The Dissecting Room . . . July 1987
Holmes's Other Methods
"I propose to devote my declining years to the composition of a textbook, which shall focus the whole art of detection into one volume," Sherlock Holmes told Dr. Watson during one of the detective's more prideful moments in ABBE. Filling one volume, or even three, with instructions on detection Baker Street style would pose little problem indeed for a man who devoted his entire life to its study. In fact, Holmes would most certainly be leaving things out of his magnum opus when he finally came to write it. True, he did say his textbook would gather "the whole art of detection" into one handy volume, but at that point Sherlock Holmes may have been caught in a little white lie.
True, Holmes's textbook will probably contain the "whole" of his observation and deduction techniques. It may also contain the "whole" art of disguise a la Holmes, the "whole" crimino-chemical arsenal he developed (including the Sherlock Holmes test for blood from STUD), and the "whole" scoop on tobacco ashes, footprints, bicycle tracks, bruised corpses, document analysis, silent dogs, pub-crawling, mud stains, poisons, personal ads, baritsu, housebreaking, logical synthesis, and so on, ad infinutum. What you can bet the book won't contain, however, are those detective methods that somehow never quite worked out as the master detective thought they should. As with any pioneer in any field, Sherlock Holmes had his share of failures -- not just with cases, but with methods as well.
Depend upon it-for every bright and shining child of the Holmesian intellect, like the observation method, there is also some much less effective, underdeveloped or malformed cousin of that method locked away in some remote tower of the detective's "brain-attic." Most of these discarded methods were developed by Holmes when he was younger and less experienced in his trade. The larger number of them were probably hidden away or forgotten long before he even met Dr. Watson. But at least one of these defective detective techniques crept out into the daylight, and even into Watson's first tale of Holmes.
"That's an art which every detective should be an expert at," Holmes remarked optimistically of a particular method he used in STUD. Yet in the remaining fifty-nine cases which Watson recorded, Holmes never once uses that "art" again. What was it?
Hopping on the back of four-wheeled cabs! Not quite as impressive as some of his other methods, is it? Holmes seems very proud of his own expertise at it, yet how hard could it be? Sure, his brother Mycroft may have had some problems with it, but climbing onto the back of a stopped cab was not something for which one had to develop an expertise. And what if the person you were following got into a hansom? Try climbing on the back of one of those and the driver will probably take a whip to you. Didn't London's constables try to stop people they saw mooching free rides on the back of four-wheelers?
Obviously, there were a lot of flaws in this method. The one time we see Holmes using it, cab-hopping fails miserably. When the cab Holmes is riding on in STUD pulls up to its destination, the passenger he was supposedly keeping tabs on is nowhere to be found. One would think a man as perceptive as Holmes would have noticed the cab's passenger leaving the moving cab, yet apparently Holmes was so busy clinging on for dear life he had little time to notice anything. So much for an art which every detective ought to be an expert at.
If Sherlock Holmes were running with the People magazine crowd of celebrities these days, we would no doubt see some of his cab-hopping demonstrated on some "blooper" TV show. The handy thing about the Victorian era, however, was that its limited media coverage made the mistakes and the little human areas of one's past a lot easier to cover up. And sometimes, that's for the best. We don't really need to know the whole art of detection as practiced by Sherlock Holmes over the course of his life, just as we don't really need to see what goes into the manufacture of hot dogs.
That's probably the reason we have yet to see the Master's textbook on detection. The editing is probably driving him crazy.
(Printed in Plugs & Dottles, July 1987)