…. you have given prominence not so much to the many cause célèbre and sensational trials in which I have figured, but rather to those incidents which may have been trivial in themselves, but which have given room for those faculties of deduction and logical synthesis which I have made my special provinces. —Sherlock Holmes speaking to his chronicler and friend Dr James Watson
By Roger Childs
The prince of detectives
Lockdown was a good time to sort out our books and as a result of the tidy up we have 80+ volumes for the Waikanae Book Fair in mid-October. A bonus from the exercise was the rediscovery of a volume of 24 Sherlock Holmes stories which I’ve now re-read and enjoyed immensely.
The famous English sleuth of Victorian times has spawned a legion of private detectives with one of the newer ones being Robert Galbraith’s (a k a J.K. Rowing) impressive Cormoran Strike – an amputee from action in Afghanistan. Coincidentally Holmes’ sidekick, Dr Watson, was also wounded in that country during the late 19th century.
Sherlock Holmes was the creation of Scotsman Arthur Conan Doyle and has been the subject of a huge number of films, plays and television programs, including an excellent Netflix series. He has been played by over 300 actors! from Peter Cushing to Benedict Cumberbatch.
In recent times one of the most interesting portrayals was in Mr Holmes where the incomparable Ian McKellen played the super-sleuth as an old man. Needless to say, although he has memory lapses, he still solves a few cases!
The remarkable author
He liked writing stories from a young age and his first Sherlock Holmes / Dr Watson story appeared in a magazine in 1888. They became very popular on both sides of the Atlantic and ultimately around the world. In 1891 he almost died of influenza but fortunately for the literary world and his legion of fans he recovered and lived for another 39 years. He was twice married and had three children. Sadly he lost his first wife to tuberculosis.
He was knighted in 1902 for his service in the Boer War, however it was rumoured that the King recommended it because he was an ardent Sherlock Holmes fan! He travelled widely and used these experiences and the places he visited in many of his stories. When he died in 1930 he left a literary legacy of close to 200 works including 60 Sherlock Holmes stories.
What do we know of Sherlock Holmes?
In the stories narrated by Dr Watson, the background, education, interests and methods of the greatest fictional private detective is the history of literature can be gleaned. At school he was a loner and only had one close friend, however at university he was more gregarious and developed a reputation for being able to sort out mysteries and analyse people on the basis of his keen observation and logical deduction.
He was a useful boxer and fencer, but was not a great fan of exercises or the countryside. However he was strong and once after an angry visitor bent his poker out of shape Holmes straightened it himself. (See The Speckled Band.) He enjoyed smoking a pipe and cigars and occasionally cocaine, and had a detailed understanding of tobaccos and pipes. At university he studied the sciences and at his lodgings in Baker St in London he frequently carried out
experiments. He has a prodigious knowledge of current affairs and history, and avidly read the papers every day.
He is best known of course for his ability to solve mysteries which had often baffled the police and they frequently consulted him. Publicity in the media enhanced his reputation and people often came to him to seek help and advice on seemingly insoluble problems. He often startled them by telling them their background, occupation, mode of transport getting to Baker St etc. on the basis of his keen observation and attention to detail.
His modus operandi was based on:-
First listening intently to the stories clients told him absorbing all the detail.
Asking questions to seek additional information.
Thinking deeply over what he had learnt.
Looking carefully at any material that was available like letters and other items of evidence, however trivial they might seem.
Visiting the scene of the crime, usually with Dr Watson in tow, where he looked very carefully for footprints and items that might have been missed by the police.
Questioning witnesses thoroughly as he built a theory of what had happened.
Gathering information from newspapers and official sources to build a case for solving the crime or issue.
Being a master of disguise, which was invaluable on occasions when he needed to gain the confidence of key figures involved.
Using his powers of deduction and logical analysis to work out what had happened.
He was not infallible and conceded that he had been “beaten” by two men and one woman (See “Scandal in Bohemia”). In one story — “The Yellow Face” — when his theory was wildly astray he said to Watson “…if it should ever strike you that I am getting over-confident in my powers … kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear.”
Despite having been written over 100 years ago the Holmes stories have lost none of their fascination and magic. Even though the writing is somewhat quaint in places, the tales which include a huge range of topics, settings and characters from royalty to the lower classes, always keep the reader guessing.