There are all kinds of mystery stories, filled with all different types of detectives, but if you’re going back to the roots of the mystery series types, the Granddaddies of them have got to be Holmes and Watson. They’re the original Adama-&-Eve, Mutt-&-Jeff, Odd Couple detective team and the template they set up is fierce.
An Early portrait of the Dynamic Duo Thank you, Wikipedia!
But what makes it work? What has kept people coming back to these two for more than a century? I think it’s a structure as stable and basic as, well, a three-legged stool.
Obviously, the most noticeable leg is Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first and foremost consulting detective. Brilliant, acerbic, and emotionally detached almost to a pathological degree, he’s the star of the series and he knows it. But Holmes isn’t chasing villains for glory or cash; he’s in it for the fun and the science. Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the world (and law enforcement agencies) to the world of criminal forensics through Holmes’s obsession with crime scene details and deductive logic. But, if Sherlock Holmes is so great, why did the author need Watson?
Simple. Watson is who needs to tell the story because that’s the last thing Holmes would do. If “The Great Detective” decided to write up his adventures, what would he emphasize? Would he capture the creepy atmosphere of the The Great Grimpen Mire or dwell on the terrible appearance of the Hound of the Baskervilles. No! Sherlock doesn’t see these things as important. A Holmes version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” would consist of long narratives about newspaper fonts, the replication of certain facial features in familial descendants and (maybe) the application of phosphorus to flesh to create an unusual appearance. None of the Gothic Setting or chilling story would survive because Sherlock Holmes rarely notices these things. That’s one reason we need Watson.
The other is, Watson’s our Point-of-View, the guy we identify with, our average Man on the Street. We learn to trust him implicitly. Sherlock Holmes is a master of subterfuge and in mystery stories, things are rarely what they seem but Watson always tells us just what he sees as soon as he sees it. Which makes the story all that much better when Holmes looks at the puzzles Watson just described and comes up with an insightful answer.
It’s the team aspect of this mismatched pair that is the architecture of each story of the series and both characters bring out the best in each other. It’s my belief that the Holmes-&-Watson formula has been the basis of many a mystery series because it works so well. What do you think?