Decoding the Subtext
Sherlockian Theory
Canon Companions

Decoding the Subtext: The Man with the Twisted Lip


Baring-Gould dates The Man with the Twisted Lip in June of 1887. Watson states that the date is 1889, and with the exception of Baring-Gould, all other chronologies agree with this date. It is reasonable to assume, especially given that Watson mentions his marriage, that the case did in fact take place in June of 1889, making Watson's wife Mary Morstan. We find additional evidence for a 1889 date when we examine Neville St. Clair, the character featured within the story. St. Clair was married in 1887, and now has two children; a virtual impossibility using the Baring-Gould chronology. The story was first published in 1891.


In The Man with the Twisted Lip, Watson leaves the comforts of home and wife to seek out a friend's husband in one of the east-end opium dens. Imagine his surprise, then, when, after finding his patient, Watson stumbles into Holmes, who is disguised as an aging opium addict and immersed in a case. Watson quickly sends his patient home by cab, and then joins Holmes in his latest adventure; locating the whereabouts of one Neville St. Clair, whose frantic wife is desperate for his safe return. Nothing is as it seems, however, and it will take five pillows and an ounce of shag for Holmes to discover that Mr. St. Clair is right under his... lip.

The Subtext:

The case begins with a depiction of domestic life in the Watson household. The interaction between Mary and Watson is quite familiar, and in many ways mirrors a typical evening in Baker Street. There are two ways to examine this. The first suggests that Watson purposely chose a wife who, in her mannerisms and presence, reminded him of Holmes. The second suggests that Watson actively attempts to recreate his life in Baker Street, perhaps without Mary's knowledge. Either way, it is quite telling that Watson would desire his married life to mimic his previous existence with Holmes.

The above scene gives way to one of the great mysteries of Canon. It is here that Mary refers to Watson as James, and as we all know, Watson's name is John. Several scholars have suggested that James was perhaps Watson's middle name, or perhaps a pet name given to him by Mary. Still others have suggested that Mary was having an affair, and that her lover's name was James. Whatever the reason, it is entirely possible that Watson did not notice the slip, for at the time he seemed quite exhausted from a full day's work.

If we assume the latter theory (that Mary was, indeed, having an affair --and it should be noted that this is by no means a popular theory) then one cannot help but question why. Perhaps she had grown tired of Watson's frequent absence. Perhaps she resented his friendship and close associated with Sherlock Holmes. Or perhaps, with intuition only a woman could claim, she knew, long before Watson did, that his heart belonged to another; namely, Sherlock Holmes.

This scene of quiet domestic bliss is interrupted by the arrival of Kate Whitney, a friend of Watson's wife. Her husband, it appears, has been gone some days, and Mrs. Whitney knows exactly where to find him. He is in an opium den on the east side, and she, a lone female, does not feel suited to the task of bringing him home.

Watson immediately offers to go for her, and without so much as a word for his wife, he's off, seeking out Mr. Whitney with the aim of bringing him home.

Watson has no problems finding his friend, but he is surprised to find another friend, this one in disguise; although it's not until Holmes reveals himself that Watson becomes aware of his presence.

I walked down the narrow passage between the double row of sleepers, holding my breath to keep out the vile, stupefying fumes of the drug, and looking about for the manager. As I passed the tall man who sat by the brazier I felt a sudden pluck at my skirt, and a low voice whispered, "Walk past me, and then look back at me." The words fell quite distinctly upon my ear. I glanced down. They could only have come from the old man at my side, and yet he sat now as absorbed as ever, very thin, very wrinkled, bent with age, an opium pipe dangling down from between his knees, as though it had dropped in sheer lassitude from his fingers. I took two steps forward and looked back. It took all my self-control to prevent me from breaking out into a cry of astonishment. He had turned his back so that none could see him but I. His form had filled out, his wrinkles were gone, the dull eyes had regained their fire, and there, sitting by the fire and grinning at my surprise, was none other than Sherlock Holmes.

