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Sherlock Holmes's Seven Vital Lessons

(Partial text only - see details via link below.)

By John C. Sherwood

assembled from Dr. John H. Watson's memoirs and remarks elsewhere

I'VE LONG SUSPECTED that many people began to read Dr. Watson's chronicles about Sherlock Holmes in an effort to discover the great detective's "secrets" to sound reasoning and successful crime detection. After all, that's what I did.

The difficulty is that, with that goal in mind, it's extremely time-consuming and somewhat exasperating to sort through many hundreds of thousands of words in four novel-length and 56 story-length chronicles, with all of their "non-instructive," even romantic aspects, along with their myriad personal characterizations and social portraits of late Victorian and Edwardian life. As Holmes himself told Watson, the chronicles certainly do not make up a "series of lectures" but rather a set of tales.

Learning, therefore, is hit and miss. How maddening it is to seek just the right phrases that teach!

You need fret no more on this issue. The synopsis is at hand. The Rules that follow comprise just 144 words -- a Baker Street dozen dozen.

The Sherlockian Canon can and should be read for their many nuances, but what follows here is an attempt to distill the chief points from several of the great detective's 19th century cases. Admittedly, one of these rules is not quoted from the Canon (although it is easily inferred), but is taken instead from practical instructions made repeatedly during Holmes's 100 visits to The Victorian Villa Inn from 1987 through 1999, his last visit having occurred a few months after his 145th birthday.

This point is made largely because it was at the Villa that Holmes applied the seven specific lessons that follow, referring to them repeatedly and pointedly, in an effort to assist some 2,000 individuals over a period of a dozen years to achieve a greater understanding of his methods.
For that reason, we believe that the points made below are the most practical and useful that Holmes has offered, as set down by Dr. Watson and as stated at the Villa. There certainly are many other useful points of instruction, but none so basic as these -- and the success of the Villa's guests in solving a variety of criminal cases suggests that this is true.

There is no discussion here of Holmes's vast knowledge of criminal history and sensational literature, his application of specific sciences such as chemistry and anatomy, his access to peculiar research materials and informants, or his skills in memorization, disguise, languages or psychological manipulation.
We have not included the various instructive but rather specific statements for which Holmes was justifiably famous (with the exception of his response to "The dog did nothing in the night-time": "That was the curious incident."). Instead, the list that follows is limited to statements that focus on the detective's overall attitude rather than his methods -- for Holmes himself appears to treat that attitude as supremely important.

Sherlock's Seven Vital Lessons: An Expansion

Rule One:
"One should always look for a possible alternative and provide against it. It is the first rule of criminal investigation."
[Quoted by Dr. Watson in "The Adventure of Black Peter," an investigation from 1895.]

Addenda: This axiom -- another way of saying "Don't put all your eggs in one basket" -- is stated as Holmes's "first rule" in actual conscious practice, but let's begin by noting that it is not stated outright until a full 14 years have passed in the active partnership of Holmes and Watson.

Immediately, we run up against a seeming contradiction. Holmes also is noted for saying that he follows "docilely" wherever the facts lead him (a point stated more clearly in Rule Two). But here we have Holmes stating that it is more important to consider provisional solutions -- and to back up your evidence for your foremost hypothesis. Theories are difficult things to juggle when one is told to beware of theories in the first place.

The way out of the maze lies in knowing that, before attempting to formulate hypotheses, it's wise to make one's self aware of the potential existence of multiple hypotheses, so that one eventually may choose one that fits most or all of the facts as they become known.

But there's a risk in this: One might become aware of a theory that, because of an internal inclination, one embraces before all the facts are in. Those who play favorites with an unsubstantiated theory are almost invariably unwilling to abandon it later. That's why Holmes also advises that one should set aside any and all prejudices when considering facts.

Students of Holmes's cases know that he disregarded this axiom himself in "The Adventure of the Yellow Face," a case that shamed him; but, then, it occurred in early 1888. From an analysis of this "first rule," therefore, we deduce that Holmes did not even recognize it as the "first rule" until ca. 1888 -- which explains why we don't find it stated until a case that occurs after that date. Apparently, Holmes learned a great deal from his miscalculation at Norbury.

Rule Two:
"I never guess. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts." [Derived from statements made during "The Sign of Four" and "A Scandal in Bohemia," both from 1888.]

Addenda: This observer was tempted at first to elevate this axiom to the status of the "first rule," had it not been for the fact that Holmes himself had specifically stated otherwise. Indeed, the "Whole Art of Detection" actually could be summarized with that opening sentence: "I never guess." These three words serve as a dynamic "mission statement" for the detective, attorney, police officer, judge, journalist, physician, paramedic -- indeed, for a host of other professions from which the public seeks and expects life-affirmation and, above all, accuracy.

But, as we know from Holmes's other comments, such logic is rare. Consider the next time you hear people preface their statements of "fact" with the words "I think ..." or "I suppose that ..." or "I believe ...". Each of these phrases is an admission of guilt: The speaker is guessing, assuming, leaping ahead of factual information and drawing inferences without providing evidence.

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