Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Adventure of the Dying Detective


Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Dying Detective in November of 1887. Watson does not reference a date, but does mention that he was in the second year of married life. For those that consider Mary Morstan to be Watson's first (and possibly only) wife, this would imply a year of 1890 (Watson's first year of marriage in 1889, his second in 1890). The story was first published in 1913.


The case begins with Watson, who has just been summoned by a frantic Mrs. Hudson, as he rushes from his home to his friend's side in Baker Street. Upon arriving, Watson is confronted by the truth of Mrs. Hudson's statement; that Holmes is, indeed, near death's door. He has apparently contracted a deadly, contagious disease, and will not allow Watson to doctor to him. There is another who can help, however; one Mr. Culverton Smith, who has good reason to despair Holmes' recovery. An ivory box, an overheard confession, and the lighting of the gas are all that are needed to bring this murderer to justice, and to speed Holmes to a full recovery.

The Subtext:

This is perhaps one of the better stories in demonstrating the intensity of Watson's emotional connection to Holmes. Here, Watson is confronted with the possibility of losing Holmes, and his reaction, one can imagine, is quite telling.

The beginning of the story, however, belongs to Mrs. Hudson.

Mrs. Hudson, the landlady of Sherlock Holmes, was a long- suffering woman. Not only was her first-floor flat invaded at all hours by throngs of singular and often undesirable characters but her remarkable lodger showed an eccentricity and irregularity in his life which must have sorely tried her patience. His incredible untidiness, his addiction to music at strange hours, his occasional revolver practice within doors, his weird and often malodorous scientific experiments, and the atmosphere of violence and danger which hung around him made him the very worst tenant in London. On the other hand, his payments were princely. I have no doubt that the house might have been purchased at the price which Holmes paid for his rooms during the years that I was with him.

There is an usual fondness in Watson's description of Holmes. Here he is remarking on Holmes' undesirability as a tenant, and yet, one recalls that Watson spent some years sharing rooms with Holmes; an indication that Watson likely found Holmes' singular habits quite endearing. Then there is Watson's reference to Holmes' rental payments. He states that they were princely, and one cannot help but wonder how Watson came to know the sum of Holmes' rent (which had undoubtedly changed upon Watson's leaving). Recall that the two men have been living apart for some time, and yet, despite Watson's absence, he is obviously still very much aware of Holmes' financial situation. It is fairly safe to state, then, that the two men are close enough, and indeed, trusting enough, to discuss openly such a sensitive topic.

Despite Holmes' shortcomings, Mrs. Hudson was quite fond of Holmes. Indeed, Watson tells us that Holmes had a remarkable gentleness and courtesy in his dealings with women. He goes on, however, to say that Holmes disliked and distrusted the sex, a usual statement, to be sure. We have seen Holmes to be quite trusting of men; indeed, Holmes' even seems to enjoy the company of men, and yet, he has always demonstrated a cold shoulder where women are concerned. One cannot help but question if this was in any way a reflection of Holmes' personal preferences. Could Holmes' disinterest in women stem from a sexual interest in men?

Pure speculation on our behalf, but it is certainly an interesting theory.

We turn our attention now to Watson, for truly this is Watson's story.

He's dying, Dr. Watson.

So begins Watson's involvement in the Adventure of the Dying Detective, and while we have seen Watson's affection for Holmes, his respect for Holmes, his appreciation for Holmes, and even his love for Holmes, one does not truly get a sense of how dear Holmes is to Watson without first reading this tale.

'With your leave or without it, Mr. Holmes, I am going for a doctor this very hour,' said I. 'Let it be Watson, then,' said he.

Holmes has been ill some days now, and yet, despite Mrs. Hudson's pleading, Holmes has refused a doctor until now. It is curious to note (although this particular request, when taken in context with the remainder of the story, is understandable) that Holmes requests Watson. While some would argue that this was done solely to appease Mrs. Hudson, or because Holmes knew that he could exert his influence over Watson, one cannot help but wonder if perhaps this was simply Holmes' way of including Watson in the case. Time and time again we have seen evidence of Holmes' need for Watson when it comes to his professional matters.

I was horrified for I had heard nothing of his illness. I need not say that I rushed for my coat and my hat.

One can practically picture Watson's terror here. That he might lose Holmes, his closest and dearest friend, is beyond his comprehension. His first instinct is to rush to Holmes' side, and it is interesting to note that Watson, in his haste and worry, does not think to tell his wife of his leaving.

He was indeed a deplorable spectacle. In the dim light of a foggy November day the sick room was a gloomy spot, but it was that gaunt, wasted face staring at me from the bed which sent a chill to my heart.

