Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Complex Art of the Elementary

(Editor’s note: British crime writer James McCreet is the author of The Thieves’ Labyrinth, which January Magazine chose as one of its favorite mystery novels of 2011. Timed to this month’s release of the film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, he takes a fresh look at some of the more preposterous deductions made by Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories.)

There was always something slightly fishy about Sherlock Holmes’ remarkable deductions. As Doctor John Watson himself often said, they seem easy after they’ve been explained, but impossible without Holmes’ indulgent revelations. The impression is that if we could just learn to see like the Great Detective, we could emulate his powers.

In fact, Holmes’ skill lies not in his method but in the narrative structure of Arthur Conan Doyle’s now-famous stories. Like an illusionist, the writer asks us to look at the false hand (Watson) while the real hand (Doyle) is busy doing the “magic.” Of course, Edgar Allan Poe had set the template with his stories of the 1840s, but Conan Doyle can be said to have perfected the technique.

Watson, as the “false-hand” narrator, allows us to see only what he sees and therefore we are unable to read the clues without Holmes’ subsequent insight. To this extent, Watson often seems irredeemably dim. For example, in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” Watson sees only a “small dark fellow with his hat pushed back and several packages under his arm,” whereas Holmes (and brother Mycroft) see a heavily tanned man dressed all in mourning black, striding with authority, wearing artillery boots and carrying a child’s rattle. Is Watson blind?

Conan Doyle’s other prestidigitator’s trick sees the solutions dictate the facts rather than vice versa. This happens only in writing, never in reality. In “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” a dying man’s words, which sound like “a rat,” turn out to refer to a town in southeastern Australia: Ballarat. Why not “Ararat”? Or “Carat”? And why didn’t the dying man just say his killer’s name rather than the place he once saw him? Because the facts must fit the solution.

Conan Doyle was very careful to make his solutions air-tight. It’s clear in many stories that he has added minor reinforcements to dodgy solutions so that a pedant can’t get a hold on their shortcomings. However, there are lapses in logic as well as in narrative. Here are some of the zingers:

In “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League,” Holmes discerns that a pawnbroker used to be a manual worker because his right hand is “quite a size larger” than his left. Even if Holmes’ eyesight was so acute, would the man still retain such manual muscle development years after he was a ship’s carpenter? Also in this story, Holmes deduces that a man is digging a tunnel because the knees of his trousers are worn, wrinkled, and stained--yet, when the fellow emerges from his tunnel, his hand is described at “white, almost womanly.” Why the mismatch?

In “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” Holmes deduces that a cigar was cut with a blunt knife rather than bitten, because the cut was not clean. Might not a long fingernail have done it? Presumably the cigar was also pinched if the knife was blunt. Either way, the knife is immaterial to the solution as a whole. Holmes is just showing off.

In “The Five Orange Pips,” Holmes deduces that a visitor has come from Horsham, due to the distinctive chalk and clay mixture on his toecap--this, despite the man having walked from Waterloo Station to Baker Street in the pouring rain. Incidentally, when the fellow first rings the bell, Holmes fails utterly to guess who it might be, suggesting “some crony of the landlady’s.”

In “A Case of Identity,” the preposterous solution is that the con man is actually the female victim’s own father-in-law (with whom she lives) wearing a false beard and tinted glasses. She hasn’t noticed because she is short-sighted--not so short-sighted, however, that she wears her glasses when visiting Holmes.

In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” fresh mud splashed on a woman’s sleeve tells Holmes that she had ridden in a dog-cart earlier that morning. Couldn’t she have been splashed by any number of other vehicles as a pedestrian? And how was the mud still fresh after her train journey to London and her walk to Baker Street? Holmes’ encyclopedic knowledge of mud origins is not called upon here.

In “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” Holmes deduces that a lost top hat must belong to an intellectual because the head size is considerably bigger than his own, and that moisture inside shows the owner to be out of shape. Even taking into account the Victorian penchant for phrenology, these are unsafe assumptions.

Finally, in “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott,” Holmes notices a half-obliterated tattoo, “J.A.,” on a man’s inner elbow and deduces the initials represent an intimate associate best forgotten. In fact, it represents the man’s own true initials (his current name being pseudonymous). But why would anyone have their own initials tattooed on their arm ... except as an obvious narrative precursor to the revelation of identity?


The Passing Tramp said...

Interesting piece. Sherlock Holmes is a showman. Arthur Conan Doyle's contemporary, R. Austin Freemna, wrote his Dr. Thorndyke tales to show what true scientific detection and deduction was like. If you want sound deductions made from observation of a man's hat, read Freeman.

Still, Sherlock Holmes is a lot of fun and he captured the public imagination as only the very greatest literary characters have.

Fred Zackel said...

Sheerluck could identify 150 different perfumes ... and he was a chain-smoker. Uh-huh.

Jack Getze said...

I think you're too hard on Sherlock and Doyle. Your examples raise skepticism. For instance, I've smoked a few thousand cigars, been in the company of hundreds of cigar smokers, and not one of them trimmed a cigar with his or her fingernail. And while other criticisms ring truer, I have to wonder how any writer would ever want to criticize one of the greatest literary creations of all time. Sherlock Holmes is immortal. And his contributions to solving real crimes are well known and acknowledged.

The Passing Tramp said...

One of Holmes' deductions from the hat examination in "Blue Carbuncle" is that the man's wife doesn't love him! This is delightful writing, but it's what I mean by Holmes being a showman first. It's brilliant improv (and he knows the stage manager--i.e., author--will be there to back him up), but, like I said, if you want really scientifically sound deduction from a hat, read Austin Freeman. He's not as showy, but you can be sure the science is sound.

Still, I love Doyle's stories, wouldn't have missed them for the world growing up. Whatever logical flaws there my be in The Red-Headed League, for example, it's a fantastically memorable story.

Anonymous said...

Sherlock Holmes is amazing!