Alter Ego

'I've found it!'

A brilliant young man will say those words, not to you – not to anyone, really – but you will be there to hear them, and somehow that matters.

You will walk into the room and meet your destiny as a broken man, weary and grieved, wrecked both in body and mind. Your every movement will hold a shadow of pain.

(One of your vices you will not put to paper: you scream in the night.

His response: I have been told I snore.

You will understand even then that he is lying to put you at ease.)

You will walk into the room expecting nothing, but somehow everything you need will reach out and take your hand.

'I've found it,' a brilliant young man will say triumphantly as he runs towards you, 'I've found it,' he will repeat, and during that moment of exultation, his eyes will meet yours for one brief second.

(You will not know in that moment that this man is to define the rest of your life. Not until he says 'you have been in Afghanistan, I perceive'. Then you will know.

It will not frighten you.

You will even welcome that revelation.)

Doctor Watson, meet Sherlock Holmes.


The truth of Sherlock Holmes: He is arrogant. He is callous, manipulative, and can be breathtakingly cruel. He is pompous, theatrical, and sometimes utterly unbearable.

He is brilliant. He is determined, charismatic, and when he cares to be he can even be charming. He is brave, and if he thinks you worth it, he is loyal, and he is true. You will call him the best and wisest man you know, and you will mean it – but that does not change the fact that he is also a very difficult man.

You apportion his qualities differently in your written work. You smooth his abrasive edges just enough to allow his more sterling qualities to also shine. You show as best you can what you love without destroying him; you blur what you hate without absolving him. You make him a hero despite himself.

He will never thank you for it.


The truth of John Watson: there is no truth in John Watson, just as there is no truth in mirrors.

When you first began writing, you did not know how much you thought obvious would only be visible between the lines. You thought you had no need to boast of your worth, and found nobody could understand just why you and he worked so well together unless it was as opposites of ridiculous extremes – intellect without heart, emotion without intelligence. You thought the strength of his affection was obvious, but it turned out to be easier to see only his disparagement. You thought that you were clearer than you were, and did not realise you had made yourself a ghost in your own life. But now it has happened, you find you would not reverse it. You know the things legends are made of.

Sherlock Holmes as a character cannot stand alone. Alone, he is too harsh, alone he is too abstruse. Alone he is exceptional but incomprehensible. He needs balance. You are perfect for that, and that alone. In nothing else can you claim uniqueness.

You are not, as he will carelessly put it, luminous. Therefore it shouldn't matter, the damage you do to yourself. To make him ordinary is a sin; to make yourself less is only practical.

You are: sensible, stable, compassionate, a doctor of not inconsiderable skill, and you are patient.

It is your most salient point, that patience, that tolerance. It is all that will survive of you.

You become: foolish, bumbling, ignorant, incompetent. You have the patience of a saint, no doubt, to put up with Holmes and his unthinking arrogance, nobody denies that. (Quietly it is wondered: why does he put up with you?)

He cannot stand alone. You resign yourself to being seen as nothing more than a 'conductor of light' by strangers; even by friends. You try not to mind that you will always be greeted with 'Good to see you too, Doctor', that you will forever be dismissed as a hero-worshipping follower of no great worth. You are there between the lines, if anyone cares to see you. (Very few do.)

You translate him for your readers. You hollow yourself out for them and ask the stupid questions anyone who has not lived beside him for years would ask. You ask the practical questions anyone with common sense would ask. In the mirror you make of yourself, he shines, and because you are the mirror and not the truth, you show a hero who is brilliant and not a man who is blinding.

Because you are a mirror and not the truth, you show only him, only what they expect to see, their expectations of him and you, the genius and his shadow.

You are not and will never be luminous as he defines it; that is Sherlock Holmes' truth. You write it faithfully down. Gradually, so gradually, you even start to believe it yourself.

Carelessly, he breaks you.

Carefully, you break yourself.

(Physician, heal thyself.)


The lies of John Watson: 221B Baker Street.

Oh, it is exact in its particulars, it is your lodgings down to the last detail, but 221B Baker Street does not exist. You are careful about things like that.

The years, haphazard and disorganised.

Some cases are too sensitive, too easily dated by their details, and so you assign a year randomly for at least a pretence at concealment. Eventually it becomes a habit even when unnecessary; you make a joke of it and watch with a grin as Holmes tries to work out your system. You wonder when he will finally accept that there isn't one.

The names of clients.

You are not very good with names. There are a terrible number of Violets and Marys, Johns and Williams to keep track of.

The references to cases in a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch-box.

It is Holmes who starts it, mocking your melodramatic titling. When you write up his next triumph, you begin by referring to several past cases and a joke over the breakfast table. He bursts out laughing when he reads it, and whenever you have the opportunity thereafter you make an aside to such and such a case, using the most histrionic little description you can think of. In time, he will begin offering them himself. He will be scrambling across a crime scene, casting about here and there for the scent and remark offhand, "What will you be calling this one? The puzzling adventure of the earl's blood spattered cravat? The facts behind the mysterious disappearance of the theatre-going lord?"