We too feel a chill in our hearts, and yet one would imagine that Watson's first reaction, being a trained doctor, would be to seek Holmes out and begin a diagnosis. This is not the case, however; Watson is so overcome by fear and grief that he is effectively paralyzed. Truly, Watson is entirely too attached to the patient to think rationally.

He lay listlessly as I entered the room, but the sight of me brought a gleam of recognition to his eyes.

There is both worry and hope in this sentence, and while the reader knows the outcome of the story (understands that Holmes immediately recognized Watson) it is curious to note that Watson takes the time to reference this. That Watson would notice it is telling, too, for a gleam of recognition is not an easy thing to catch. Clearly, then, Watson has been watching Holmes intently.

"Well, Watson, we seem to have fallen upon evil days," said he in a feeble voice, but with something of his old carelessness of manner.

"My dear fellow!" I cried, approaching him.

"Stand back! Stand right back!" said he with the sharp imperiousness which I had associated only with moments of crisis. "If you approach me, Watson, I shall order you out of the house."

"But why?"

"Because it is my desire. Is that not enough?"

I have chosen to include this entire exchange, for it is quite telling in several regards. First, we have Holmes telling Watson that we have fallen on evil days. A more grammatically correct sentence would have been I have fallen on evil days, and yet Holmes distinctly says we. It is obvious that he knows (or perhaps desires) that their lives are so intertwined that what one experiences the other instantly shares.

We see here, too, Watson breaking out of his reverie. His cry of, my dear fellow! as he approaches the bed is quite heartfelt and speaks to the love Watson holds for Holmes.

Holmes, of course, will have none of Watson's ministrations, telling Watson to stand back. Watson, confused, asks why, to which Holmes replies, it is my desire. There is a strong suggestion here that Holmes expects Watson to accede to Holmes' wishes. Indeed, this statement suggests that Holmes takes Watson's instant cooperation for granted, an indication that Holmes is used to Watson's deference.

"I only wished to help," I explained.

"Exactly! You will help best by doing what you are told."

"Certainly, Holmes."

He relaxed the austerity of his manner.

"You are not angry?" he asked, gasping for breath.

Poor devil, how could I be angry when I saw him lying in such a plight before me?

Watson seems torn between obeying Holmes' desire and attending his friend. This conflict of emotions is quite fascinating, because while we are used to seeing Watson defer to Holmes' wishes, in this instance, Watson seems set to disobey Holmes. This could only occur in the most gravest of circumstances, where something other than Holmes' respect and admiration is at stake. In this case, it is Holmes' very life, something which undoubtedly rates high on Watson's list of priorities. Indeed, I do suspect that he would risk losing Holmes' friendship in order to preserve Holmes' life.

Holmes' question deserves particular attention, for it is quite curious in its own right. That Holmes' primary concern would be Watson's anger is quite indicative of Holmes' need for Watson's love. He does not wish to anger his friend, and yet he can't allow his friend to aid him in his recovery. Clearly, Watson is not the only one fighting warring emotions. It is interesting to note here, too, that Holmes is quite aware of Watson's emotional state, a sign of how in-tuned to Watson Holmes is.

"Contagious by touch, Watson--that's it, by touch. Keep your distance and all is well."

"Good heavens, Holmes! Do you suppose that such a consideration weighs with me of an instant? It would not affect me in the case of a stranger. Do you imagine it would prevent me from doing my duty to so old a friend?"

That Watson would risk death to aid Holmes is quite possibly the most beautiful thing I have ever read.

Holmes, of course, will have none of it, leaving Watson to state:

I have so deep a respect for the extraordinary qualities of Holmes that I have always deferred to his wishes, even when I least understood them. But now all my professional instincts were aroused. Let him be my master elsewhere, I at least was his in a sick room.

That Watson respects Holmes is not in question; we have known this from the moment the pair met. That Watson's professional instincts would be aroused is also not in question, for Watson is a doctor and I am certain all doctors would react in this manner. Watson's last sentence, however, is exceedingly suggestive.

Let him be my master elsewhere. This, I do believe, is the first, and possibly only, time in which Watson acknowledges that Holmes is his master. Clearly this is a man in complete and utter awe.

Holmes, frustrated by Watson's lack of cooperation, turns to his last available recourse: he insults Watson's talents as a doctor, questions his qualification and indicates his lack of trust in Watson's medical skills.

I was bitterly hurt.

One can well imagine, but the tactic works, and Watson agrees that he will no longer attempt to minister to Holmes. He does not give up so easily, however, insisting:

But someone you MUST have, and that is final. If you think that I am going to stand here and see you die without either helping you myself or bringing anyone else to help you, then you have mistaken your man."

