The ideas of my friend Watson, though limited, are exceedingly pertinacious.
The Blanched Soldier is narrated by one Mr Sherlock Holmes. With The Lion’s Mane, it is one of only two of the 56 stories told in the voice of their main character – and I choose that word ‘voice’ carefully’. It’s easy sometimes to suggest that Conan Doyle was an artless writer, but this story is a calm refutation of that accusation. Though Holmes admits that Watson was right all along – bald facts do not an engaging story make, and concessions must be made to the reader – The Blanched Soldier nevertheless has a different character than Watson’s stories. It is stonier and colder; less interested in human colour, more in process.
Indeed, this focus on methodology leads to one memorable moment when Holmes must reveal his sleight of hand (or, in this case, nose): “Alas, that I should have to show my hand so when I tell my own story! It was by concealing such links in the chain that Watson was enabled to produce his meretricious finales.” Still, as when the Fonz became his show’s main character, or Spike was made a regular, something is lost in this demystification. Holmes’s voice is not one of singular genius. By the story’s close, it is in fact rather pedestrian – more so than Watson, who at least has a flair for the dramatic.
Holmes, though, admits his lack of facility for fiction. “And here it is,” he writes as he approaches his denouement, “that I miss Watson. By cunning questions and ejaculations of wonder he could elevate my simple art, which is but systematized common sense, into a prodigy.” Holmes’s modesty is also Conan Doyle’s sceptisim; perhaps here he attempts to murder his creation more surely than he did in The Final Problem. Holmes’s art isn’t so exciting when seen from the inside. He is even shown to be something of a showman, reusing his own catchphrases: “Your problem presents some very unusual features”; “It is my business to know things”; “whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
But the story is too well characterised to be a total hatchet job. We get some nice little details: Holmes always situates his clients in the chair facing the window, to see them by the light; he has “found it wise to impress clients with a sense of power”; he insists that his need for a companion is not a sentimental one. And when earlier in the story he suggests that Watson’s principle skill is his lack of imagination, he is showing that familiarly blasé cruelty. All this is just as well, since the story itself is a little flat, and tailed with an unconvincing happy ending, as if Conan Doyle or his editor isn’t quite comfortable with the rather bleak corner into which the story has painted its characters. Holmes tells us Watson wasn’t around to record this adventure; had he been, he might not have done at all. Still, Holmes’s voice is enough to carry us through the few pages this story takes up, and it’s an intriguing, and ultimately far from disappointing, experience for his long-term readers.