Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Illustrious Client


Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of the Illustrious Client in September of 1902.  As this is the exact date given by Watson, we have no reason to question Baring-Gould's date.  The story was first published in November of 1924.


Sherlock Holmes is commissioned by the agent of an illustrious client to aid in preventing the marriage of Violet de Merville to Adelbert Gruner, an Austrian Baron suspected of having murdered his late wife.  Gruner has charmed Miss de Merville completely, though; indeed, she is quite obsessed with Gruner and is incapable of thinking ill towards him.  Holmes' task seems quite insurmountable, but that quickly changes when he is introduced to Miss Kitty Winters; Baron Gruner's last mistress, and a woman much scorned.  Through Miss Winters, Holmes learns of a diary kept by the Baron which he suspects will go a long way towards convincing Miss de Merville of her folly.  Obtaining this evidence will prove quite the challenge, especially when Holmes is set upon by two of Gruner's ruffians in what amounts to a murderous attack.

The Subtext:

"It can't hurt now," was Mr. Sherlock Holmes's comment when, for the tenth time in as many years, I asked his leave to reveal the following narrative.

So begins The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, and here we are given an interesting glance into Holmes and Watson's later years.  As the story was first published in 1924, we can assume that Watson's first request came in the early part of 1914, or the late part of 1913.  This is already set some ten years into Holmes' retirement.  It becomes evident, then, that Holmes and Watson have been in close contact between the years 1913 and 1924.  We have previously examined the possibility of Watson retiring with Holmes to the countryside, and we see here in this case ample evidence to suggest that Watson has done exactly that.

We will return to this in a moment, but first, allow us to examine a very curious statement regarding Holmes and Watson's habits.  Watson tells us:

Both Holmes and I had a weakness for the Turkish bath.

This is a fairly interesting statement, especially given the modern connotation of public bath houses (public bath houses have long been a meeting place for gay men).  For years bath houses were seen by the gay community as safe havens (although the first recorded raid on a public bath house occurred in 1903, in New York).  In fact, gay bath houses in London can be traced back to the fifteenth century, their popularity surging during the later half of the nineteenth century at a time when homosexual acts were illegal.

That is not, of course, to say that all bath houses were frequented by homosexual clients.  The stigma surrounding bath houses, however, was quite well known in 1902; so much so that already the Turkish bath houses in London were experiencing a sharp decline in popularity due to pressure from the police and politicians.  With this in mind, let us turn to Watson's next statement:

It was over a smoke in the pleasant lassitude of the drying-room that I have found him [Holmes] less reticent and more human than anywhere else.

While we cannot doubt that Holmes and Watson attended the baths for their healing properties, we must also suggest that their frank enjoyment of the Turkish baths stemmed from another purpose.  In fact, we have no doubt that Holmes was quite amiable, for we can well imagine how relaxed he became during these visits.

Indeed, Watson then goes on to tell us:

On the upper floor of the Northumberland Avenue establishment there is an isolated corner where two couches lie side by side, and it was on these that we lay upon September 3, 1902, the day when my narrative begins.

One can easily picture Holmes and Watson, dressed only in the towels common of patrons to the bath houses, lying side by side, and basking in the afterglow of their... treatment.  Indeed, we have no doubt that Holmes, at least, is quite naked, for Watson next tells us:

I had asked him whether anything was stirring, and for answer he had shot his long, thin, nervous arm out of the sheets which enveloped him and had drawn an envelope from the inside pocket of the coat which hung beside him.

Clearly, then, the entire opening scene of this story would be quite welcome (and familiar) were it adapted by the gay porn industry.

Holmes does, indeed, have something stirring, as Watson discovers upon reading the letter Holmes has handed him.  The letter is quite vague, lacking in details, and so Holmes can only speculate, stating:

"I am bound, therefore, to hope that it is not a false scent and that he has some real need for our assistance."

The conversation which follows, one must agree, is quite telling:


"Well, if you will be so good, Watson."

"I shall be honoured."

Long has Holmes given up the pretence of running his own practice.  His work has become Watson's work; Watson's work his, and so Holmes does not hesitate in offering our assistance.  Quite amusing, is it not, that Watson should seek out reassurance (and this will come into play as we continue our examination, for we will soon discover that their cosy existence in Baker Street has been altered) and that Holmes should give it so readily.

Holmes offers Watson the hour, suggesting they can put the matter out of our heads.  It is quite clear that Holmes means to spend said hour in the bath house, relaxing and engaging in... other activities.

It is soon after their visit that Watson first tells us:

I was living in my own rooms in Queen Anne Street at the time...