I confess; this passage brings tears to my eyes. That Watson cares enough to allow Holmes to insult him, and still refuses to allow Holmes to die is one of the most touching scenes in all of Canon. The passage ends beautifully, Watson confessing for the entire world to see that he is Holmes' man.

This Holmes agrees to, and Watson immediately turns towards the door, bent on seeking out aid immediately.

I turned resolutely to the door.

Never have I had such a shock! In an instant, with a tiger-spring, the dying man had intercepted me. I heard the sharp snap of a twisted key. The next moment he had staggered back to his bed, exhausted and panting after his one tremendous outflame of energy.

"You won't take the key from be by force, Watson, I've got you, my friend. Here you are, and here you will stay until I will otherwise."

This is a particularly amusing scene, for one cannot help but wonder how it was that Watson failed to deduce the truth behind Holmes' illness. Still, for our purposes, Watson's surprise is less fascinating than Holmes' statement:

I've got you, my friend.

Here we have Holmes essentially kidnapping Watson. Watson is now being held against his will. Putting this into context, it is interesting to note that, while Holmes has obviously planned this down to every detail, he seems quite pleased that he should be forced to pass an afternoon locked in his bedroom with Watson.

Watson, we will soon see, quickly adapts to the situation, without raising an outcry, or even a protest. In the span of a heartbeat he has resigned himself to the situation, and then proceeds to settle in for a long vigil. Indeed, he passes most of the two hours confined in Holmes' room observing his friend.

I had stood for some minutes looking at the silent figure in the bed.

This is especially curious when one considers that Watson is currently under the assumption that Holmes is asleep. With Watson watching Holmes sleep, and Holmes locking Watson in his bedroom, I honestly can't tell which of the pair should be labelled the stalker, and which the stalkee.

Then, unable to settle down to reading, I walked slowly round the room, examining the pictures of celebrated criminals with which every wall was adorned. Finally, in my aimless perambulation, I came to the mantelpiece. A litter of pipes, tobacco-pouches, syringes, penknives, revolver-cartridges, and other debris was scattered over it. In the midst of these was a small black and white ivory box with a sliding lid. It was a neat little thing, and I had stretched out my hand to examine it more closely when--

It was a dreadful cry that he gave--a yell which might have been heard down the street. My skin went cold and my hair bristled at that horrible scream. As I turned I caught a glimpse of a convulsed face and frantic eyes. I stood paralyzed, with the little box in my hand.

"Put it down! Down, this instant, Watson--this instant, I say!" His head sank back upon the pillow and he gave a deep sigh of relief as I replaced the box upon the mantelpiece. "I hate to have my things touched, Watson. You know that I hate it. You fidget me beyond endurance. You, a doctor--you are enough to drive a patient into an asylum. Sit down, man, and let me have my rest!

To Watson, Holmes' outrage must appear as irritation, and yet, the reader sees deeper meaning; which will indeed prove to be correct, for we later learn that the box which Watson was handling was deadly.

Taking this new knowledge into context, one must then re-examine Holmes' frantic worry. If Watson had opened the box, he would have contracted the deadly disease Holmes claims to suffer from. Holmes knows this. He knows too that there is no known cure and that death is certain. Faced with the peril of his only friend, Holmes is only too quick to leave behind his role of dying man and assume the role of protector. Holmes' reaction allows us a brief glimpse into just how deep Holmes' love for Watson runs.

This incident is quickly replaced by Holmes releasing Watson. He sends him with instructions to fetch one Culverton Smith, cautioning Watson to return alone and before Mr. Smith. Watson, although slightly confused and loath to leave his friend, agrees to Holmes' request.

Don't forget, Watson. You won't fail me. You never did fail me. No doubt there are natural enemies which limit the increase of the creatures. You and I, Watson, we have done our part.

Reading the above passage, one cannot help but suspect that Holmes has been failed by every meaningful person in his life. Every person that is, except for Watson. Watson has never failed Holmes, and Holmes knows this, and one cannot help but wonder if this played any part in Holmes falling in love with Watson.

Watson, bent on his task, heads out in search of Mr. Smith. Upon arriving at his residence, Culverton Smith refuses to see him. Watson's reaction, we will see, is quite lacking in the propriety Watson usually reserved.

I thought of Holmes tossing upon his bed of sickness and counting the minutes, perhaps, until I could bring help to him. It was not a time to stand upon ceremony. His life depended upon my promptness. Before the apologetic butler had delivered his message I had pushed past him and was in the room.

Clearly nothing will stop Watson from aiding Holmes.

His ploy works, for Smith is instantly aroused by Holmes' name, and immediately agrees to attend Holmes in Baker Street. Watson, following Holmes' instructions to the letter, manages to return to Baker Street alone, and we will soon see this is not done without trepidation.

