Think about it for a second. In The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, we read of Sherlock Holmes and his biographer Dr. John H. Watson breaking into the home of the master blackmailer, witnessing his murder, allowing the murderer escape and then their own near capture by the police.
“Yes, there were two of them. They were as nearly as possible captured red-handed. We have their footmarks, we have their description, it’s ten to one that we trace them. The first fellow was a bit too active, but the second was caught by the under-gardener, and only got away after a struggle. He was a middle-sized, strongly built man—square jaw, thick neck, moustache, a mask over his eyes.”
“That’s rather vague,” said Sherlock Holmes. “My, it might be a description of Watson!”
That’s an amazing display of chutzpah by Holmes and it beggars the imagination that Watson could make this admission in a published story without consequences. And yet, in the introduction to the story, we read:
It is years since the incidents of which I speak took place, and yet it is with diffidence that I allude to them. For a long time, even with the utmost discretion and reticence, it would have been impossible to make the facts public, but now the principal person concerned is beyond the reach of human law, and with due suppression the story may be told in such fashion as to injure no one. It records an absolutely unique experience in the career both of Mr. Sherlock Holmes and of myself. The reader will excuse me if I conceal the date or any other fact by which he might trace the actual occurrence.
This paragraph and especially the last sentence suggests this is a published story. But how can it possibly be published, or if it is, is this the form the story took? How could it possibly be written sufficiently altered to obscure the death of this master blackmailer? Watson writes facilely that “the principal person concerned is beyond the reach of human law,” but surely Holmes and Watson can still be tried for their involvement, unless the story has been published so late that the statute of limitations has run out on their offenses.
A more clearcut case of Holmes breaking the law and Watson recording it comes in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, where Holmes allows the true thief to escape:
“After all, Watson,” said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies. If Horner were in danger it would be another thing; but this fellow will not appear against him, and the case must collapse. I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to gaol now, and you make him a gaol-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness. Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward.”
This story cannot be the actual story that The Strand published, for Watson actually names the criminal as James Ryder. True, Watson may have given the man an alias to protect him, but surely he is easily identified as the head attendant at the Hotel Cosmopolitan. But this story has no preface where Watson admits to changing names or details. Instead, it contains an admission of guilt by Ryder and Holmes.
In a trifling monograph, I have written previously of the conundrum of a detective, one so adverse to publicity that he will not take credit for the crimes he has solved, taking rooms with a man who chronicles his adventures. Why would Holmes allow this?
Further, in these stories that we have assumed all these years to be the stories that were published, Watson again and again gives an eager public every possible insight into the investigative methods of Holmes. We read how he uses disguises; we learn that Holmes has safe houses hidden across London; we learn of his addictions; we learn of his shortcomings. In fact, we learn almost everything needed to defeat him.
As a matter of fact, Irene Adler probably did learn enough of Holmes’ methods to defeat him, undoubtedly aided by that knowledge she had gained through Watson’s stories.
“MY DEAR MR. SHERLOCK HOLMES,—You really did it very well. You took me in completely. Until after the alarm of fire, I had not a suspicion. But then, when I found how I had betrayed myself, I began to think. I had been warned against you months ago. I had been told that, if the King employed an agent, it would certainly be you.”
And yet we get this statement from Holmes in The Sign of Four after Watson mentions his publication of their first adventure, A Study in Scarlet:
He shook his head sadly. “I glanced over it,” said he. “Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.”
And in The Adventure of The Abbey Grange, Holmes speaking of his involvement with Inspector Stanley Hopkins:
“Hopkins has called me in seven times, and on each occasion his summons has been entirely justified,” said Holmes. “I fancy that every one of his cases has found its way into your collection, and I must admit, Watson, that you have some power of selection, which atones for much which I deplore in your narratives. Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations. You slur over work of the utmost finesse and delicacy, in order to dwell upon sensational details which may excite, but cannot possibly instruct, the reader.”
It’s true that Watson’s stories are exciting and romantic, but I would argue that they give us a remarkable insight into Holmes and his methods. In fact, Watson’s accounting of Holmes’ methods have been credited with inventing the modern field of forensic science. Which again makes one wonder: are the stories we read the ones that were published? (Incidentally, we are missing three of those adventures in which Inspector Hopkins is involved.)
It’s possible, of course, that Watson has two versions of many of the adventures. The Blue Carbuncle as actually published in The Strand may not name James Ryder or give so many clues to his identity or offer proof of Holmes allowing a criminal to escape.
What to make then of he copies of the stories that survive to this day and which name Ryder or admit the theft of the Bruce-Partington plans (and exposing the government for ridicule) or the witnessing of the murder of Milverton? That is a matter for another day.