The Breakable Professionals

I love the way things evolve.  (Don’t be scared if you’re feeling fundamentalist; I’m not talking Darwin here).  I mean that as standards of civilizations and cultures change, standards of popular arts morph along with the culture.  In that way, we can study the values of any era by looking at what was created and celebrated during that time.  And, since mysteries have been popular literature since the first “whodunit” was created, we can trace see how some protagonists have changed along with the times.  Of all of these “standard” characters, none has changed more than the professional detective.  They’ve gone from flat feet to tortured souls.
Think of literature’s early detective heroes, Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes.  (Okay, so Auguste wasn’t a professional detective, but he’s close).  Fans referred to them as human thinking machines because they solved puzzles with rational, deductive thought and neither allowed emotion to clog up their thinking.  Which makes them fascinating characters to follow but not someone a reader can identify with.  Self- doubt never undermines either man, and although both men have weaknesses, they’re never disabled by them. Let’s face it, these guys are great, but we’re not sure that they’re human.

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Today’s literary detectives are strong enough to be admirable but vulnerable enough to be human.  And that makes their stories even more fun to read.

The original Odd Couple: Holmes and Watson

Detective Fiction’s First Odd Couple

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!
The most noticeable team member 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. Believe it or not, 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 the person 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 terrifying 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.
Another reason we need Watson is he’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 obscurity 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 same puzzles Watson just described and comes up with an insightful answer.  But, as much as the readers need Watson as a character, these two characters need each other.

When Opposites Decide to Team Up

It’s the chemistry of this mismatched pair that creates the architecture of each story in 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.  Look at Nick and Nora Charles, Morse & Lewis, Tony Hill & Carol Jordan.  They’re crime-fighting Mutt-&-Jeffs who bring out the best in each other by being completely different people.  They’re the descendants of Holmes & Watson.

Some favorite Holmes & Watson stories

 

 

And If You are interested in more….

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