It was with a sinking heart that I reentered Holmes's bedroom. For all that I knew the worst might have happened in my absence.

There is such worry and fear in the above passage. Such despair, and yet one cannot help but feel the intense love behind Watson's worry.

He finds Holmes in much the same state he left him, although slightly clearer of mind. Watson informs Holmes that Mr. Smith is on his way, to which Holmes requests that Watson leave the scene. Watson, naturally, refuses, but Holmes convinces him that he would be better off concealed during Mr. Smith's visit.

There is just room behind the head of my bed, Watson."

"My dear Holmes!"

We are shocked as Watson, as Holmes can, on occasion, cast his propriety to the wind.

Watson's hesitation prompts an even more telling statement from Holmes. He tells Watson that there is no other way, and then, upon hearing a foot upon the stairs, shouts:

Quick, man, if you love me!

It is interesting to note that it is this that gets Watson moving. Indeed, he practically jumps, his actions answering Holmes' question, stating clearly that, yes, he does indeed love the Great Detective.

Watson, safely in hiding, is now able to overhear the conversation between Smith and Holmes. Here, he learns that Holmes' condition is the fault of Mr. Smith, and that the box he had only recently been admiring was, in fact, triggered to administer a deadly disease.

Likely horrified, Watson remains in his hiding place, listening with rapt attention to the confession Smith gives. He never once betrays Holmes' request, despite what I am certain would have been a great desire to leap out and strangle the man he felt responsible for Holmes' impending death. Clearly Watson's desire to prove his love was far greater than any need for vengeance.

Watson, however, will soon find himself surprised, for moments after turning up the gas, Smith asks if Holmes requires anything else.

"A match and a cigarette."

I nearly called out in my joy and my amazement. He was speaking in his natural voice--a little weak, perhaps, but the very voice I knew.

Watson's relief is coupled with our own, and yet, I highly doubt that any man, or woman, would be capable of equalling Watson's happiness.

Still Watson waits, until Smith points out that it is Holmes' word against his own. This prompts Holmes to call out his friend and make proper introductions.

"Good heavens!" cried Holmes. "I had totally forgotten him. My dear Watson, I owe you a thousand apologies. To think that I should have overlooked you!

Holmes, of course, has not forgotten Watson, but it is interesting to note that Holmes expresses incredulity at the possibility of having forgotten Watson.

Some time later, after the police have escorted Smith away, Holmes is recovering from his self imposed three day fast. He expresses concern here that Watson may have taken offence to Holmes' deceit. Watson, of course, has not, but requires a full explanation, one which Holmes is more than willing to give, particularly on the topic of why he refused to allow Watson near him.

"Can you ask, my dear Watson? Do you imagine that I have no respect for your medical talents? Could I fancy that your astute judgment would pass a dying man who, however weak, had no rise of pulse or temperature? At four yards, I could deceive you. If I failed to do so, who would bring my Smith within my grasp? No, Watson, I would not touch that box. You can just see if you look at it sideways where the sharp spring like a viper's tooth emerges as you open it. I dare say it was by some such device that poor Savage, who stood between this monster and a reversion, was done to death. My correspondence, however, is, as you know, a varied one, and I am somewhat upon my guard against any packages which reach me. It was clear to me, however, that by pretending that he had really succeeded in his design I might surprise a confession. That pretence I have carried out with the thoroughness of the true artist. Thank you, Watson, you must help me on with my coat. When we have finished at the police- station I think that something nutritious at Simpson's would not be out of place."

Within the span of a paragraph Holmes has apologized, made everything clear, and managed to invite Watson to dinner. While I am certain Watson was slightly hurt by Holmes' refusal to include him in his master plan, I have no doubt that, somewhere over the course of appetizers, Watson forgave him, and the two likely fell into familiar conversation. The rest of the evening, one can imagine, was spent simply enjoying one another's company.

Side notes:

While this is the first story which warrants a side note, writers of slash fanfiction may be interested in the following passage:

With vaseline upon one's forehead, belladonna in one's eyes, rouge over the cheek-bones, and crusts of beeswax round one's lips, a very satisfying effect can be produced.

The term Vaseline was first coined in 1870. By 1873 it was being used by couples under the false belief that it destroyed spermatozoa and hence would prevent pregnancy. It is reasonable to assume, then, that homosexual men of the time would have also used this product as a form of lubrication.

Content contained within belongs to the author. Where outside work is reviewed/quoted, credit has been given. Please do not reproduce without permission. Site credits: Sidney Paget sketch used in the header, Arthur Conan Doyle quote used in the header, brushes compliments of Hybrid Genesis and Miss M.