Sherlock Holmes, John Watson and a Christmas gift of friendship
Have two characters in literature ever loved each other more than Sherlock Holmes and John Watson did?
Every year, at the close of the year, I read Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” and I ask myself a question: Have two characters in literature ever loved each other more than Sherlock Holmes and John Watson did?
We often find the greatest potency in what I think of as semi-official capacities. An official capacity would be, say, your marriage. That person you are married to is meant to be, so we think, your main “go-to.” We assume there is potency in straightforward, forceful statement. But have you ever noticed that little in this life is more potent than a question, and that a question is always at least one statement? Usually it’s many statements at once. “Do you love me?” can also mean, “You might not love me now,” or “Maybe you once loved me and stopped doing so,” or “It’s conceivable that you’ve never loved me.” What if there’s no greater love than friendship, and it is friendship that is the root of any great love, no matter the form that love takes? These are other questions I ask myself when I read “The Adventures of the Blue Carbuncle” at Christmastime, and it leads to a statement: This is how the best of relationships ought to be.
If you’re not familiar with this story, let us imagine that we are sitting somewhere together—in a tavern, say—and you are about to learn something heartening. The story first appeared in the January 1892 edition of The Strand, Doyle’s standard stomping grounds for his Holmes tales, and was later collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes for book publication in October of that year.
It is your regular Yule at 221B Baker Street, with our duo in good spirits—Moriarty is at bay, presumably—and together. That might seem a given, but this was a relationship that had, if not its share of tricky patches, then strange ones. There were times, for instance, when Holmes and Watson did not room together, lived quite near each other, and saw next to nothing of each other. Watson, at least, had a separate life. Holmes’s life was his art. When one is always embroiled in art, one can often be alone, and not for reasons of one’s choosing.
I’ve always thought this has something to do with Holmes’s melancholia, but at the Christmas of this story, his spirits are high, and also those impish qualities that make him one of those furtively funny bastards that we all love. Not the outright comedian, but the person with the sly word, who makes you laugh almost without you having known they were the cause.
The plot—or part of it—is a bit of gorse-filler. That is, it doesn’t really matter, as this is no caper of grave consequence, but the rundown is that John Horner, plumber and previously convicted felon, is said to have lifted a jewel—the mega-valuable bauble of the title—from a termagant of a Countess (seriously, she sucks)—only he was framed by James Ryder, head attendant at the hotel where the Countess is staying.
Ryder is a decidedly unskilled crook—more on that anon—and he starts freaking out, we later learn, that the coppers are onto him, so first chance he gets he visits his sister, who raises geese for holiday dinners, rams the jewel down the gullet of one of them, and says he’ll be back later to claim his bird, just don’t sell that one over there.
But there are two similar looking birds, and she unwittingly sells the one with the jewel in it to a Mr. Henry Baker, who belongs to a goose club at his regular tavern, and it is with the case of the dead bird, you might say, that we really begin, after Baker’s hat turns up at 221B, brought there by commissionaire Peterson, along with the goose. He found both on the ground when he tried to break up a fight between some street toughs and a middle-aged, out-of-shape man who turned out to be Baker.
Holmes does “the trick”—that thing that happens in nearly every story where he looks at some seemingly random object, and makes shockingly specific deductions about a person’s life—with Baker’s hat. And, oh yeah—at some point, the blue carbuncle comes out of the goose. They advertise about the missing headwear, Baker shows up, and he’s just dead excited to get his hat back, because he’s a poor scholar who can’t afford another, his wife has ceased to love him (as per Holmes’s accurate deduction), and he’s crushed that his goose that he paid hard-won pennies had been lost, but Holmes hooks him up with a spare bird (eh, we got an extra lying here on the sideboard), and sends him on his way.
This is a scene that is captured well fifty years ago in a 1968 BBC version, with Peter Cushing as Holmes. He was the most hawkish of any Holmes ever, looking like a bird who could not wait to take flight and soar around in the sky sussing out prey below. He delights in delighting, if you will, good old Watson, played by Nigel Stock.
They are family. Baker’s presence is akin to a friend having come around for a visit, though they’ve never met this man before. Any visitor, no matter what their level of duress, finds it ameliorated in these surroundings, the film seems to suggest. From friendship comes friendship, simply by being in the presence, giving in to the rhythms, of those who have mastered the art of connection.
