“Really, Watson, you excel yourself,” said Holmes, pushing back his chair and lighting a cigarette. “I am bound to say that in all the accounts which you have been so good as to give of my own small achievements you have habitually underrated your own abilities. It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it. I confess, my dear fellow, that I am very much in your debt.”
Oh geez, where to even start. First of all I do think Holmes is genuinely trying to give Watson a compliment because he seems to like him enough to keep him around for his investigations. They’re like Shaggy and Scoob, but with more than two brain cells that aren’t constantly battling each other. Anyways, they’re partners, you get it. The combination of praise and subtle criticism is exactly the formula for a backhanded compliment. Right off the bat Holmes gives off this “cool guy” demeanor, by leaning back in his chair and lighting up a dart. These two things are by no means “cool”, but in fact very dangerous. I mean, Holmes is an intelligent guy, and he thinks that leaning back in a chair is a good idea? Yeah, okay. And second, lighting a cigarette, he is really living on the edge here isn’t he!
Anyways, let’s digest this backhanded compliment for what it really is. Holmes begins with initial praise, “Really, Watson, you excel yourself”, it’s really kind coming from such an intellect. Immediately followed by his kind words, Holmes mentions that Watson underestimates his own abilities in comparison to that of what Holmes has achieved. Which, I don’t know why Holmes describes his achievements as “small”…he has literally solved murder cases. THEN, he uses a metaphor to continue his poetic compliment saying Watson is a “conductor of light”. Oh, how I would just be swoon if some guy had told me I am not luminous, but a conductor of light (0_o) . (Sorry I’m getting too sarcastic) . Anyways, Holmes claims that Watson doesn’t possess any genius himself, but instead has the ability to spark brilliance in others. The way I interpreted this was that Watson’s talents are more about facilitating Holme’s genius. The final expression of appreciation, Holmes “confesses” he is in Watson’s debt, which sets a tone of hesitation in acknowledging Watson’s good work before. I think Holmes is genuine in his praise, but he has poor choice of words, too many words, and doesn’t give Watson enough credit on the daily. That’s how you give someone a compliment without sounding like you’re giving them a compliment.
What I really think Holmes is trying to say here is, “Good job Watson, we work well together”.