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Elementary.

October 31, 2008, 2:51 pm

On this day in 1892, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was published. Shortly thereafter, the titular brilliant sleuth was pressganged by philosophers into service as Exemplary Non-existent Object. Regrettably, his skill at singlestick did not save him, and poor Dr. Watson was shanghai’d, too. They have served notably as stock examples of things that do not exist, of characters that exhibit contradictory properties (Dr. Watson’s war wound is described as first in his shoulder and then in his leg), and of instances of cases where what we know to be true about the real world complicates how we evaluate what is true according to the story (the speckled band is not a constrictor, and as such, could not have climbed down the rope to bite the victim.)

But leave that aside.

Sherlock Holmes first appeared in 1887 in A Study in Scarlet. His coldly analytic mind, novel “deductive” method, and incisive powers of observation won him fans worldwide. It made his author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, want to kill him. That’s perhaps a bit too strong (though there is a biography of Conan Doyle titled to that effect), but it’s a curious problem. Holmes would dominate Conan Doyle’s public reputation to his despair, but the character was too brilliant to be killed believably, and too profitable to be killed permanently.

Holmes’ creation was influenced by other detective fiction, and Conan Doyle memorably pays homage and chucks the chin of Holmes’ predecessors in the opening of a Study in Scarlet, shortly after Dr. Watson discovers what it is his new flatmate does to support himself:

“You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.”

Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his cigarette. “No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,” he observed. “Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.”

“Have you read Gaboriau’s works?” I asked. “Does Lecoq come up to your idea of a detective?”

Sherlock Holmes sniffed sardonically. “Lecoq was a miserable bungler,” he said, in an angry voice; “he had only one thing to recommend him, and that was his energy. That book made me positively ill. The question was how to identify an unknown prisoner. I could have done it in twenty-four hours. Lecoq took six months or so. It might be made a textbook for detectives to teach them what to avoid.”

Holmes, of course, has influenced everything from cartoon mice to misanthropic medical doctors. (Do not get me started on House. I could go all day.)

It is largely Holmes’ method, however, that I wish to discuss. It is not a deductive method, strictly speaking, but an inductive method, one highly dependent not just on powers of observation, but on a specialized set of knowledge. Sometimes the success of the method strains credulity, because the information one would need to know to make sense of the observation just so happens to be the sort of obscure thing on which Holmes has published a monograph. Conan Doyle was aware of this flaw, captured well in this anecdote:

A cabby, dropping him off, asked for a ticket to that night’s lecture instead of a fare.

”How on earth did you recognize me?” Doyle asked.

The cabman replied: ”If you will excuse me, your coat lapels are badly twisted downward, where they have been grasped by the pertinacious New York reporters. Your hair has the Quakerish cut of a Philadelphia barber, and your hat, battered at the brim in front, shows where you have tightly grasped it, in the struggle to stand your ground at a Chicago literary luncheon. Your right shoe has a large block of Buffalo mud just under the instep; the odor of a Utica cigar hangs about your clothing. . . . And, of course, the labels on your case give a full account of your recent travels — just below the brass plaque reading ‘Conan Doyle.’ ”

That said, sometimes Holmes’ method is just great:

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

So hot.

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