There are several points of interest to be found in the above passage. We will begin by examining Watson's description of Holmes. As an old man, bent and wrinkled, Watson disregards him, but upon looking back, Watson immediately recognizes the dull eyes that had regained their fire. By telling us that Holmes' eyes had regained their fire, Watson is stating that Holmes' eyes were usually filled with fire. A curious description when one considers that fire is often associated with passion.

Notice, too, Holmes' delight at finding Watson in this den of depravity. His grin that appears at Watson's surprise. Holmes' surprise is evident here, too, and yet, his happiness at stumbling across his friend (a mere coincidence?) is quite obvious.

Shortly after this encounter, Holmes asks after Watson's friend. Watson, very briefly, explains the situation and tells Holmes that he has a cab waiting, to which Holmes replies:

"Then pray send him home in it. You may safely trust him, for he appears to be too limp to get into any mischief. I should recommend you also to send a note by the cabman to your wife to say that you have thrown in your lot with me. If you will wait outside, I shall be with you in five minutes."

Notice the assumption that Watson will aid Holmes in this latest case. Notice too the demand Holmes makes. He is not asking, or even requesting, but rather telling Watson to send his wife a note and give up all pretext of heading home. It is obvious here that Holmes expects Watson's obedience, but more than that, he requires it, for it is only through this demand that Holmes can be assured of Watson's cooperation. Holmes, it would appear, needs Watson; enough that he's willing to throw propriety to the wind and forgo making a formal request.

The tactic works, as we will soon see, for Watson tells us that:

It was difficult to refuse any of Sherlock Holmes' requests, for they were always so exceedingly definite, and put forward with such a quiet air of mastery.

Holmes, it would appear, carries quite a good deal of weight with Watson. Watson goes on to admit:

I felt, however, that when Whitney was once confined in the cab my mission was practically accomplished; and for the rest, I could not wish anything better than to be associated with my friend in one of those singular adventures which were the normal condition of his existence. In a few minutes I had written my note, paid Whitney's bill, led him out to the cab, and seen him driven through the darkness.

Here particular attention should be given to the phrase: I could not wish anything better than to be associated with my friend... The reader will do well to recall that it is late evening, and Watson has just expressed his exhaustion, and indeed, has demonstrated his irritation at being sent out on this late night errand, and yet, within minutes after meeting Holmes, he is more than willing to cast aside both his wife and his responsibility to Whitney in order to follow Holmes on some unknown errand. Truly, Holmes comes first in Watson's life.

This point brings us to an interesting theory, which was first put forth by Clifton R Andrew, and suggests that Watson's first marriage ended in divorce, an event which can be tied directly to Watson's involvement with Holmes, and indeed, his constant abandonment of his wife for Holmes. When one examines Canon, we see countless instances of this, all of which lend incredible weight to Andrew's theory.

Turning back to the story, Holmes, having secured Watson's cooperation, is now in a position to extend an open invitation. It is curious here that he asks for Watson's aid, rather than demanding it. Their exchange is quite suggestive:

"Now, Watson," said Holmes, as a tall dog-cart dashed up through the gloom, throwing out two golden tunnels of yellow light from its side lanterns. "You'll come with me, won't you?"

"If I can be of use."

"Oh, a trusty comrade is always of use; and a chronicler still more so. My room at The Cedars is a double-bedded one."

This exchange presents several points of interest, and we will now touch on each in turn.

I have briefly mentioned the significance of Holmes asking, rather than demanding Watson's aid. When one re-examines both of these instances, in relation to each other, it is obvious that Holmes first demanded because he was afraid of Watson's answer. By issuing a demand, Holmes could be certain that Watson would agree. By now asking, Holmes already knows Watson's answer, but he extends the courtesy so that, later, upon recalling the situation, Watson will remember that Holmes asked. This automatically removes any negativity which might have presented itself within the situation. Holmes has secured Watson, and has also managed to keep Watson's good faith, all with the addition of a request. Clever. And very telling of just how much Holmes values Watson; not just Watson's time, but Watson's respect and affection, too.

