The Great Detective is often seen as the most crucial character in the traditional detective story and arguably they are as the one that solve the mystery. There is however another character without which the story might not have the same flavour and yet usually gets significantly less attention from readers and critics: the Great Detective’s comparatively or genuinely less intelligent but ever reliable and resourceful friend/partner that fans nicknamed « The Watson » after the most famous and influential representative of the species.
While The Watson is most often seen as a stooge acting as a counterpoint to The Great Detective’s brilliance, which they enhance even further by contrast, their primary role is a narrative one. Viewpoint is of primary importance in the detective story as the genre requires both that the reader be given all the elements of the case but also that they are left in darkness as to the solution until the end. Choosing the detective as viewpoint character allows the former but endangers the latter since the reader is allowed to share their thoughts and thus possibly anticipate their conclusions; it also deprives the character from their mythical status. The Watson on the other hand allows the author to lay down the facts and the clues while preserving the secret of the Great Detective’s thought process. They are both a character and a chorus.
The Watson nickname, while eloquent, is not entirely accurate as the character that it describes existed long before the one whose name it borrowed – there were Watsons before Watson. The character in fact was born with the genre as it is first found in what many scholars take as the genre’s founding text, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. The anonymous narrator of the tale, assumed to be Poe himself, is actually not much of a character, having no distinctive traits or personality, but he provided the template for later, fuller-rounded incarnations.
Perhaps the first Watson to be a genuine character in his own right rather than a mere literary device was Betteredge in The Moonstone but he and Sergeant Cuff share only a few scenes and neither of them are the book’s main protagonists. Pre-Doyle crime fiction had little use for Watsons as a rule. No need of a sidekick when the detective themselves was often already a supporting player in a larger narrative. No need to hide the detective’s thoughts when you’re not trying to outsmart or surprise the reader. As a result, most of what passed for detective stories at the time were either told from the detective’s viewpoint or from that of the « real » main protagonist, a man or rarely a woman personally involved in the case but not privy to the investigation.
John H. Watson was thus a revolution even though it was not an invention and suddenly there were Watsons everywhere, in a craze that would reach its height in the years before the First World War. Almost every Great Detective of the era had their own, from Dr. Thorndyke’s Jarvis to The Thinking Machine’s Hutchinson Hatch to Martin Hewitt’s Brett. Not all of them doubled as narrators; some like Hanaud’s fop friend Ricardo were « only » viewpoint characters – but all shared the same ability to fawn over their partner’s considerable detective skills and inability to get the big picture.
Ironically, the Golden Age of the Watson ended when the Golden Age of detective fiction began, for three reasons. First is that the Great Detective character evolved once again with authors getting the idea that they might be at the center of the narrative rather than a deus ex machina. Second is that authors were increasingly bored with the Great Detective as a perfect and omniscient being and strove to humanize them, which made a cheerleading sidekick redundant. Third and final is that authors were getting bored with the Watsons themselves. Trent’s Last Case on this and many other things was a primer of things to come: Trent is the main protagonist, the reader shares his thoughts and – he doesn’t have a Watson. Conceiving and writing The Mysterious Affair at Styles during the war years and thus influenced by pre-conflict detective stories, Agatha Christie gave Hercule Poirot one, Hastings, who went on to become one of the most iconic and beloved Watsons of all time. She soon tired of him however and dropped him as soon as she could.
This is not to say that the Watson disappeared completely but that their status and role changed. They become more intelligent, more active, more self-reliant and independantly-minded; in short they stopped being witnesses to become partners. Archie Goodwin is probably the most famous and remarkable representative of this new brand, being on a narrative equal footing with Nero Wolfe, and the books’ main attraction to many readers. Still, the character’s glory days were definitely over, with the rise of the hardboiled school being another nail in the coffin. Why would Philip Marlowe, Paul Pine or Lew Archer need a Watson when they narrate their stories themselves? Another factor of decline was the idea that the Watson might just be one of the people involved in the case at hand, allowing the writer to renew them with each new book. Other writers took another road in merging the character with another stock character of the genre, the Lestrade, making the police officer a partner instead of an opponent.
It was paradoxically the rise of the police procedural in Britain in the years following WW2 that rescued the character from irrelevance and oblivion. As The Great Detective was reincarnated into The Great Policeman, realism required to give them a partner and our old friend the Watson came handy. Wexford had Burden, Dalziel had Pascoe, Sloane had Crosby, Morse had Lewis and so on. The hierarchical relationship between both characters offered a fresh and more realistic riff on the Holmes/Watson combination.
What about now? The Watson is again increasingly rare in contemporary crime fiction, but is frequently seen on television where they migrated along with The Great Detective. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of them, however. Detectives however troubled they are always need someone to give a hand.