This statement has lead to much speculation amongst scholars.  Indeed, it has even led several scholars to suggest a third marriage for Watson.  Here, however, we suggest an alternate solution.  While undoubtedly there is a Queen Anne Street in London, we suspect that here Watson was actually speaking in code.  In fact, it is your author's opinion that Watson had already begun the transition from London to Sussex, and that, there, Holmes and Watson had purchased a villa dating back to the Queen Anne period.  Watson, desiring to set up a practice, went on ahead of Holmes so that he might establish himself.

Holmes knew his retirement was imminent (although, he had yet to decide on a firm date) and so allowed Watson to move to Sussex ahead of him, knowing the plan would be the best course of action.  Watson, we will soon see, does not spend much of his time in Sussex, choosing instead to sleep at Baker Street.

This theory, we must also note, explains Holmes and Watson's desire for a day-time rendezvous at the Turkish bath house.  Undoubtedly Watson had just arrived back in town, and undoubtedly Mrs. Hudson was up and about in Baker Street.  Where else, then, could Holmes and Watson slip away to so that they might rejoice in their reunion?

We must also suggest that Watson's early move to Sussex came in part with Holmes and Watson's desire to minimize scandal.  It is quite likely that the public (and perhaps Scotland Yard) were beginning to speculate regarding the depth of Holmes and Watson's relationship.

Their ruse, however, does not appear to work, for soon after their return to Baker Street we are introduced to their client, a Colonel Sir James Damery, who states:

"Of course, I was prepared to find Dr. Watson," he remarked with a courteous bow.

It is quite obvious, then, that Holmes and Watson are fooling no one.

Sir James does not remain long in Holmes and Watson's company.  He briefly relays his client's desire to detach Miss Violet de Merville from the audacious Baron, requesting Holmes' aid in finding some way to reveal the Baron's true character.  Holmes agrees, and so Sir James takes his leave.  It is after Sir James' leaving, and indeed, after Holmes sets out to find some means of bringing the Baron down, that Watson tells us:

It was not possible for me to follow the immediate steps taken by my friend, for I had some pressing professional business of my own, but I met him by appointment that evening at Simpson’s, where, sitting at a small table in the front window and looking down at the rushing stream of life in the Strand, he told me something of what had passed.

We see here, again, proof that Watson was in the process of setting up his new country practice in Sussex, for what other professional business could Watson have?  He has given up his London practice.  His writing is on hold.  Indeed, the sole profession left to Watson is Holmes' practice.  We must therefore conclude that Holmes entrusted the whole of their arrangements to Watson's capable hands.  We have no doubt that Watson arranged every detail regarding their move to Sussex, and that Holmes waited for the dust to settle before reluctantly leaving Baker Street, following Watson to what would become their new home.  Indeed, it does not surprise us in the least that this process took well over a year.

Returning to Simpson's, and Holmes' report of his interview with the Baron, Holmes, in describing his meeting with Baron Gruner, tells Watson:

"Well, Watson, I love to come to close grips with my man."

To which we can only shake our heads and smile.  Truly, Holmes; we are only too aware.

Their discussion continues, Holmes relaying Gruner's threats, much to Watson's horror.  It is at the conclusion of their meal that Holmes suggests:

"When you have finished your coffee you had best come home with me..."

Note that Holmes does not suggest that Watson return to Baker Street.  Instead, he clearly suggests that Watson return home, implying that, despite Watson's move to Sussex, both he and Holmes still consider Baker Street home.  There is an old adage suggesting that home is where the heart is, and it is quite clear here that home, for Watson, is where Holmes is.

Watson does indeed return to Baker Street, but the next day Holmes heads out to investigate the case on his own (likely leaving Watson to transfer their bank account to a Sussex branch).  That evening, Watson tells us:

I did not see Holmes again until the following evening when we dined once more at our Strand restaurant.

Note Watson's language here.  He clearly refers to our Strand restaurant.  There is no possible way to read the above passage and not admit to Holmes and Watson's relationship.  Clearly, they are a couple.

Their dinner ends with what will prove to be a dire warning, Holmes stating:

"I'll keep in touch with you, Watson, for it is more than likely that you will have your part to play, though it is just possible that the next move may lie with them rather than with us."

It is clear that Holmes is still forging the links of his chain, and that Watson is still quite consumed with the transition, for two days later Watson tells us:

I think I could show you the very paving-stone upon which I stood when my eyes fell upon the placard, and a pang of horror passed through my very soul. It was between the Grand Hotel and Charing Cross Station, where a one-legged news-vendor displayed his evening papers. The date was just two days after the last conversation. There, black upon yellow, was the terrible news-sheet:
Murderous attack on Sherlock Holmes.

