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When you think of detective duos, none are as typical as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Since Sherlock Holmes, many mystery writers have played out the dynamic with their detective duos in fascinating ways. The latest version is Stuart Turton’s latest film, The Devil and The Dark Water (2020). There will be spoilers.
The epitome of detective duo
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Watson dynamic works well. Holmes is the daring, brilliant detective and Watson is a great slide. Holmes runs around, dressed up, and blends in with communities and societies to solve knowledge and puzzles.
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Watson, on the other hand, is not a genius. He is intelligent, but he is often mistaken in his analysis and does not have quite the sense of drama like Holmes. While he doesn’t interfere with his adventures with Holmes, he’s not quite as dedicated as Sherlock (what about the disguises, infiltrations, contacts, and so on).
But he humanizes Holmes, in part because of their relationship, which has become much more evident with the recent television show Sherlock, and helps us, the reading public, into Holmes’ world and genius. “While Sherlock’s genius is alone, Sherlock would be less effective without Watson.”
A similar dynamic exists with Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke from R. Austin Freeman and his slide Christopher Jervis. Dr. Thorndyke’s focus is more forensic than Holmes’, but the general dynamics are similar. Dr. Thorndyke does the heavy lifting, explaining to Jervis who plays a Watson-like role in taking all the data and writing down for the public to know who and how the crimes were committed.
Reverse the dynamic
In a few decades of the 20th century, another detective duo played with this model: Rex Stouts Nero Wolfe. Wolfe is a genius hermit who never leaves his New York brownstone when he can help, and his right-hand man is Archie Goodwin. Goodwin walks around (along with a few other contract agents) for information and brings witnesses to Wolfe to interrogate them.
Wolfe is the anti-Sherlock. Without a doubt, both are geniuses and can solve some of the strangest and most confusing crimes. While Sherlock loved to run around and fit into the darker parts of life, Wolfe hates leaving his house for any reason. Unlike Sherlock, he doesn’t like to work, but does it to maintain his lifestyle. Sherlock needed puzzles to keep his mind occupied.
Their perceptions of justice are also curious. Holmes enjoyed working with the police. Wolfe is reluctant to do this as a means to an end in many of the stories. But Wolfe has his own sense of justice. Often in the service of fulfilling the challenge posed by his client, Wolfe allowed extrajudicial means to achieve justice. It is not uncommon for characters captured by Wolfe to commit suicide, much to the chagrin of the police. Holmes, on the other hand, usually turned criminals over to the police in the stories.
In an inversion of Watson, Goodwin is the one walking around on Wolfe’s behalf; Holmes ran around himself. But he keeps Watson-like aspects. Brilliant, but not a genius like Wolfe, he is often at a loss about the secrets that lie ahead of him and Wolfe. He also has a way with the ladies, much like Watson, who woos and marries as the stories progress. And above all, he humanizes Wolfe; he forces Wolfe to take cases, be it for money or usually for reasons of honor and pride.
Detective Duo relationship update
And then we come to Stuart Turton’s detective duo Samuel Pipps and his bodyguard Arent Hayes in The Devil and the Dark Waters. Spoilers ahead. Of course, the book has been a stand-alone book so far, while Holmes, Thorndyke, and Wolfe have a healthy library of books. The book is about a merchant ship on its way to Amsterdam when terrible things happen on board.
In this book, Pipps is a famous detective whose exploits were read by humans (similar to Sherlock) but were chained for execution for reasons unknown when the ship arrives in Amsterdam. Arent, his bodyguard, travels on the ship and is Pipps’ unlikely heir. While Arent made a career as a mercenary, he trained himself to be a detective, but nearly failed in his first case. But since his mentor is in a dark hole, he has been tasked with stopping the terrible crimes on the ship.
No doubt, Pipps is modeled after Sherlock. He can read people like Holmes and he solves the most difficult cases. He wrote his adventures for an enthusiastic audience. Arent is also modeled after Watson; both fought in wars, one as a doctor, the other as a mercenary. While Holmes hasn’t really worked on training Watson to succeed him, Watson tries to help his friend just as Arent learns from Pipps to be his own detective.
Here are the real spoilers. If you haven’t read the book and don’t want to know more, you can skip the rest of this essay. Like Holmes, Pipps undergoes disguise, and in this case he pretends to have committed treason in order to be stranded in prison.
But that’s where the similarities end. Although Arent has been plagued by doubts throughout the book, which doesn’t feel very Watsonian, he’s making headway on this one. In fact, he is far more capable than his mentor, Pipps, would lead you to believe.
In fact, he discovers that Pipps misled him about his abilities. His first case wasn’t a failure, but Pipps had lied to him that he had found the wrong person. Instead, Pipps found the criminal useful for his machinations on the ship. While Holmes and Wolfe routinely withhold information from their colleagues, outright lying was not part of their practice.
And like Wolfe, Pipps has his own sense of justice. He orchestrates this elaborate series of events to punish the culprits he arent sent to resolve. Holmes would have brought the culprits to justice; Pipps wants revenge. While Wolfe definitely has his unique sense of justice, there is less collateral damage compared to Pipps, whose plan ruins the boat and causes all kinds of death and injury to the crew and passengers. At the end of the book, Arent emerges as a moral force, as a real detective, while Pipps has lost his moral ground and seems dry from his crimes.
Cant wait to see other writers play with the Sherlock / Watson detective duo dynamic in the future. I hope to see more female detective duos, so far I don’t know any (although Miss Marple works with various police inspectors and other pals, but it’s not a permanent position).
Granted, not all detective duos are Holmes / Watson comments. I love Alexia Gordon’s Gethsemane Brown and Ghost Sidekick, but they have a different dynamic.
Do you want more Sherlock? Check out this post from Genderbent Sherlock Holmes novels or this ranking of all Sherlock Holmes stories.