"I think not," you will say gravely, each and every time. You will hide your smile as he suggests more and more outlandish titles in an evermore hopeful tone of voice. You will note the ones that put in his eyes the suppressed gleam of merriment you so love, and one day you will use them, always in the hope of seeing once more that whole-body laugh that comes over him only once in a very long while.

The published cases.

An exciting moment from an otherwise dull case may find itself transferred into a more exciting one, a particularly heinous villain may be a little exaggerated, a lot of patient, extensive interviewing may be pared down the essentials, the case itself will occasionally be mixed and matched, fictionalised enough that there are no libel suits. You are not a factualist, and it was never your intention to be. You are a writer foremost; you add colour and variety and irrelevance. You are creating a myth, and to do that you must give a picture sharp in the essentials and blurred at the edges, the way all good myths are.

He rebukes you constantly for your occasional departures from the exact truth. You are honest enough you hardly understand his dissatisfaction, when many a newspaper reports more fiction as fact than you do.

One day in the distant future someone will write, 'the character is more important than the case', and inadvertently strike at the truth behind every lie you have set to paper. Of course you love being his partner in solving crime, but that is incidental; if he were in another profession entirely, it would make no difference.

Holmes observes the world. It matters to him that there should be a true account of who and what and when and why and how, and only the genre would change with his profession. You are not so broad in your focus; everything he has taught you of observation you apply to one subject alone, and care only that you have that one subject exactly right upon the page. The character is more important than the case, that is exactly it.

He knows that, of course. He is Sherlock Holmes, and for all your lies, you have not glorified him falsely. He knows you better than you know yourself. (Secretly you think that perhaps it is a knife that cuts both ways: that you know him better than he cares to know himself. You will never say so. But of course he knows that thought too.)

The biggest lie of all: it does not hurt when he tells you he does not like your memorialising of him.


John Watson's truth: Sometimes you think the fictional you would be easily replaced with a dog. Then at least you might be of some use.

(It is hard to count the number of times, the number of cases, the number of precisely recalled invitations to deduce that put this thought in your head.

On the page, why does he put up with you?)

You look at the papers in front of you. You look up, over at Holmes. He is playing one of your favourite violin pieces, and he smiles as he does so.

You do not write the dry, deprecating remark you actually said in response to yet another demonstration of your ignorance. You write, wonderful! and find yourself envying your fictional counterpart his eternal surprise and wonder.

The violin sings, sweet and melancholy, belying his every claim of unfeeling. You let it seep into you, a balm greater than anything you can manufacture. When he plays for you, you never doubt the wisdom of trying to share with the world the wonder you find in this man.

Holmes has never asked you why you turn your life and his into fiction.

He probably thinks he already knows the answer, and he's probably right.

But if he were ever to ask, you would tell him: because it is right that you are honoured. Because you are my friend and I desire to see you get the recognition you deserve. Because I cannot stand the thought of such a man as yourself passing and the world never knowing or caring beyond what could be contained in a brief obituary notice. Because you are my dearest friend, because you are a wonder that should be shared, because I am so honoured that you would choose me as your companion that I wish to give you the only thing that is in my power to give in return - immortality.

You would not say: because I love you, and it is the nature of love that one should want everyone to know and value the sun of your sky as you do.

You are not ashamed of how much his friendship means to you, of how highly you value him; you do not care who knows how happy assisting with his cases makes you. You would not say it simply because he too has certain fictions he has created about himself, and if he wishes to pretend to be emotionless and therefore untouched by other people's emotions, it is hardly given to you to say otherwise.

Secretly, you think this may be the one area where he is the fool. He is never more great than when he shows the heart oftentimes concealed by the immense brain, and that he cannot see that makes you shake your head with bemusement, though you understand perfectly why he would wish to try.

How much safer, how much more pleasant it would be, if you could feel nothing, you sometimes think. What would it be, to know him and feel only irritation and scorn for his high-handed arrogance? To know him and not be fascinated by his vast knowledge of many varying subjects? To look at him and see only a rather ugly man with indefinable presence, to feel nothing but exasperation or outrage when he is astoundingly tactless. What would your life be, if you had said no to sharing lodgings so long ago? If you could pass him on the street and think only – 'don't I know that man from somewhere?'

You think about it sometimes.

The story of your life, and it is not even yours. You think about that, about the ghost you have become, and you are unmoved.

You would not change this life if you could, you would not give him up for anything. Sherlock Holmes will play the violin for you, will smile simply to reassure you, calls you his partner and his companion and means it – and if you are not luminous, in those moments you still blaze with light.


Sherlock Holmes' truth: I would take this opportunity to remark that if I burden myself with a companion in my various little inquiries it is not done out of sentiment or caprice, but it is that Watson has some remarkable characteristics of his own to which in his modesty he has given small attention amid his exaggerated estimates of my own performances.

You will read those words one day, and will not know whether to laugh or cry.

You will carefully not wonder why he chose to use the word burden, why he took such care to dismiss sentiment and caprice as his motivation for having a companion.

You will instead remind yourself of my dear Watson, the affection there that will never translate to the page. One aborted attempt to mitigate the legend you are constantly perfecting is nothing to that casual, ubiquitous appellation.

(You have become a consummate liar.)


One day you will kill him.

It will break your heart.

But you will still do it.