Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

It is generally agreed that one of the most important factors in the success of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories is the use of Watson as narrator. Doyle wrote a few stories with Holmes himself narrating, but they are not successful. Watson is a pleasant sort, but he is not terribly perceptive when it comes to understanding the puzzles he is called on to investigate. His guesses about the significance of clues are frequently wrong, as they are in this story when he first assumes the dancing men are a child’s drawing. Watson’s stolid and somewhat plodding personality provides a reassuring contrast to the brilliance of Holmes. Readers can identify with Watson’s misperceptions because they themselves cannot follow Holmes’s lightning-quick deductions. Watson’s literal-mindedness provides an anchor that both secures Holmes to the world of plausibility and accentuates the marvelous powers of the famous detective’s mind.

Watson’s narration also maintains the suspense of the mystery that is unfolding. In this story, for example, Holmes works out the secret of the code, but the answers are kept from Watson (and the reader). The ominous message contained in the last set of hieroglyphics and the fact that Holmes has been in touch with New York and knows of a gangster named Slaney are not revealed until Doyle allows Holmes to explain the case to Watson. The structure that Doyle developed for the Holmes stories—an opening in Baker Street, the...

(The entire section is 403 words.)