Thursday, May 29, 2014

"An Otherwise Unimportant Doctor Watson"

In his discussion of how story tellers achieve their effects, Brander Matthews (1852-1929) commends Kipling, Poe, and Conan Doyle for choosing the first person narrator; poor Watson, however, suffers in his analysis:
Kipling is more judicious in the half-dozen of his short stories which he has chosen to tell in the first person because he was a participant in the action, although never one of the leaders of it.
By so doing he is able to give us the direct and immediate impression of a spectator who was on the spot at the time and who saw the whole incident from beginning to end, perhaps even himself lending a hand to bring about the climax.
He adopts this method only when the story is itself simple, when it is a matter of action and reaction, when it is devoid of psychologic subtlety, and when he is sure that he can make his own presence as unobjectionable as that of Arthur Pendennis was obtrusive.
The same method is most skilfully employed by Poe in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," the first detective story ever written and perhaps still the best; and it has been borrowed by most of those who have trod the trail blazed by Poe—notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
In Poe's two tales of mystery solved, the teller is anonymous; and in Doyle's many detective stories, he is an otherwise unimportant Doctor Watson.
It is by means of this transmitting narrator, that Poe and Doyle contrive to convey clearly and sharply the impression made upon them by the swift and unerring deductions of Monsieur Dupin and of Sherlock Holmes.
Here indeed Poe displays his more consummate artistry, in that his unnamed and unidentified "I" who puts us in possession of all the facts and who describes the feats of Monsieur Dupin, is represented as at first a little doubtful of Dupin's soundness of mind, whereas Doctor Watson is always abasing himself in an attitude of adoring admiration, which tends to detract from the reader's wonder at Sherlock Holmes's ultimate triumph over an apparently insuperable difficulty. — Brander Matthews, "The Several Ways of Telling a Story," THE BOOKMAN (January 1921; see page 294, middle left)

Category: Detective fiction

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