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Dr. Watson, Famous Sidekick

Sidney Paget from The Strand

I have never been much of a mystery reader. To me, the usual—if prosaic—depths of the human heart have provided all the mystery and intrigue I need. I’ve never felt the need to look for too much drama.

Really, isn’t every person, and every novel, a mystery, in its way? I read fiction because it lets me imagine the inner lives of the people around me: our everyday heartaches and desires, and how those desires drive us to do what we do. The greatest mystery to me, in many ways, is you. Who are you? What makes you tick?

Even Sherlock Holmes himself would have agreed with me. In the short adventure, “The Red-Headed League,” he observes that, quote, “for strange effects and extraordinary combinations we must go to life itself, which is always far more daring than any effort of the imagination.” In other words, the truth is stranger than fiction.

And yet here I am, reading the fictional tales of Sherlock Holmes and marveling at his adept solutions to mysteries. Why am I enjoying these stories for the first time? It’s because I have found my kindred spirit in Dr. Watson, Sherlock’s famous sidekick. While the great detective is focused on the underlying mysteries of crimes around London, Watson is most intrigued by Sherlock Holmes himself: why is he so eccentric? How is he so good at solving crimes? And that ego! What are we to think of that?

In a strange way, Sherlock remains a puzzle even though he is uninterested in subterfuge. How can there be a mystery within a man who has no pretense? After all, he does not pretend to be someone he is not. He lives with his eccentricities always to the fore. He’s an open book, in many ways, waiting to be read.

Sherlock even affirmed Dr. Watson’s assessment of his limits: he was knowledgeable in botany, chemistry, geology, and “unique” crime literature. He had no interest in philosophy, astronomy, or politics. His skills included the violin, boxing, and law. He smoked. And yet—how strange and unreachable he remained.

Of course, we see ourselves drawn to odd people all the time. Whenever I am in Lucas, Kansas, visiting the famous folk art site The Garden of Eden, I find the stories depicted by the cement sculptures secondary to the story of the artist, S.P. Dinsmoor himself: What an odd guy! Why did he work so hard to create this great, odd thing? What was it like to bump into him at the market, or on the street?

These questions remain, even though Mr. Dinsmoor kept a prolific record of his project. No doubt if Dr. Watson would have been a surgeon on the High Plains, rather than in Victorian London, he would have been as intrigued by our Mr. Dinsmoor as he was by Sherlock Holmes.

Dinsmoor, like Sherlock, remains mysterious simply because he is like no one else we have ever met. He is deeply intelligent and learned, but sharp and precise. He seems fully in control, except for when he’s reckless. His world is defined sharply in black and white. No nuance.

And yet, just like I see you, Sherlock Holmes is a personified mystery that can’t be solved. He can drive to the heart of a forensic puzzle, and convince the prideful criminal to boast about his actions. But does Sherlock even know himself? Maybe. I, along with Dr. Watson, am still trying to figure that one out.

The HPPR Radio Readers Book Club is made possible in part by generous gifts from Lon Frahm of Colby and Lynne Hewes of Cimarron, Kansas. Please join us in reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and other mysteries this spring.