The Adventure of the Dancing Men Analysis
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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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 appearance of a client with a mysterious problem, a visit to the scene of the crime, misperceptions of the clues by Watson, the sudden revelation of the mystery followed by a detailed explanation by Holmes—was a formula that was repeated fairly consistently throughout the sixty adventures that make up the Holmes and Watson series. Using an omniscient narrator (who would have to tell the reader all the facts) or using Holmes as narrator (and thereby revealing how the detective is working his way through the puzzle) would not keep the reader guessing the way that Watson’s narration does. If people read mysteries so that they can attempt to solve the puzzles before the characters in the stories do, then Doyle discovered the nearly perfect technique for prolonging the suspense and mystery by using Watson as first-person narrator; the proof is that the Holmes stories are the most famous, and most widely read, detective stories in the world.