We can next turn to Watson's assurance that he will help, and his statement of: if I can be of use. Watson's answer to Holmes' question was already preordained, and yet, Watson still worries that he might not be of use. It is evident here that Watson craves Holmes' reassurance; something that Holmes is only too eager to give.

We turn now to Holmes' response, which presents several interesting elements. It is important to note the language used by Holmes (trusty comrade, chronicler). With the choice of these expressions, Holmes has told Watson that Watson is both trustworthy and wanted. He has also validated Watson's position in Holmes' life; that of a friend and biographer. It is obvious here that Holmes appreciates every role that Watson plays in his life.

Having secured Watson's aid, Holmes is now free to mention that his room is a double-bedded one. While this does imply two beds, it also implies that Holmes is extending an invitation for Watson to spend the night in a shared room. The intimacy of this is staggering. Two grown men, in the Victorian era, one of those men married, and yet they are sharing a room, twin beds likely quite close together. It is apparent here, too, that neither man feels even remotely awkward at the prospect.

Watson, of course, agrees, and the two head out to the home of Mrs. St. Clair. Again we are witness to Watson abandoning his wife for Holmes, not just for a few hours, but overnight, leaving her to warm their marriage bed alone. Watson makes no mention of this, so it is quite obvious that the thought has not crossed his mind; Watson is so preoccupied by Holmes' presence that his wife does not register.

The drive is long, and quiet, until Holmes remarks:

"You have a grand gift of silence, Watson," said he. "It makes you quite invaluable as a companion. 'Pon my word, it is a great thing for me to have someone to talk to, for my own thoughts are not over-pleasant."

Watson has spent the majority of the ride in silent contemplation, despite having no real idea of what the night (or indeed, the next day) might hold. He does not ask, however, content to let Holmes come to the subject in his own time. This is a mark of how well Watson knows Holmes, and indeed, very indicative of the reasons Holmes prefers Watson as a constant companion.

Holmes' statement, then, should not come as a surprise, and yet it does, for here he admits to his loneliness, stating that it is a great thing for me to have someone to talk to, something that has obviously been lacking since Watson left him for a wife. We see here, too, how often Holmes uses Watson as a sounding board, and how much Holmes appreciates being able to do exactly that. His use of the word invaluable is highly suggestive of just how much Watson means to him.

We turn now to a second theory, this one put forth by Dr, R. Asher in Holmes and the Fair Sex. Dr. Asher suggests that Mrs. St. Clair's actions, upon Holmes and Watson's arrival at her home, is not that of a concerned wife, but rather that of a woman with designs on her guest (namely Holmes). Asher suggests that perhaps this is the reason Holmes insisted Watson accompany him to the house, that perhaps Holmes wished for an intermediate in order to stave off her advances. Indeed, upon their arrival, Mrs. St. Clair seems quite shocked to discover that Watson is now assisting Holmes with the case.

"This is my friend, Dr. Watson. He has been of most vital use to me in several of my cases, and a lucky chance has made it possible for me to bring him out and associate him with this investigation."

Holmes' introduction, then, takes on new meaning, as he is very specific to mention that Watson is his friend, and of vital use. This statement is also quite suggestive, as again Holmes states, quite plainly, the importance of Watson's role in his life and work. Indeed, Holmes seems thrilled by the lucky chance that brought them together.

After catching Mrs. St. Clair up to speed, the two quickly retire for the evening. Watson tells us:

A large and comfortable double-bedded room had been placed at our disposal, and I was quickly between the sheets, for I was weary after my night of adventure.

One can easily imagine Watson, clad only in his night shirt, slipping beneath the sheets, while across the room, Holmes likely paced, sorting through the new information provided by Mrs. St. Clair. It is curious to note the sense of comfort (and indeed, Watson mentions comfort) Watson feels when preparing to spend the night next to his long time companion.

