. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson really existed.