We can well imagine Watson's horror here, for he has been neglecting Holmes in favour of planning their future, and now, in this single instance, Watson sees the fragility of that future.  Indeed, Watson's reaction is quite telling, for he soon tells us:

I think I stood stunned for some moments. Then I have a confused recollection of snatching at a paper, of the remonstrance of the man, whom I had not paid, and, finally, of standing in the doorway of a chemist's shop while I turned up the fateful paragraph.

That Watson was so distraught that he might steal a paper, without realizing it, is quite indicative of Holmes' importance.  Clearly, Watson is in shock, likely horrified by the prospect of losing Holmes.

His shock does not last long, however, the strength of his worry overcoming his inaction as Watson tells us:

I need not say that my eyes had hardly glanced over the paragraph before I had sprung into a hansom and was on my way to Baker Street.

The image of Watson, rushing frantically to Holmes' side, uncertain as to Holmes' welfare, is quite touching.  Indeed, the reader cannot help but feel the anxiety and dread which must have sat heavily upon Watson's shoulders.

Watson's arrival at Baker Street comes swiftly, and, after interviewing the surgeon, Watson tells us:

With this [the surgeon's] permission I stole into the darkened room. The sufferer was wide awake, and I heard my name in a hoarse whisper. The blind was three-quarters down, but one ray of sunlight slanted through and struck the bandaged head of the injured man. A crimson patch had soaked through the white linen compress. I sat beside him and bent my head.

The whole of the above paragraph is quite overwhelming.  We can almost see the tentativeness in Watson's footsteps; hear the relief in Holmes' hoarse whisper at Watson's arrival.  Watson is quite gentle in the above scene, taking particular care to describe the fullness of Holmes' injuries (which must have, at the time, terrified Watson beyond speech).  Finally, we are given the image of Watson sitting gingerly at Holmes' side, likely reaching out a hand to lace his fingers with Holmes'.  It is quite evident, in both Holmes and Watson's actions, that this is not the meeting of two mere friends.  Indeed, the above scene speaks not only of Watson's fear and worry, but of Watson's love and devotion, and Holmes' gratitude at having Watson in his life.

Holmes even goes so far as to reassure Watson, wanting, no doubt, to ease Watson of the guilt and terror which gripped his heart.  Holmes states: 

"All right, Watson. Don't look so scared," he muttered in a very weak voice. "It's not as bad as it seems."

This seems to break the spell Watson is under, for his tentativeness soon fades, and Watson vows:

"Of course, it was that damned fellow who set them on. I'll go and thrash the hide off him if you give the word."

We do not, of course, doubt Watson's word, for it is quite easy to picture Watson seeking vengeance on Holmes' behalf.  Indeed, one can easily imagine Watson's rage turning to murderous actions, should only Holmes give the word.

Holmes does not give the word, instead requesting that Watson exaggerate his injuries as part of some plot which Holmes does not reveal.  Watson accepts this, reminding the reader of Holmes' love for a dramatic conclusion.  It is quite clear that Watson feels no ill will towards being caught up in Holmes' plot, Watson telling us:

I was nearer him than anyone else, and yet I was always conscious of the gap between.

One can easily tell that Watson is thankful to be as close as he is, for it is quite clear that Holmes guards his heart closely.  Indeed, throughout the whole of Canon (and, consequently, Holmes' life) none save Watson can claim closeness to Holmes.  Truly, Watson has been granted privileged access to a heart few have witnessed.

Indeed, we see further proof of Watson's willingness to aid Holmes without explanation, Watson stating:

"I am here to be used, Holmes."

Here we cannot doubt that, for the first time since his assault, Holmes wished that his injuries were less severe.  Indeed, one can only picture the dozen or so scenarios which popped into Holmes' head at Watson's statement.

Holmes does, of course, find an alternate method of using Watson, and so Watson visits Baron Gruner under the guise of a Chinese pottery expert.  His ploy works, despite the Baron's suspicion, for Watson's distraction allows Holmes to burgle Gruner's study and make off with his diary.  It is this diary which concludes the case, Miss de Merville breaking off her engagement to Baron Gruner upon seeing its contents.

And so the case comes to a close, Watson, oddly enough, still ensconced in Baker Street, despite his attempts to convince his reader otherwise.  Indeed, while we do not doubt that Watson had, at times, lived away from Baker Street, we do not for a moment believe that he had moved to Queen Anne Street.

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