The Genius of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

M.J. Downing

Just recently, preparing for a mid-February “Zoom” meeting with “The Derby Rotten Scoundrels,” the Louisville Chapter of “Sisters in Crime,” I dedicated some time to studying the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in order to spell out some things I’d long seen in his writing. Truthfully, I have enjoyed the Sherlock ntHolmes stories nearly all my life. The first Holmes story I read. “The Red-Headed League,” came to me in the fifth grade at Guardian Angels parochial school. It wasn’t assigned reading, though I think the book might have been suggested to me by my teacher, Miss Hallie Bennet. She is worthy of a story or two, herself, which I’ll save for another day.

From that time forth, I sought out Sherlock Holmes wherever, whenever I could. He became a kind of superhero to me: true, honest, strong, and smarter than anyone else in the room. There wasn’t a case he couldn’t think his way through, no trail too complex for him to follow, a true bloodhound of a man. Those magnificent linear tales always satisfied me, even on those few occasions when Holmes was bested, or a criminal, through his own actions, went on “to face a higher magistrate,” dying by virtue of his own misadventures. Holmes was simply not often going to be bested.

Knowing I had no abilities of that kind, I suppose I identified with Watson, Holmes’s ‘Boswell,’ his speaker, advocate, friend, and most ardent fan. Always-faithful, courageous, solid, man of the world Watson earned my trust early on. I shared his enthusiasm for Holmes’s method, even after I could see how Doyle, as a writer, made him such a prodigy. However, seeing how the trick was done never turned me off of Doyle’s writing. I read Professor Challenger stories and a host of other works, finding then fascinating yet not as satisfying as the Holmes stories.

Any instruction in logic, though, will reveal that Holmes’s “scientific” method isn’t deduction, reasoning from generalizations to interpret specific details. It appears on the page as “inductive” reasoning, when we watch Holmes examine the specifics of a scene or person and arrive at a generalization. The trick, though, is that Doyle never lets him be wrong in his assertion that a crease in one’s shirt cuff always stems from the labor associated with a specific occupation. At best, Doyle arranges the details to create the correctness of Holmes’s “deduction.”

Take Jabez Wilson’s tattoo in “the Red Headed League.” We are told that its particular tinting is only done by tattoo artists in China, for Holmes, of course, has made a study of body art and contributed to the learned discussion of same. Holmes’s conclusion that Wilson spent time in the Orient is further corroborated by a Chinese coin appended to the man’s watch chain. Wonderful! Especially when Wilson agrees, causing Watson to marvel, once again, at Holmes’s prowess.

In that instance, we see not deductive reasoning as “abductive,” reasoning from a series of details a plausible explanation. Deductive reasoning produces a certainty that the conclusion is valid, hence the Science of Deduction. In a city the size and scope of London, could a tattoo artist have moved from the orient, bringing his skills with him to live and work in Soho, or more likely, Spitalfields, some modest corner of the East End? Certainly. The coin as a curiosity, could likely be found there, too. Its odd design could have a symbolic meaning to Wilson, who put it on his watch chain to remind him of something. See? There are many more possible explanations for the combination of the tattoo and the coin on the same person. All Doyle need do is set up the pairing and the ready agreement of the character as proof of Holmes’s genius.

Abduction, in the logical sense, is more like the work of a physician who “reads” symptoms and suggests treatment/ We may trust that our physician’s logic is sound, but we are encouraged to get a second opinion, as well. The genius behind this simple trick, though, is the reader’s conclusion that Holmes must know all he says he knows with infallible accuracy. He knows where, say, specific muds can ‘only’ come from in London, as well as the marks of all trades upon the people who practice them. Doyle chooses and casts the bait knowing exactly what the fish wants: to believe that there are people this heroic, this able, looking out for justice.

Trustworthy, loyal Watson is the lynch-pin of Doyle’s machinery in the Science of Deduction. He most often challenges Holmes’s observations and more importantly, extends his enthusiasm for what they represent. he is the first to catalogue Holmes faults and chides him for his flaws, smoking too much, using drugs, working to the point of exhaustion. Watson ins our trusted observer and credible speaker, challenging where he is unsure and marveling when Holmes is proved right. His hero worship often includes the understating of his own excitement, yet he is always faithful and just. Even Holmes complains that Watson’s written accounts of their cases, aside from pushing at the fourth wall, have too many embellishments. Holmes sees himself as a reasoning machine, and Watson often details the drastic effects that Holmes’s suppositions cause in him. If no9thing else, it is a genius method at work, designed to delight and amaze.

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