Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Tuesday Night Blogs: Was Rex Stout right about Watson?

Another month, another writer: this time it is Rex Stout and the blogs will be collected by Noah Stewart who also designed that very fetching logo for the blogs. Eventually I shall get round to writing about Nero Wolfe, his assistant and general dog's body but every woman's dream Archie Goodwin, the brownstone house in West 35th street, which has not brownstones indicating that a misleading address was given, Fritz Brenner the astonishing cook and Theodore Horstman, the orchid expert who seems to live at the top of the house, never making an appearance anywhere else. Eventually.

First, let me turn to Rex Stout the innovator in Holmesian studies. Let me call attention to a couple of modern works. First, there is the series Elementary, according to some experts far better than our own Sherlock (go tell that to the Cumberbitches), which is an updated version of Sherlock Holmes with a female Dr Watson, played by Lucy Liu.

Secondly, there is a whole series of novels by Laurie R. King about Mary Russell (more here), whom we first meet as a difficult teenager, helped in life by a certain bee-keeper on the Sussex Downs. In subsequent novels she grows up, acquires an excellent education, becomes said bee-keeper's assistant and wife. Guess who the bee-keeper might be?

So there we have it: a series about Dr Watson as a woman and a series about Sherlock Holmes married. But who thought of that first? That's right, Rex Stout. At a meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars on January 31, 1941, Stout made a speech that became infamous among Holmesians and, we are told, he could attend subsequent meetings only when accompanied by a personal bodyguard.

He refused to join in the traditional toast "The Second Mrs Watson" because, he explained, there was no such person. Nor was there a first Mrs Watson. In fact, the Watson person, as he said was a very different entity from the one we assume.

Going through the Sacred Texts, as he refers to them, Rex Stout proves that Watson could not possibly have been a man. Mind you, I cannot quite see why a man should not ask a good violinist to play some of Mendelson's Lieder, that being one of Stout's arguments. Others stand up a little better.

Next, he says, we have to ask whether the Watson person was his wife or his mistress. Well, that's easy: no man would go on crunching on his toast when his mistress finally appears at the breakfast table. It had to be a wife.

The Great Hiatus? Piffle. That was Holmes wanting to escape from a marriage he hated but deciding to come back after all. And so on. There is an interesting explanation as to when Holmes married. It was, of course, during the only wedding that he attended in the entire canon. He was not, apparently, a happy groom.

Well, maybe. But where Stout falls down, in my opinion, is in his analysis of what Watson's real name might be.
Let us see what we can do about the name, by methods that Holmes himself might have used. It was Watson who wrote immortal tales, therefore if she left a record of her name anywhere it must have been in the tales themselves. But what we are looking for is not her characteristics or the facts of her life, but her name, that is to say, her title; so obviously the place to look is in the titles of the tales.

There are sixty of the tales all told. The first step is to set them down in chronological order, and to number them from 1 to 60. Now, which shall we take first? Evidently the reason why Watson was at such pains to conceal her name in this clutter of titles was to mystify us, so the number to start with should be the most mystical number, namely seven. And to make it doubly sure, we shall make it seven times seven, which is 49. Very well. The 49th tale is "The Adventure of the Illustrious Client." We of course discard the first four words, "The Adventure of the," which are repeated in most of the titles. Result: "ILLUSTRIOUS CLIENT."

The next most significant thing about Watson is her (his) constant effort to convince us that those things happened exactly as she (he) tells them; that they are on the square. Good. The first square of an integer is the integer 4. We take the title of the 4th tale and get RED-HEADED LEAGUE."

We proceed to elimination. Of all the factors that contribute to an ordinary man's success, which one did Holmes invariably exclude, or eliminate? Luck. In crap-shooting, what are the lucky numbers? Seven and eleven. But we have already used 7, which eliminates it, so there is nothing left but 11. The 11th tale is about the "ENGINEER'S THUMB."

Next, what was Holmes's age at the time he moved to Baker Street? Twenty-seven. The 27th tale is the adventure of the "NORWOOD BUILDER." And what was Watson's age? Twenty-six. The 26th tale is the adventure of the "EMPTY HOUSE." But there is no need to belabor the obvious. Just as it is a simple matter to decipher the code of the Dancing Men when Holmes has once put you on the right track, so can you, for yourself, make the additional required selections now that I have explained the method. And you will inevitably get what I got:
You can find the answer in the text of the essay here. It will not surprise anybody. However, I cannot accept the explanation above. For one thing, the numbers are far too randomly chosen and many others would have done just as well with the answer being very different. Most importantly, however, would anyone in England of that time know anything about crap shooting? This was long before the film of Guys and Dolls remember. Rex Stout's case remains unproven.


  1. Hilarious byway there - you don't have to believe a word to enjoy...

  2. Having finally watched the thing called Sherlock, I’m at a loss to not only understand the plot but also why on earth anyone would consider it either entertaining or somehow representative of the original books. On the other hand I have watched all the episodes of Elementary, and I have to say it is not only an entertaining series but very much in the spirit of the original, so much so that I will look out for the next series.