The most significant relationship in Holmes’ life is the one he shares with John Watson – a convenient flat share that turns into a lasting friendship and professional partnership. But Watson is no great intellect, not an eccentric bohemian or fascinating creative type. He’s a doctor, a brave and honourable man but let’s face it – he’s an ordinary sort of chap.
Now generally speaking, like attracts like. Eminent scientists all hang out together and form groups, great philosophers, painters and poets too. I’m thinking of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for example, a group of English painters, poets and critics living in London during the same period as Holmes.
But Sherlock Holmes had no interest in seeking out others who shared his gift for observation and his encyclopaedic knowledge of crime. Instead, he sat by the fire at 221b scraping away on his violin opposite an average medical man.
What can we read into this? Is it Holmes’ ego that draws him to such a partnership? Does he simply like being the cleverest person in the room? Hanging around with like-minded people might only cause rivalries, competitiveness and jostles for supremacy. Take Mycroft for example, we know that he has the same abilities as Holmes but to a greater degree. You’d think that the brothers would spend hours in each other’s company locked into great intellectual debate. But in reality, they only spend time together if they can be of use to each other.
Could it be that someone equal to Holmes wouldn’t be content to simply act as a sounding board the way that Watson does? They wouldn’t offer his ‘great gift of silence’. A fellow genius would want to put forward their own ideas and expect them to be listened to. Watson is happy to stay in the shadows, happy to assist rather than lead. He’s happy to help someone else come up with the answers and save the day, rather than be the hero himself. And this suits Holmes’ rather vain, egotistic nature very well.
Many pastiche writers, including myself, have enjoyed playing around with this dynamic. In Barefoot, Holmes returns from the Great Hiatus to find a much stronger Watson who has stepped out from the shadows and can’t be so easily led.
Will it be the same when BBC Sherlock series three hits our screens? (Still no official word about exactly when this will be). In the trailer for the Empty Hearse, we glimpse an older and wiser looking John Watson, perusing the menu in a posh restaurant, smartly dressed and confidently sporting a moustache. It’s clear he won’t be giving Sherlock an easy ride when he returns from his fake death. But as in Barefoot, I’m sure the friendship will survive – though perhaps on a slightly more equal footing.