The philosophy and practicality of deduction and induction

Often Sherlock Holmes would say to Watson, “You know my methods. Apply them.” But what are Sherlock Holmes’ methods?

It is obvious from any casual reading of the stories that he was well read in a variety of topics despite what Watson may have said from time to time, and he used that knowledge to great advantage. He kept meticulous records and references in several forms. Watson mentions his index of biographies in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House,’ the book (later several volumes) in which he daily filed the agony columns (the modern reader might know them as personal classified advertisements) of the daily London newspapers, a set of American Encyclopedias in ‘The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips,’ the Continental Gazetteer in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia.’

In one memorable exposition from ‘A Study in Scarlet,’ he says the following regarding knowledge: “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilled workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

Holmes’ philosophy came out in several instances. The most common axiom he used to explain his methods is: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” It is used in five separate places: twice in ‘The Sign of Four,’ ‘The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet,’ ‘The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,’ and ‘The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier.’ Another precept that Holmes employed often is this: “It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” Or the similar quote, “Data! data! data! I can’t make bricks without clay.” Often, when describing the facts of a case, he would mention one or more cases from his vast memory of crime that were similar to the current one. On one such occasion in ‘A Study in Scarlet,’ Holmes remarks, “There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.”

His ultimate goal is to discover the proper starting point, to grasp the important facts, ignore the unimportant ones, and work out the most likely chain of events. This topic could become a textbook, but I could hardly expect to encompass it in this space. Until that epic tome is published, this brief glimpse into the mind of Sherlock Holmes will have to suffice.

NEXT WEEK: Codes and ciphers

Woolly Wordings 4

In ‘A Scandal inBohemia,’ Watson writes of Sherlock Holmes: “His manner was not effusive.  It seldom was; but he was glad, I think, to see me.  With hardly a word spoken, but with a kindly eye, he waved me to an arm-chair, threw across his case of cigars, and indicated a spirit case and a gasogene in the corner.”  Then again, in ‘The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,’ Holmes says, “The gasogene and cigars are in the old place.”  In ‘The Adventure of Black Peter,’ Peter Carey had a tantalus in his cabin.  You might ask: What are the gasogene, spirit case, and tantalus mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes stories?

In Victorian England, there were no carbonated beverages sold in stores.  A container for sustaining carbonation was not a commonality at the time if it even existed at all.  The gasogene (sometime referred to as a seltzogene) was a, usually glass, container designed to hold the carbonated liquid created by adding sodium bicarbonate (aka baking soda) and tartaric acid to the fluid inside.  The spirit case is simply a cabinet to store liquor while a tantalus is nothing more than a locked spirit case.

NEXT WEEK: The philosophy and practicality of deduction and induction.

The Housekeeper

In the Sherlock Holmes stories, one character remains in the background throughout, the long-suffering Mrs. Hudson.  She is fond of Holmes, and it was she who called Watson in to heal Holmes in ‘The Dying Detective.’

In ‘A Scandal in Bohemia,’ Sherlock Holmes states, “When Mrs. Turner has brought in the tray I will make it clear to you.”  In every other story the housekeeper, when named, is Mrs. Hudson.  This is, no doubt, an error on the part of Watson.  Or is it?

In ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery,’ we find John Turner who is a widower and the father Alice Turner.  Holmes appears to go far to protect the older Turner.  Could there be a connection between the Turners?

In ‘His Last Bow,’ Holmes and Watson have a trusted ally as the housekeeper for Von Bork named Martha.  Could this be the same Mrs. Hudson from so many of the earlier stories?  I am only throwing out ideas, so you can draw your own conclusions.

NEXT WEEK: Woolly Wordings 4

Woolly Wordings 3

Many of you may not know that there are two versions of the Sherlock Holmes stories.  The manuscripts were usually handwritten by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s secretary of forty years, Major Alfred Wood, or by others including the author himself.  After the publishing of the first two novels, most of the remaining manuscripts were edited and published in either a British or American magazine.  Then the document travelled to the other country, where it was edited again and placed in a magazine there.  On occasion this led to some interesting textual departures.