This BBC version has at times the feel of a stage work having been filmed. A Christmas play, as it were. In 1984, Granada aired a series based on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, never mind that the entries deviated from what Doyle had collected in his volume. Among them was Carbuncle, starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes and David Burke as Watson. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZwx1QE8_O8) There has been a rich vein of actors excelling in the roles of these two dearest of friends, but none have ever been better than these thespian companions. They set off around the smoke-choked streets of London, where raggle-taggle urchin choirs warble “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” in Cockney accents as thick as a snow drift in an Agatha Christie wiintertime novel.
Ratiocination is pitted against skullduggery, but the latter is a clumsy version, like that of a child who thought it a good idea to open a present too early on the day before the big day and knew he would be caught. There is a lot of energy without excess movement in Brett’s Holmes. He is Holmes, I would say, more than anyone else ever has been, save that most human of entities your imagination produces in your head when you read the Doyle stories. This Granada series would follow through several subsequent installments as Brett was dogged by heart issues. He became puffier, breaths grew shorter, physical restrictions which the actor reappropriated to suggest fatigue of body in this peerless crime-despoiler, but undimmed conviction of purpose.
But the Holmes of this version of Carbuncle was one who could o’er-leap the backs of chairs when on the hunt. The friends end up at the Alpha Inn, as the mystery unravels, and it is clear to all that the dog will soon have the quail officially in his mouth. There’s usually real urgency for Holmes to get a crime solves, but this one comes off as a kind of divertissement. A capper to the year, the de-stressing, pressure-reduced case.
They sit at the pub where the vital goose came into the possession of the put-upon Mr. Henry Baker. David Burke’s Watson wants nothing more than to get his lips on a cold pint glass and down a rock solid walnut-dark porter. If a film could smack its lips, this one would find a way to do it at this moment. But no soon is the goal about to be attained, than Holmes has his info, and it’s back out into the cold. It’s a hilarious moment which perfectly encapsulates the dashing, “on to the next” spirit of the Christmas season, but what is always central here is what, most fundamentally, is perpetually next, and that is the next interlude of a friendship.
Change is all around, and watching we realize how fleeting another Christmas is for Holmes and Watson, and how fleeting it is for us, too, and we know that in a week’s time they’ll be doing something not wildly dissimilar for New Year’s, and then for all of the special days and occasions going forward, plus all of the regular ones in between. I think that is what is meant by keep Christmas in your heart all the year long. Dickens has Scrooge sound the idea for us, but I’m not sure I’ve seen it more in evidence than in the forms of this Holmesian story.
The guy who put all of this bad, but not super bad, business in motion—that is, James Ryder, the hotel attendant—ends up in the rooms at 221B, duped heartily, and then begging for mercy upon the inevitable reveal of the jig having gone up. But hey hey—it’s Christmas. And Holmes figures out a way to probably send everyone out of this old year, if not happy, then at least with their property returned, and out of jail—and he orders Ryder—because he’s totally disgusted with him—to get the hell out. The look on Jeremy Brett’s face of total biliousness is worth a dozen Grinch-ian frowns. Watson can’t believe what has happened here. Holmes took the law into his own hands.
Holmes has some great lines at the ends of his stories, and no actor delivered them with more relish—and yet, relish with shading—than Brett. Often times Doyle had Holmes perform a little set-piece reveal at the end, heavy on the drama. Why just say what had happened, when you could have a telegram from a Duke in Austria be delivered by a butler on a plate that a dowager would read and then faint as a result, this being some code as to whodunit? What happens here, though, is unique in the Holmes annals: “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies!” is the terse sum conclusion. In other words, that these copper dumbasses couldn’t handle this efficiently and I even had to get involved absolves me of any wrongdoing in passing sentence.
There is no bow atop this particular bijou of the Christmas season, which means less clean up after, and the friends, I always like to believe, are back off to the local pub, to down that porter. And while en route home, something is likely to happen that triggers the next installment. Some readers, viewers, and imaginers will term that the latest problem to be solved, while I view it as a friendship like a Christmas flower that can only be resplendent: be that in times of relative dormancy, be that in times of the full-ripened bloom of fellowship. Much like the relationship between a question and the statement it births.