Clueless: Deductive Reasoning and Sherlock Holmes Pastiches
As a Sherlockian omnivore, one who likes my The Great Mouse Detective and Basil Rathbone fighting Nazis and House, M. D. all piled together like a heap of Thanksgiving dinner sides, I was avidly looking forward to the fourth season of BBC’s Sherlock. This isn’t meant to be a review, so I’ll save the majority of my critique of those three episodes for elsewhere. There were high points and lo, there were lows. But after watching it, and finding a good percentage of the plotting about as sensible as a feline in a catnip packaging facility, I started reflecting on how very difficult writing Holmes’s “deductions”—at least, writing reasonable deductions—can in fact be.
All power to show creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for giving us a meth-fueled carnival ride of a fourth series, one that challenged my perceptions of what the show was and occasionally even made me question if I was actually trapped inside a particularly vivid pizza dream. They have a tendency, however, to throw special effects at the screen when “clues” might fail to withstand scrutiny, and unfortunately the plodding writer of prose doesn’t get to wow the reader with computer-generated folderol whenever the soil samples don’t hold up. Over the course of the last eight years, I’ve written 15 Sherlock Holmes pastiches for the Strand Magazine and other publications, which are now being published in a collection titled The Whole Art of Detection: Lost Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes. Now that I squint at the volume? That’s a lot of clues. Historical clues at that—Victorian sleight of hand designed to convince the reader that my Holmes is the real Holmes, that he can read entire histories in a man’s manicured pinky toe, or the lint clinging to the humble flower girl’s faint moustache.
It’s not that I’m annoyed at BBC’s Sherlock for skipping some of the gristly bits of writing detective work. They can present their adventures however they like, which is seemingly with disembodied set pieces hovering before Sherlock’s eyes, and with questionable CG firewalls. (Doubtless next season will feature a lizard army, an Elton John guest appearance, and a steampunk Jim Moriarty android—and I’m OK with that.) It’s just that it’s hard to come up with logical inferences, and I’ve been doing it long enough to know that you can spend upwards of an hour staring at your laptop screen and tapping your front teeth in bafflement, a parade of tarnished watch chains, dirtied boots, mismatched gloves, calloused thumbs, and unpolished spectacles parading before your eyes—any of which could mean literally anything, depending on how the author needs to manipulate the information Holmes will glean from the data.
Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t bat a hundred when it came to the Great Detective’s intuitive leaps. Take the classic scene in which Holmes studies a lost hat in “The Blue Carbuncle.” Sure, it’s perfectly fair for Holmes to say that the owner doesn’t have gas laid on in his house because the felt has too many tallow stains on it; it’s equally logical to surmise that traces of lime cream and snipped ends indicate his choice of pomade and the fact that he’s recently had a haircut. But Holmes goes on to deduce that because the man had a serious pumpkin of a noggin, he is intellectual (it’s not the size that counts—it’s how you use it), and that because his hat isn’t brushed, his wife has ceased to love him. Apparently either Holmes has never so much as heard of a woman who eschews housekeeping, or he’s ignoring that she may be abroad, or tending a sick relative, or simply has cataracts.
I’m absolutely certain that over the course of some 120,000 words’ worth of Sherlock Holmes adventures, I’ve fallen on my face plenty of times. (To the reader who identifies these highly unscientific moments: please just pour another brandy and carry straight on.) Other displays of Holmesian brilliance still seem successful years later. For instance, I am rather proud of an interlude in “The Beggar’s Feast” during which Holmes makes a string of deductions based on the fact that an anonymous man admitted to Bart’s hospital in the wake of an assault is not wearing his own clothing. The logic seems to me sound, and the circumstances peculiar enough to merit Holmes’s notice. On the other hand, like Doyle, I occasionally threw up my hands and resorted to inventing non-existent poisons and deadly animal species. Touché, Moffat and Gatiss. Apparently fake biological discoveries are my version of flashy dolly shots.
Of course, none of this is to say that my way of approaching Sherlock Holmes is the “right” one, or indeed that any such true path exists. I’ll happily sit down to watch Robert Downey Jr. parade around in bloomers and cornflower blue eyeshadow, or watch subtle character studies morph into the hunt for the Loch Ness monster in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. But there’s something rewarding about actually developing an inference that holds water. It may not be as satisfying as exploring the beautiful relationship between Holmes and his Boswell, or channeling the atmosphere of the Victorian gothic. It’s a small, keen pleasure, however, to work out what it means to Holmes when a client’s trousers have been recently hemmed, and one I look forward to experiencing on many future occasions.