One such instance involved the short story ‘Silver Blaze,’ Sherlock Holmes begins his narrative to Watson with the following sentence from the Strand Magazine: “Silver Blaze,” said he, “is from the Isonomy stock, and holds as brilliant a record as his famous ancestor.”  Isonomy was a very real and famous horse at the time in Britain, but the American editors, failing to understand the connection, used the name Somomy.

In the short story ‘The Naval Treaty.’  As Sherlock Holmes is recounting his scuffle with Joseph Harrison in the Strand Magazine, he says, “He flew at me with his knife, I had to grass him twice, and got a cut over the knuckles, before I had the upper hand of him.”  Unfortunately, the American editors of Harper’s Magazine misunderstood the term “grass,” which simply means to put on the ground, and they changed the word to the rather awkward “grasp.”

NEXT: The housekeeper

The Un-ambitious Older Brother and other Relations

The reader is given few glimpses of Mycroft Holmes in his younger brother’s stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  In ‘The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter’ Sherlock says Mycroft “has an extraordinary faculty for figures, and audits the books in some of the Government departments,” but by the time of ‘The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans’ Sherlock trusts Watson enough to state “occasionally he is the British Government.”  It was Mycroft who drove Watson’s cab in ‘The Final Problem.’  Mycroft was the only person whom Sherlock voluntarily told that he was alive during his three year absence, so the trust must have been great between the siblings.

Mycroft Holmes remains an enigma though some inferences may be drawn from the sparse data we are given.  The word croft can be generally defined as a small area, and Mycroft certainly stayed “in his own circle.”  Mycroft was co-founder of the Diogenes club that is named after perhaps the best known cynic Greek philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope, which may provide some insight into the character of the man.

Other evidence that Sherlock Holmes has family comes from the fact that Vernet the French artist was the brother of his grandmother.  In ‘The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,’ Watson tells us that someone named Verner (perhaps a corruption of Vernet) had purchased his medical practice allowing him to return to live at 221B Baker Street.  Watson later learned that it was Holmes who had supplied the purchase price to his distant relative.  This wee keek into the lineage of Sherlock Holmes has been added to by many others, but these are the basic facts according to Conan Doyle.

NEXT WEEK: Woolly Wordings 3

The Text over the Fire

In his explanation at the end of ‘The Crooked Man,’ Henry Wood asserted the following:

“. . . at the sight of me he looked as I have never seen a man look before, and over he went with his head on the fender.  But he was dead before he fell.  I read death on his face as plain as I can read that text over the fire.  The bare sight of me was like a bullet through his guilty heart.”

I could not help but be reminded of the passage in the biblical book of Daniel in chapter five from which the phrase “The hand writing on the wall” is derived.  What do you suppose was written on Henry Wood’s wall?

NEXT WEEK: The unambitious older brother.

Sherlock Holmes’ Drug Use

The Sherlock Holmes stories are replete with references to drug use by the famous literary detective.  An important fact to note is that cocaine, morphine, and opium were legal in Victorian England, and it is possible Conan Doyle was using the character of Sherlock Holmes to protest against the use of these drugs.

Near the beginning of ‘A Study in Scarlet’ (circa 1881) before Watson and Holmes really knew each other Watson writes the following:

___“Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him; but now and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night.  On these occasions I have noticed such a dreamy, vacant expression in his eyes, that I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.”

‘The Sign of Four’ begins this way:

___Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case.  With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff.  For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks.  Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

___Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance, but custom had not reconciled my mind to it.  On the contrary, from day to day I had become more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly within me at the thought that I had lacked the courage to protest.  Again and again I had registered a vow that I should deliver my soul upon the subject; but there was that in the cool, nonchalant air of my companion which made him the last man with whom one would care to take anything approaching to a liberty.  His great powers, his masterly manner, and the experience which I had had of his many extraordinary qualities, all made me diffident and backward in crossing him.

___Yet upon that afternoon, whether it was the Beaune which I had taken with my lunch, or the additional exasperation produced by the extreme deliberation of his manner, I suddenly felt that I could hold out no longer.

___‘Which is it today,’ I asked, ‘morphine or cocaine?’

___He raised his eyes languidly from the old black-letter volume which he had opened.

___‘It is cocaine,’ he said, ‘a seven-per-cent. solution.  Would you care to try it?’

___‘No, indeed,’ I answered, brusquely.  ‘My constitution has not got over the Afghan campaign yet.  I cannot afford to throw any extra strain upon it.’

