Elementary, My Dear W!

"Elementary, my dear Watson." The quote of quotes. Holmes's signature tune. The one Sherlockian catchphrase everybody knows. The one thing Holmes always, always, says. It's a standard. Only thing is, Holmes never said it in the Canon. Doyle never wrote it.

This, by now, is common knowledge. So the question is: who
did say it? And when and where, exactly?

There are instances in the Canon where it's almost said. In The Crooked Man Holmes comes awfully close. He says "
elementary" but fails to add the mandatory tag of "my dear Watson."

"I see that you are professionally rather busy just now," said he, glancing very keenly across at me.

"Yes, I've had a busy day," I answered.
"It may seem very foolish in your eyes," I added, "but really I don't know how you deduced it.
Holmes chuckled to himself."I have the advantage of knowing your habits, my dear Watson," said he. "When your round is a short one you walk, and when it is a long one you use a hansom. As I perceive that your boots, although used, are by no means dirty, I cannot doubt that you are at present busy enough to justify the hansom."
"Excellent!" I cried.
"Elementary," said he.

Wisteria Lodge we get this bit of dialogue:

"But what was he to witness?"

"Nothing, as things turned out, but everything had they gone another way. That is how I read the matter."
"I see, he might have proved an alibi."
"Exactly, my dear Watson; he might have proved an alibi. (. . . )"

Which, one has to admit, while not exactly it, is still almost in the vicinity.

Elementatry is used in seven Canonical stories: the novels A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the short stories A Case of Identity, Wisteria Lodge, The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, The Blanched Soldier and of course the aforementioned The Crooked Man.

First time "Elementary, my dear Watson" actually was uttered was on the silver screen, by Clive Brook in the first Holmes talkie
Sherlock Holmes, based on Gillette's famous play, in 1929. It stuck.

However, in
The Films of Sherlock Holmes the authors Steinbrunner and Michaels make no mention of Brook's Holmes coining the infamous phrase. But they do offer us this little gem of immortal dialogue when Holmes hears of Moriarty's prison sentence:

HOLMES: The only man to use scientific methods as I use them . . . A marvelous man. And now he's gone.
ALICE: And we shall soon be going. You haven't forgotten your promise?
HOLMES: Forgotten? Lock up the laboratory, Watson. Unload my pistols.
WATSON: Yes, my dear Holmes. But
where are you going?
HOLMES: I'm ashamed of you, Watson, after all these years. Where are your powers of deduction. A beautiful girl . . .

ALICE: An impetuous lover . . .
HOLMES: A menace removed . . .
ALICE: What can follow but wedding bells!
HOLMES: We're off to apply for a special license!
ALICE: Sherlock Holmes and wife, farmers!
HOLMES: Sherlock Holmes - new laid eggs for sale!
WATSON: Incredible, my dear Holmes! Amazing!
HOLMES: Elementary.

Other sources give the last line as
"Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary."

absolutely no idea if the phrase actually does occur in the movie as it's one of the Holmes films I've never seen. The common census seems to be that it does occur. Fair enough.

In Gillette's play, the basis for Brook's movie, we have:
"Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow." Almost. But not quite. Forgot the "Watson", old fellow.

So. Where does the infamous phrase first appear?
In writing, I mean. Never mind the talkies.

The answer might be slightly surprising. The word on the street is: it first appears in a 1915 novel. The text itself was written and serialised a few years in a magazine called The Captain as early as 1909-10 by a future master of English prose. The book is something of a turning point in his career. Previously he'd written mostly stories for boys, humorous school stories, now he's reaching out for a larger and more adult audience. The book features his earliest big character and one of his juiciest. Don't ring a bell? I'm not surprised.

The author: the future knight of the realm Sir Pelham, but then still only plain old P.G. Wodehouse. The novel: Psmith Journalist.

Psmith Journalist
is one of those early Wodehouse novels where he doesn't have his ducks in a row, not quite yet. It's very funny, for the most part, but it's also an occasionally uneasy mix with melodrama, social commentary and gritty crime - all in a jolly jumble. Later Wodehouse would learn to purge his material and purify his humour. The over-all result here is slightly heavy and patchy.

Psmith follows his trusted friend Mike to America on the latters cricketing tour. Not having much anything to do with his time he appoints himself sub-editor of a magazine for children, Cosy Moments, and forthwith transforms the magazine. Into what? Well obviously, at least to the inimitable Psmith, to a socially conscious fighting unit with the sole purpose of bettering the living conditions of the unfortunate inhabitants of a certain slum-like tenement in New York.

The really interesting thing is how Wodehouse incorporates the infamous gangs of New York into his story. One of the key players in the story is Bat Jarvis, who closely resembles that nasty purveyor of iniquity Monk Eastman (of whom Borges writes in his book A Universal History of Infamy and Herbert Asbury in his Gangs of New York). Eastman was a particularly vicious gang leader whose gang was so large that it split into warring factions when he was in jail so that he had to form a new one. Another noteworthy thing about Eastman (and also Jarvis) is that he owned a pet shop and had an amazing fondness for cats. I wonder if the tendency of villains to stroke cats in a menacing way - Ernst Stavro Blofeld! - originates from Eastman?

The gangs of New York and the social injustice and misery of tenements is not the most happy material for Wodehouse. It's too real. It simply isn't funny. Therefore the book only works in parts. The realism is too real and causes anxiety. The tenements are not funny. Real gangsters and real killings aren't funny. Even if Psmith is there to bring light comic relief.

Anyway, Sherlock Holmes is much mentioned in the book as Psmith fancies himself something of a successor of the famous detective. And frequently uses his "Sherlock Holmes method" to deduce things.

Sherlock Holmes always was a big influence on Wodehouse, much bigger than most people seem to realise. Jeeves and Wooster. Holmes and Watson. The analogy is clear and fully intended. The stories follow the mechanism of the Holmes stories with amazing accuracy. We have Jeeves as the solver of intricate and seemingly impossible puzzles, quizzical quandries and other dashed difficult cases involving aunts and overly eager fiancées, and Wooster acting as his trusted and utterly baffled chronicler. Even the names echo their roles. Wooster - Watson. Jeeves - Holmes. Only that funnily enough Wooster believes himself to be the Holmes character. Well mostly.

Elementary, my dear Wooster.

I think it's quite possible that Wodehouse really learned how to be Wodehouse when he found a way to do humorous Sherlock Holmes stories. That gave his humour much needed solid structure and liberated new dimensions of comedy.

But, hang on.

Upon re-reading Psmith I find that the word on the street is wrong. The Internet is wrong. Wikipedia is wrong. The phrase does not occur in the book, well at least not in my 1979 Penguin edition.

Right. Doyle didn't coin it. Wodehouse didn't coin it.

So, whence then does it hail?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Post scriptum:

There's me with egg on my face. Occured to me to check it out electronically. Google Books and a couple of other sites had the whole book in electronic form. So I had a look, and sure enough, this is what I found in chapter 19 of
Psmith Journalist:

"I fancy," said Psmith, "that this is one of those moments when itis necessary for me to unlimber my Sherlock Holmes system. As thus.If the rent collector had been here, it is certain, I think, that Comrade Spaghetti, or whatever you said his name was, wouldn't have been. That is to say, if the rent collector had called and found no money waiting for him, surely Comrade Spaghetti would have been out in the cold night instead of under his own roof-tree. Do you follow me, Comrade Maloney?"
"That's right," said Billy Windsor. "Of course."
"Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary," murmured Psmith.

Bugger. It was there, all the time it was there, and I missed it. Wodehouse did coin the phrase after all. Oh dear. Can't even read any longer.

No comments: