I am not who you think I am.
Nor am I who you think I was, which may be more to the point, considering the misinformation disseminated to readers of true crime by my late friend and chronicler Dr. John H. Watson. Oh, I acknowledge that his inaccuracies were never complete falsehoods but more matters of exaggeration, concision, or omission. Rather, it is I who bears responsibility for the single instance of pure fabrication in the accounts, namely, that I retired to a country life. Not so. Watson opposed the ruse. He argued it would be a breach of his “journalistic integrity”, to which I reminded him of the paltry liberties he’d taken with details in his accounts of our cases. Unmoved, he demanded my reasons. I told him the truth: that I needed refuge from the reading public, who’d turned my London residence into a tourist attraction. So Watson set aside his “journalistic” ethics and, in a late account, described my having retired to a pastoral cottage with a lovely view, a housekeeper, achingly dull pastimes, and not the slightest hint of further, intellectual interest.
The ruse worked well, despite the explicit disclosures in early accounts of our cases that inactivity is the bane of my existence, suggestive that if ever I actually were relegated to the life of a country squire I would, before two full moons illuminated the insipid pastures, put no needle into my vein, as I did in my youth to ward off boredom, but a bullet into my brain.
So, if the great detective did not retire years ago to the country, doddering among harmless hobbies, then where has he been?
Allow me to remain a moment longer in the confessional mode, hopeful of establishing that what is to follow is not akin to the single, aforementioned fictional enterprise I foisted upon Watson but is true down to its most minute detail. Thus, I must acknowledge one last misleading element of my friend’s famous chronicles, which involves neither fabrication nor any of the minor dramatic license that characterized Watson’s narrative strategies; rather, this chronic inaccuracy turns on subtler elements of style, tone, and attitude over which he had no real control.
Specifically, I refer to the Victorian sensibility of John H. Watson himself.
It is true that most of our recorded adventures occurred forty or more years ago during the Victorian era, gas-lit streets and hansom cabs, so one may argue that there is nothing misleading about Watson’s texts reflecting the values and tenor of the times. However, what complicates this justification is that among those values, particularly in cultured circles, was the propensity to paint over violence and mortality with either the absurd grotesqueries of the gothic or the banal consolations of the sentimental, both of which elevate bloody murders or premature death to perverse art. Inevitably, the solving of crimes was likewise elevated in the public consciousness, from its gritty reality into a reassuring, ethical object lesson. In truth, the solution to a mystery usually proves a mere final, pathetic turn in a morally empty series of logically related events. Real crime almost never offers reassurance.
So, Watson was not insincere in his depictions.
He was simply a man of his time, a true believer in the inherent supremacy of Western (specifically, British) Civilization. The death of Victoria did not spell the end of the era for my friend. Nor even did the slaughter of The Great War disillusion his view of nationalistic glory. Indeed, on numerous occasions during the past decade, as my friend and I took the air together on the crowded promenades of London, he’d break mid-conversation to race across the street, dodging trolleys and auto-omnibuses, to hand five bob to one of the legion of crippled veterans (amputees, burn-victims, the blind) who were scattered like wind-blown dandelions on street corners all over the capital. My friend’s charitable impulse was all to the good. But in each instance he’d spoil his generosity by reciting Tennyson to the wounded wretches as he handed over the coins, “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward, all in the valley of Death rode the six hundred,” determinedly unaware of the skeptical expression on the faces (or, in some cases, what passed for faces) of the disfigured boys subjected to his recitations. I’d usually have to pull Watson away or he’d recite the whole damn poem.
I loved him none the less for it.
Was I changed by the new century or the horrors of the Great War?
Actually, no more than Watson.
But here’s the difference between us: I never was a Victorian gentleman (and dash it all if I want to be remembered as one, however romantic the glow of gas streetlights or the clopping of horses’ hooves on pavement may seem to the nostalgic legion who attend Leicester Square playhouses to watch actors in period costume portray me as a Victorian hero).
So, finally, the most significant inaccuracy in Watson’s chronicles of our adventures was to suggest that he and I were, essentially, of like sensibility. His authorship was limited by his imagination, and he could not imagine my being anything but a Victorian gentleman. He often acknowledged in his writings my unconventional characteristics and habits, some of which were real, some misunderstandings. Once, when I told him I was both ignorant and indifferent as to whether the sun revolved around the earth or the earth around the sun, he took me literally and reported as much in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Absurd! Of course, many of my interests were esoteric. But, for all my eccentricities, Watson always held an unshakable confidence that I wanted to uphold the right, to deliver justice like an avenging angel, and to serve my monarch and country. As a gentleman he could imagine me no other way. And I did uphold the right. But not out of commitment to right over wrong, whatever those words may mean to you or to anyone. And I did deliver justice, but only because others insisted on it and proceeded with its execution upon completion of my work. And I did serve monarch and country. But not for monarch and country. So what explains my years of single-minded work to solve complex criminal problems? Sympathy for the victims? What interest have I in the anonymous dead? Didn’t the Galilean philosopher Himself say, “Let the dead bury the dead”? Alternatively, was it for money or glory that I practiced my relentless craft? Of course not. Such egotistic considerations are a waste of brain cells. The truth is I accomplished much as a consulting detective simply because it was my nature to do so, to hunt prey, as instinctual and absent of moral considerations as a lion stalking a gazelle. What more obvious phrase might I have employed with Watson to indicate such animalistic motives than, “Watson, the game’s afoot!”
But my friend never comprehended the atavistic nature implied in my enthusiastic imperative.
I was not who he thought I was.
Now, I am seventy-three years old. But I am no dinosaur, moving through the world unaware of my own extinction. I am a Modern, just as I’ve always been (even before there was such a term). Trust this: it is not I who has kept up with the age, but the age that has caught up with me. Yes I, the rational paragon, the human calculating machine designed to narrow all possibilities down to a single truth . . . but I have always known that some uncertainties never narrow to one truth. And this awareness might have been evident in Watson’s chronicles except that he could never keep from adding his own modifying phrase to assuage his discomfort with uncertainty. For example, in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” he quotes me as follows: “I have devised seven separate explanations, each of which would cover the facts as far as we know them. But which of these is correct can only be determined by fresh information, which we shall no doubt find waiting for us.”
No doubt find waiting for us?
I never said such a thing. I live in the real world. I always have. And there is always doubt as to what awaits us. My Boswell was incapable of accepting that I was literally suggesting there could be seven separate explanations, each as valid as any other, for perpetuity. For my chronicler, altering my dialogue (a mere phrase) was hardly a matter of choice. Doubtless, he recorded what he recalled hearing me say. He could recall it no other way. Why? Because Queen Victoria’s Empire could not be built upon uncertainty.
But, like it or not, Modernity is.
Which brings us to these past years, placing me . . . where?
We’ve ruled out the country.
Still, you would never have found me—not if you were standing three feet away.
Nevertheless, I will tell you where I’ve been. I do so to set into motion this narrative, which, when finished, I will show to no one, but will arrange for its being transported and hidden unlabeled in the stacks of some disorganized library far away, to be found by a stranger perhaps decades from now, or, just as likely, never. You may ask: why opt for obfuscation when publication would please so many (my fame alone insuring publishing success)? After you read to the end you will need not ask.