___He smiled at my vehemence.  ‘Perhaps you are right, Watson,’ he said.  ‘I suppose that its influence is physically a bad one.  I find it, however, so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment.’

___‘But consider!’ I said, earnestly.  ‘Count the cost!  Your brain may, as you say, be roused and excited, but it is a pathological and morbid process, which involves increased tissue-change, and may at last leave a permanent weakness.  You know, too, what a black reaction comes upon you.  Surely the game is hardly worth the candle.  Why should you, for a mere passing pleasure, risk the loss of those great powers with which you have been endowed?  Remember that I speak not only as one comrade to another, but as a medical man to one for whose constitution he is to some extent answerable.’

___He did not seem offended.  On the contrary, he put his finger-tips together, and leaned his elbows on the arms of his chair, like one who has a relish for conversation.

___‘My mind,’ he said, ‘rebels at stagnation.  Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere.  I can dispense then with artificial stimulants.  But I abhor the dull routine of existence.  I crave for mental exaltation.  That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.’

Towards the end of Chapter 1, we find this passage:

___‘In this case it certainly is so,’ I replied, after a little thought.  ‘The thing, however, is, as you say, of the simplest.  Would you think me impertinent if I were to put your theories to a more severe test?’

___‘On the contrary,’ he answered; ‘it would prevent me from taking a second dose of cocaine.  I should be delighted to look into any problem which you might submit to me.’

___‘It is as clear as daylight,’ I answered.  ‘I regret the injustice which I did you.  I should have had more faith in your marvellous faculty.  May I ask whether you have any professional inquiry on foot at present?’

___‘None.  Hence the cocaine.  I cannot live without brain-work.  What else is there to live for?’

The last paragraph of the story is: “ ‘For me,’ said Sherlock Holmes, ‘there still remains the cocaine-bottle.’  And he stretched his long, white hand up for it.”

In ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ we find: “. . . alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.” and “He had risen out of his drug-created dreams, and was hot upon the scent of some new problem.”

And again: “To me, who knew his every mood and habit, his attitude and manner told their own story.  He was at work again.  He had risen out of his drug-created dreams, and was hot upon the scent of some new problem.”

In ‘The Five Orange Pips’ Watson, erroneously, states he had included cocaine use in his written analysis of Holmes in ‘A Study in Scarlet.’

In ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ Holmes says: “I suppose, Watson,” said he, “that you imagine that I have added opium-smoking to cocaine injections and all the other little weaknesses on which you have favoured me with your medical views.”  It is fairly clear that Holmes is not using any stimulant at this time; however, his language indicates his use continued.

In ‘The Yellow Face’ Watson writes: “Save for the occasional use of cocaine he had no vices, and he only turned to the drug as a protest against the monotony of existence when cases were scanty and the papers uninteresting.”

By the time of ‘The Missing Three-Quarter’, which most scholars agree took place in 1897, Watson writes the following: “Things had indeed been very slow with us, and I had learned to dread such periods of inaction, for I knew by experience that my companion’s brain was so abnormally active that it was dangerous to leave it without material upon which to work.  For years I had gradually weaned him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career.  Now I knew that under ordinary conditions he no longer craved for this artificial stimulus; but I was well aware that the fiend was not dead, but sleeping; and I have known that the sleep was a light one and the waking near when in periods of idleness I have seen the drawn look upon Holmes’ ascetic face, and the brooding of his deep-set and inscrutable eyes.  Therefore I blessed this Mr. Overton, whoever he might be, since he had come with his enigmatic message to break that dangerous calm which brought more peril to my friend than all the storms of his tempestuous life.”

A telling of the drug use of Sherlock Holmes would not be complete without reference to an incident in ‘The Adventure of the Illustrious Client.’  Sir Leslie Oakshott, the famous surgeon, told Watson “Morphine has been injected [into Holmes] and quiet is essential, but an interview of a few minutes would not be absolutely forbidden.”  This was after Holmes was injured while fighting.

The reader is left to conclude from all of this that addiction was a very real possibility though, again, cocaine, morphine, and opium were legal drugs at that time.

NEXT WEEK: The text over the fire.