Much is often made of this exchange from A Study in Scarlet, where Holmes and Watson are introduced by Stamford as possible roommates. Because I can’t help myself, I’m going to include comments on random other things via 1.
Sherlock Holmes seemed delighted at the idea of sharing his rooms with me. “I have my eye on a suite in Baker Street,” he said, “which would suit us down to the ground. You don’t mind the smell of strong tobacco, I hope?”
“I always smoke `ship’s’ myself,” I answered. 2
“That’s good enough. I generally have chemicals about, and occasionally do experiments. Would that annoy you?” 3
“By no means.”
“Let me see—what are my other shortcomings? I get in the dumps at times, and don’t open my mouth for days on end. You must not think I am sulky when I do that. 4 Just let me alone, and I’ll soon be right. What have you to confess now? It’s just as well for two fellows to know the worst of one another before they begin to live together.”
I laughed at this cross-examination. “I keep a bull pup,” 5 I said, “and I object to row because my nerves are shaken, and I get up at all sorts of ungodly hours, and I am extremely lazy. I have another set of vices when I’m well, but those are the principal ones at present.” 6
And this leads to a number of interpretations…
Option 1: Bull (Terrier) Puppy
The idea is that Watson owned a bulldog puppy, or maybe a bull terrier puppy, not necessarily little, who then disappears from the rest of the Canon. This absence could be considered… ominous. Many fans take this option, and both Bert Coules (BBC Radio Adaptation) and Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes (2009)) ran with it, introducing such dogs in their own works.
And then what happened to the poor doggy?
Some propose that the dog was given away, because dogs hate Sherlock Holmes; in “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott”, one that took place before Holmes met Watson, Holmes has his ankles injured so badly by Victor Trevor’s bull terrier that he’s laid up for ten days afterwards. 7 Or perhaps Holmes felt a seething resentment unprovoked by the dog, although one would hope that would come out at an interview.
If a such an incompatibility did come up between Holmes and a puppy, what would happen? In Coules’ version, the puppy is given away; in Ritchie’s version, Holmes proceeds to experiment with the puppy. The latter actually reflects what a sociopathic boy does in the much later story, “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” to a spaniel, which doesn’t make for a kind reflection of Holmes’ mind.
In my opinion, if there really was a dog, the problem of bull terrier + Holmes’ ankles came up. I don’t think Holmes would actually experiment on the thing, since he acts so lovingly towards Toby, a hound who attempts to track a strange interloper in The Sign of Four, and is unlikely to ever get evil on that little floppy-eared face’s ass. Perhaps Holmes is simply more of a hound person (and indeed, Watson often describes Holmes as a hound 8 in the stories) and reserves his hatred for other dogs.
Speaking as someone who actually did get attacked by someone’s ill-trained actual bull dog, but has had friendly encounters with dogs of the floppy-eared variety, I completely fucking agree with Holmes in this case.
THERE IS NO MIDDLE GROUND.
Where was I? Ah, yes.
Option 2: A Temper
Some object to the idea of the bull pup being an actual dog, because up ’til then Watson had been staying in a hotel, which wouldn’t have looked kindly upon dogs. (See this article at Sherlock Peoria, also the home of the sporadic web comic, Action Sherlock Brain Theater.)
Another option, then, is to take refuge in obscure slang. Apparently “having a bull pup” is slang for “having fits of quick temper” (see The Encyclopaedia Sherlockiana). However, as pointed out in the previous article, Watson didn’t show off his temper during the Canon, or else he would have pummeled Holmes long ago and left. Not even Ritchie’s Watson is that impatient, though he’s less patient than most Watsons.
Actually, perhaps that was part of the motivation behind leaving Holmes for Mary Morstan. And perhaps Watson—who always was quick to want to bring physical vengeance on Holmes’ enemies, such as in “The Illustrious Client”—really did have a short temper, but rarely wrote it in. We’ll never know for sure, thanks to the Watson Gap. 9
Option 3: Packing Heat
This is my personal favorite, from a that would have been awesome point of view: the bull pup was a gun.
Of course, we’re not referring to modern bull pup guns, which are assault rifles where the receiver is located in the stock.
Apart from the complete difference in time period between Watson and the modern SA-80 British bull pup rifle, this is highly unlikely to have been a convenient weapon of choice. Although it’s quite fun to imagine him with one during, say, “The Adventure of the Empty House.”
However, “bull pup” in this case is likely to refer to the British Bulldog Revolver, a rather popular type of revolver in the past.
The relatively short barrel makes this gun convenient to carry around. I’m not sure, however, that folks in Britain, even Victorian England, would have really objected much to a bulldog revolver. But I have no idea what the culture was like during ColonizationFail, and as Watson in that scene in A Study in Scarlet had no friggin’ idea what kind of a roommate Holmes would end up being, he might have taken the guy for an academic softie. 11
If this really was the bull pup, then Watson took it with him on just about every adventure.
Actually, come to think of it, this interpretation makes the most sense to me. I wonder if the various interpretations of Watson that removed his capability with weapons led to the bull pup as dog idea later on.
You Know It’s True.
For the Rule of Cool overrules all other consideration in the world of pop culture fiction.
- double parens [back]
- What was worse: `ship’s or shag? Strong does not even begin to describe either. [back]
- And here we see the proximity of Holmes’ chemistry hobby, next to the upcoming mention…. [back]
- Yes, you are. [back]
- Ding ding ding! Next to the mention of “bull pup”! [back]
- The other set of vices is often speculated to be (a) womanizing and (b) gambling. If you take the tack that Watson was homosexual, (a) would still apply in terms of being oversexed. [back]
- In this relative captivity, Holmes and Trevor became close friends, or at least close as Holmes counts friends, which considering that he’s made two in his entire life before retirement, may or may not be entirely accurate. Or they were lovers. Your choice. Psychological associations and weirdness could definitely ensue. [back]
- INNUENDO? You choose! [back]
- Dibs. It’s my reference to the problems of a first-person narrator if we take them to be unreliable. And we’re pretty sure, thanks to stories published years apart in the canon, yet depicting events happening less than a year apart, told with completely different perspectives on Holmes as a character (largely positive-ish, and then heading down into “why the fuck did you stay with this jerkass” category). Although, like anything else, there are multiple flavors of interpretation here. [back]
- Of course, in Doyle’s case, Word of God would have been laughing in the face of any fan who asked. Because he didn’t give a crap. Welcome to Sherlock Holmes fandom, where the inmates run the asylum, because the asylum administrators all took off for the pub. [back]
- Actually, now that I think about it, Holmes mentioning his chemicals, and Watson coming upon him in his biochem capacity, may have lead Watson to believe that Holmes was some kind of nerdy little geek. Oh, innocent Watson. [back]