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Decoding the Subtext: Silver Blaze

Dates:

Baring-Gould dates The Adventure of Silver Blaze in September of 1890.  Watson does not give us a date, but does appear to be living in Baker Street, making no mention of Mary, or his marriage.  As Silver Blaze was first published in December of 1892, this implies that the case took place sometime before Watson's marriage.  Indeed, several other chronologies date Silver Blaze in 1888.

Synopsis:

The Adventure of Silver Blaze is one of Doyle's more popular stories, and tells the tale of the disappearance of Silver Blaze, a horse favoured to win the Wessex Cub.  In addition to Silver Blaze's disappearance, Holmes is also confronted with the mysterious murder of Silver Blaze's trainer, John Straker.  Holmes, convinced that the local authorities lack the skills needed to make progress, hastens to Dartmoor where, after taking an evening stroll across the moor, he is able to discover the whereabouts of the infamous horse.  Unwilling to let the case conclude without at least a little of his dramatic flare, Holmes arranges for one of the most shocking unveilings in all of Canon.

The Subtext:

The Adventure of Silver Blaze begins in Baker Street, Watson watching a restless Holmes as he paces in front of the fire.  A few moments later, Holmes announces his intention to look into the disappearance of Silver Blaze, a statement which does not seem to surprise Watson; indeed, he seems to have been expecting it.  Watson tells us:

Yet, silent as he was, I knew perfectly well what it was over which he was brooding.

And this summarizes the scene nicely, for we get the impression that Watson has been waiting for Holmes to announce his intention to look into the matter.  Watson knows his Holmes well, and is now capable of anticipating Holmes' actions.  This speaks to the intimacy between the two men; that Watson should know Holmes well enough to anticipate his thoughts and actions is highly suggestive.  It is a short scene, and yet we are given the impression that Holmes and Watson are bound together, the pair sharing a connection more often reserved for lovers.

When, therefore, he suddenly announced his intention of setting out for the scene of the drama, it was only what I had both expected and hoped for.

"I should be most happy to go down with you if I should not be in the way," said I.


Not only does Watson tells us that he expected as much, but he states clearly that he hoped for it as well.  While this alone is not suggestive, what is suggestive is his humble request.  Having told the reader that he had hoped Holmes would take the case, Watson then asks Holmes' permission to go down with you.  It is quite evident, then, that it has been some time since Holmes' last case, and that Watson was quite keen to once again witness Holmes in action.  Watson's timid request here also suggests that Silver Blaze was an earlier case; before Watson came into the role of chronicler and helpmate.  If this is the case, then the intimate awareness Watson demonstrates in his earlier statement is even more remarkable.

Holmes' response, too, is quite telling, for Holmes states:

"My dear Watson, you would confer a great favour upon me by coming."

Holmes would not dream of attending the case without his Watson.  We see here, too, Holmes' delicacy where Watson is concerned, for, upon noting the hesitancy in Watson's tone, Holmes is very careful to encourage Watson's participation.  Note Holmes' use of my dear, which can easily be read as Holmes' attempt at reassurance.  This tentativeness (on behalf of both Holmes and Watson) suggests that Silver Blaze took place at a time when Holmes and Watson were still uncertain as to the definition of their relationship.

Watson, naturally, agrees immediately, and soon the pair are off for Dartmoor.  On their journey, Holmes finds an opportunity to show off his skills:

"We are going well," said he, looking out of the window and glancing at his watch. "Our rate at present is fifty-three and a half miles an hour."

Here we turn away from the story for a moment in order to delve into theory, for it is within Sherlockian theory that we find evidence of subtext.

A.D. Galbraith, in The Real Moriarty, suggested that this calculation was far more complicated than Holmes made it seem.  In fact, according to Galbraith, it is practically impossible (to the degree of accuracy Holmes' confidence suggests) to determine the speed of a train simply by timing the passage of mile markers.  Galbraith suggests that Holmes, a logical and rational individual, would have known that the probability for error was exceptionally high (trains in the Victorian era rarely travelled at a constant speed) and would not have overstated his accuracy.  As Holmes distinctly tells Watson that their rate is fifty-three and a half miles, we must assume that Holmes' precise calculation was, in fact, an attempt to impress Watson, rather than an actual calculation.  For additional information on the math needed to make this work, see also Jay Finley Christ's, Sherlock Pulls a Fast One.

If Galbraith is correct, and Holmes did give a precise answer to impress Watson, one must question why.  We have suggested that Silver Blaze took place during a period of transition.  Holmes and Watson have been living together, first as room-mates, and then friends, and have only just begun crossing the line between friendship and romance (this is prior to Watson's marriage, and the reader will recall the argument in SIGN which led Watson to seek out a marriage and leave Holmes' side).  If this is the case, then this playful wooing can be seen as a natural extension of the flirtatious attitude which must have accompanied this newfound discovery on both Holmes and Watson's behalf.

Further evidence for the early development of a relationship can be found in numerous passages throughout Silver Blaze.  Here, for example, Watson tells us:

I lay back against the cushions, puffing at my cigar, while Holmes, leaning forward, with his long, thin forefinger checking off the points upon the palm of his left hand, gave me a sketch of the events which had led to our journey.

This occurs just as Holmes begins detailing his thoughts on the case, Watson content to lean back and listen.  What is curious here is Watson's observation of Holmes' hands.  We have noted before Watson's obsession with Holmes' eyes, and yet, here this attention shifts.  Could it be that Watson was recalling (or possibly imagining) exactly what those thin, long fingers were capable of?

Watson does, however, pay attention to Holmes' recounting, and so is able, midway through, to interrupt Holmes and ask a very pointed question.

"One moment," I asked. "Did the stable-boy, when he ran out with the dog, leave the door unlocked behind him?"

"Excellent, Watson, excellent!" murmured my companion. "The importance of the point struck me so forcibly that I sent a special wire to Dartmoor yesterday to clear the matter up."


Note Holmes' pride here, and, indeed, Watson's insight.  It is obvious that Watson has been paying close attention to Holmes' methods, and that he is fast picking up on Holmes' trade.  Holmes, of course, seems quite thrilled that Watson has advanced so far (a marked difference from the Holmes of earlier days, who deliberately withheld his methods so that he would not render himself obsolete).  Clearly Holmes has come to trust Watson a good deal.  Is it too much to suggest that this shift might correspond with a change in their relationship?

Their conversation continues until they arrive at the station, where they meet with Inspector Gregory who takes them down, via carriage, to King's Pyland.

We all sprang out with the exception of Holmes, who continued to lean back with his eyes fixed upon the sky in front of him, entirely absorbed in his own thoughts. It was only when I touched his arm that he roused himself with a violent start and stepped out of the carriage.

Note the intimacy of this statement.  One can almost picture Watson, hesitating briefly before reaching out for Holmes, placing his hand gently on Holmes' arm, perhaps caressing the fabric of Holmes' jacket, not quite able to hide the affection in his touch.  The scene is quite breathtaking, filled with such warmth and, indeed, love.

Holmes, haven been roused by Watson, excuses himself for his day-dreaming, and Watson tells us:

There was a gleam in his eyes and a suppressed excitement in his manner which convinced me, used as I was to his ways, that his hand was upon a clue, though I could not imagine where he had found it.

Again we are privy to Watson's intimate knowledge of Holmes, for with a mere glance Watson is able to deduce Holmes' thoughts.  Watson admits, too, that he is used to Holmes' ways, a statement which suggests that Watson is only too familiar with all of Holmes.

Having arrived, Holmes asks to see the scene where the body of John Straker was found and then, after a brief investigation, Holmes and Watson set out across the moor so that Holmes might test a hypothesis.

Holmes' hypothesis soon proves correct, and, after a brief visit to the neighbouring stables at Mapleton, Holmes and Watson return to King's Pyland.  On the journey back, Holmes requests that Watson say nothing to Colonel Ross regarding the discovery of his horse, Silver Blaze.  Watson agrees, stating:

"Certainly not without your permission."

This statement of loyalty becomes even more obvious when, upon their return, Watson is forced to endure Colonel Ross's criticism of Holmes' work.  Watson, without hesitation, jumps to Holmes' defence:

"At least you have his assurance that your horse will run," said I.

"Yes, I have his assurance," said the colonel with a shrug of his shoulders. "I should prefer to have the horse."

I was about to make some reply in defence of my friend when he entered the room again.


Aside from demonstrating Watson's loyalty to Holmes, the above passage also demonstrates Watson's protective nature where Holmes is concerned.  It is quite evident that Watson cares a good deal for Holmes; enough that he is more than willing to blindly accept Holmes' conditions, and fight for Holmes' honour.

Watson, however, is not able to rise to Holmes' defence, for Holmes announces his intention to leave.  As they climb into their waiting carriage, Holmes pauses to ask a question of the stable boy.  The lad's answer pleases Holmes a good deal, and, turning to Watson, Holmes states:

"A long shot, Watson, a very long shot", said he, pinching my arm.

Curious, is it not, that Holmes, a man not known for his tactility, should accentuate this point by pinching Watson's arm.  It is perhaps even more curious that Holmes, despite his standoffish nature, is more than willing to express himself physically with Watson.  We know of no other character in the whole of Canon who can claim to have received Holmes' touch on so frequent a basis.

The pair return briefly to London, and within a few days Holmes is able to solve the case completely.  This triumph is accentuated by Holmes having won a little on this next race, and we can only imagine that Holmes celebrated his winnings, and his victory, by treating Watson to dinner and a concert. What they did upon their return to Baker Street is best left to the imagination.

 
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