Holmes, of course, does not immediately retire, and I think you will agree that Watson's description of Holmes' activities is quite telling:

In the dim light of the lamp I saw him sitting there, an old briar pipe between his lips, his eyes fixed vacantly upon the corner of the ceiling, the blue smoke curling up from him, silent, motionless, with the light shining upon his strong-set aquiline features.

Again we are treated to Watson's very detailed description of Holmes' appearance. I doubt very much that Watson needed to observe Holmes for long, as it is very likely that he now knew every inch of Holmes in complete detail. Still, he paints his picture, and one gets the impression that Watson will never tire of observing and describing his friend.

Eventually Watson does fall asleep, and he is woken the next morning in, what one would imagine is, a most precarious position.

So he sat as I dropped off to sleep, and so he sat when a sudden ejaculation caused me to wake up, and I found the summer sun shining into the apartment.

Poor Watson; however will he explain the sheets to the dear Mrs. St. Clair.

Holmes, of course, takes all of this in stride.

"Awake, Watson?" he asked.


"Game for a morning drive?"


"Then dress. No one is stirring yet, but I know where the stable-boy sleeps, and we shall soon have the trap out." He chuckled to himself as he spoke, his eyes twinkled, and he seemed a different man to the sombre thinker of the previous night.

The above exchange provides several points of interest. The first is the fact that Holmes is once again requesting Watson's aid, and that Watson once again agrees without hesitation. This is particularly interesting in terms of the evolution of their relationship during this case. They begin estranged, Watson obviously spending a good deal of time away from Baker Street and hence not seeing as much of Holmes as he once did, and end in comfortable camaraderie, the pair easily returning to old, familiar patterns.

The second is Holmes' request that Watson dress. This gives us proof that Watson has slept in a nightgown, something that, given the era, would have been considered quite indecent in unfamiliar company. Again, an indication of just how close the two men are.

Finally, we are once again treated to Watson's obsession with Holmes' eyes. Time and time again Watson refers to them, and one cannot help but wonder upon the reasons for Watson's preoccupation.

Watson, having dressed, awaits Holmes' return. He does not wait long, for Holmes appears almost immediately, having long since found the key to unlocking this little mystery.

"Come on, my boy, and we shall see whether it will not fit the lock."

Again we are treated to Holmes' possessive nature as he refers to Watson as my boy. Clearly Holmes is well aware of where he ranks in Watson's priorities, and indeed, Holmes seems quite pleased by this.

The two leave shortly after this exchange, and upon arriving at the Bow Street Police Station, they are quickly able to solve the mystery of Neville St. Clair. Holmes, content with the closure of the case, quickly turns to Watson and suggests:

"I think, Watson, that if we drive to Baker Street we shall just be in time for breakfast."

Now, consider: On the previous evening, Watson abandoned his wife, sending her a note at Holmes' suggestion. He then spent the night away from home, providing no real aid to Holmes (aside from acting as a sounding board and providing Holmes with much needed company). He is now intent on heading to Baker Street to breakfast with Holmes. The case is solved. Holmes can have no real need for Watson in regards to Holmes' professional work, and yet Holmes still invites Watson, and it is implied that Watson accepts said invitation. Were I Mrs. Watson, I can safely say that my husband would spend the next fortnight or so sleeping upon the settee.

If we turn back to the knowledge that Watson's participation amounted solely to listening to Holmes and sleeping in a bed next to Holmes, one cannot help but wonder upon Holmes' motives for inviting Watson. It is apparent that Holmes missed Watson, and yet, we are also shown a glimpse of the true usefulness of Watson:

Watson stimulates Holmes. Watson clarifies Holmes' mind. Watson provides a sounding board for Holmes' theories. Without Watson, Holmes is incapable of arriving at the correct solution, and yet, with Watson, Holmes' mind is once again capable of brilliant acts of deduction. Truly, then, one can safely say that Watson represents far more than a mere friend and biographer.

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