So they still live for all that love them well
There's no scene where the narrator of My Dear Watson discovers that her husband, the great Doctor Watson himself, has been carrying on a decades-long love affair with Sherlock Holmes. But there is a scene where she chides Watson for forgetting what year a case took place. And that's the clue that tells you how to read the book.
Because L. A Fields isn't simply telling a love story – though there is a love story here. She's playing the Great Game, teasing out a larger world beyond Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's canonical Sherlock Holmes stories. Watson often writes that he's protecting the privacy of his clients – but can we still piece together their real identities? Can we reconcile any apparent inconsistencies? Can we treat Holmes's world as though it's real – as though it's our own?
While the Game usually seeks to pin down the facts of the canon, what fascinates Fields is the feelings it leaves unspoken. Holmes cruelly and openly insults Watson in Doyle's "The Adventure of the Dying Detective," for example, and Watson simply responds "Such a remark is unworthy of you, Holmes. It shows me very clearly the state of your own nerves." But, in Fields's retelling, Watson is understandably wounded by his closest friend's contempt – even after Holmes revealed it was merely part of a larger stratagem. And speaking of stratagems, how often does Holmes mislead Watson for his own ends? Are his deceptions intended to catch criminals — in the Great Game, of course, one does not speak of building suspense for readers — or is Holmes's true goal to build up his own ego, even when that means trampling down a friend's?
Because Fields is so careful to fit her love story into the canon – pointing out Watson's discreet omissions or the points where he reveals more than he meant to, suggesting deeper implications for casual remarks – I found myself setting My Dear Watson aside again and again to reread the original stories from Mrs. Watson's perspective. It's like taking a tour of a familiar city, with a guide who points out little architectural details you never noticed, while spinning a story of the secret scandals the history books omit.
And that guide is part of the story. My Dear Watson takes place after Holmes's retirement, as the two men share meaningful glances over an awkward dinner while Mrs. Watson reflects on the truth of their history. Her observations are tart, and she dislikes Holmes, but she doesn't mind that her husband loves another man, or even that he's unfaithful. She's angry with Holmes for mistreating the man they both love. (And on a purely practical level, writing from Mrs. Watson's perspective also means that Fields doesn't have to channel Doyle's voice; many authors have tried, and in my opinion none have succeeded.)
My Dear Watson is an odd, surprising, and serious book (though it's not without wit.) It might not be for everyone, but if you're intrigued, maybe it's for you.
(The title of this post – "So they still live for all that love them well" – is from Vincent Garrett's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmesetting .)*