Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: The Day They Met by Wendy C. Fries

Review by Chris Redmond

We have here a delightful collection of short episodes — fifty of them — by Wendy C. Fries. It's subtitled “50 New Ways the World's Most Legendary Partnership Might Have Begun”. “If it hadn't been St. Bartholomew's Hospital in the nineteenth centeury,” Fries writes in the preface, “it would have been Russell Square in the twenty-first. If not there, then Dartmoor in 2009, Kabul in 1879, or a Wandsworth jail in 2012.”

Some of my own favourite anecdotes here include “The Diogenes Diversion” (a takeoff on the Sherlock-vs.-Mycroft duel in “The Greek Interpreter”, when Watson happens along); “Vegetable Alkaloid” (Watson the young doctor treats Holmes with an emetic); and “A Curious Man” (Watson answers Holmes's online ad for a roommate). Two of these chapters are set circa 1880, and the third in 2012.

If there's anything one might regret about this anthology, it's that all its stories are set in one of two decades. Surely it would have been possible to imagine Watson and Holmes meeting in 1914, or 1938, or 1977? Then they could have been the doctor and the detective whom we know from the world of Basil Rathbone, or Christopher Plummer, or William Gillette. Instead, half the stories unquestionably feature the Holmes and Watson of the published Canon, and it is difficult to avoid peopling the other half with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. That is not exactly Fries's fault; she does nothing to suggest that the BBC characters are speaking from her pages, never once bringing in Molly Hooper or that scarf, but it is hard these days to think of a circa-2012 Holmes who isn't Cumberbatch. (Well, almost nothing; in one of the stories, the landlady is named Una. Which might possibly be a coincidence, I suppose.)

It's important to emphasize that the relationship that begins in each of these 50 stories is friendship, not romance. One of them, just one, involves a kiss and a hug, almost by accident. Some of them are sweet, some are matter-of-fact, some, particularly “The Bees' Elbows”, are funny. Over and over again — in “Shoe Leather”, for example — they give insights into the personalities of the two men: into Holmes's brilliance, acquired at such a psychic price, and Watson's need to be a healer, and the loneliness in them both until they become friends. Perhaps, on further thought, those very insights are a product of long exposure to the BBC “Sherlock” series, which emphasizes the psychology of Holmes and Watson at the expense of their more traditional characteristics. In this context that's not altogether a bad thing.

Fries is a really, really good writer, able to follow and express the thoughts of either character (or both at once) without becoming trite or repetitive. She's good with metaphor and she's good at selecting the right detail, whether in a candy store or in the morgue, to make setting and action compelling. Writing 50 stories about the same people doing the same thing, and writing them in subtly different styles, might be considered the behaviour of a showoff, but Fries has a lot to show off. The result: a reader wants to keep stopping to savour each story and make the remaining twenty — ten — three — one! — last longer. There are a few errors in language in the course of all this compelling prose, but only a few.

“The rest is history,” Fries writes at the end of one story, and the same could be said at the end of the other 49, for we know what comes next: that immortal friendship. This author has captured its beginning very well, over and over and over again.