Welcome dear reader. Allow me to deduce a few things about yourself. You are a computer user, not rich but getting by, somewhat educated, enjoy literature, can use a search engine, have some free time, watch public television, like a mystery, are somewhat bored, had coffee for breakfast, have a favorite chair, a fireplace – or wish that you did, and are considering what book to read next. Oh, and you might want to let the dog out as it has been a while…
“How did I do that” you ask? It was elementary.
This is a brief testament to the time-honored fictional character Sherlock Holmes. For over a century, he has captured the imaginations of millions of readers. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character from 19th Century London first appeared in 1887 and continues to sell and to be discussed at length by fans all across the world. Radio plays from the golden age of radio, early film adaptations, a public television series, several more modern television series, free eBooks, and a recent Hollywood movie about the sleuth have all combined to keep this character alive in the public imagination. We crave a good mystery and Doyle has served them up in grand style.
The Holmes stories are fascinating for many reasons, and on many levels. The simplest reason is that they are just plain fun to read. They are stories in their purest form without wasted words or overtly political or nationalistic themes. They also tend to be on the brief side. You can enjoy several adventures in one sitting and even the novels can be digested within a night or two – or perhaps in one exciting all nighter as may be the case when you dig into the lengthier Hound of The Baskervilles, or A Study In Scarlet.
Conan Doyle created a winning formula with the Sherlock Holmes series. Many of the stories begin with Holmes and Watson discussing some obscure scientific or social issue or Holmes lamenting the banality or unimaginative nature of recent crime activity in London. Soon a visitor arrives either expected or not. The visitor seeks help from Holmes because he or she has heard of the detective’s reputation or perhaps has some reason they would rather avoid going to the police. Something in this interview always sparks the detective’s curiosity and shakes him out of his doldrums.
At some point either before during or after the visitors’ arrival, Holmes will deduce some arcane facts about the person’s occupation, status, or personal history. He makes specific observations on the person’s clothing, demeanor, habit of speech or some other feature in order to gain general knowledge about the person that may help him in his case. The following is an example from “The Red Headed League.” Holmes has just challenged Watson to deduce what he could from the gentlemen in their study.
After a couple of minutes with his new visitor Holmes says: “Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labor, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he had done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.”
When questioned by the man (Mr. Jabez Wilson) as to how Holmes could possible know these things, Holmes replied: “…your right hand is quite a size larger than your left. You have worked with it, and the muscles are more developed.” And then, regarding the Freemasonry: “I won’t insult your intelligence by telling you how I read that, especially as, rather against the strict rules of your order you use an arc-and-compass-breastpin.” When asked how Holmes knew he did a considerable amount of writing, Holmes responded, “What else can be indicated by that right cuff so very shiny for five inches, and the left one with the smooth patch near the elbow where you rest it upon the desk?” And lastly, concerning the fact that Holmes knew he had been in China: “The fish that you have tattooed immediately above your right wrist could only have been done in China….That trick of staining the fishes’ scales of a delicate pink is quite peculiar to China.”
This is one small example. Holmes does this in nearly every story; so the reader expects it and looks forward to it. It is a technique used by Conan Doyle to accentuate the fact that Holmes, as he himself states often in the stories, is really doing nothing so unusual. It is perhaps more strange that other people don’t apply these simple powers of reasoning more often in their daily encounters with each other. He makes the reader think there is nothing to it.
The investigations then play themselves out in spectacular detail and often with heart stopping action and gripping suspense. In the end there is a summary of how the case was solved in the event there was any confusion as to exactly how Holmes deduced the how, what, when, where and why of the crime or mystery.
Another aspect of the Holmes stories is that they always manage to capture the mood and the atmosphere of 1870’s London. There is the study and the many scientific articles in it, the multiple daily newspapers, the twice daily mail delivery, the telegrams, the horse and carriage cabs, the train, the gaslights, the quill pens, the crowded alleys, the fog, the mist, the tobacco in pipes and cigarettes, the sealing wax, you get the idea. The stories are drenched in the costumes, technologies and objects of the day in such a way that you are transported in time. Holmes will often disguise himself and head out into the streets to gather information. When he does, the reader is treated to some amazing descriptions of London’s dark and dangerous backstreets.
Our lives are filled with more mundane mysteries. Where did that other sock go? Where could I have left those keys? How did that vase break when nobody has been in the house? How did the remote get into the refrigerator? We don’t usually pursue these because they are insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But reading these stories may just inspire you to take a fresh look at these things that puzzle you. You may start to apply the techniques in your daily life, at least for a few days after reading a story or two. They make you think that a mystery of any size could be solved with a properly careful examination of the facts.
Volumes could be written, and have been, about the appeal of the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon. This is merely one reader’s way of paying a simple tribute to the work. I hope you will be inspired to pick up a Holmes story from time to time and get lost in it. Pull up to that that fireplace, or the one you wish you had, and maybe light up a pipe. But before you get to comfortable, go let that dog out.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Red Headed League. Sherlock Holmes, Volumes I and II. Bantam Classics.