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From July 1999

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A Child’s First Detective Impulses: Sherlock’s Dog

By Brad Keefauver

To attempt to reverse-engineer the process by which an intelligent English lad became the world’s first and foremost consulting detective, a serious investigator must look beyond the myriad tricks and theatrical measures with which Sherlock Holmes so impressed his clients and fans. One must look at the core Holmes — to those very behaviors that the detective engaged in without a thought to his audience, to those things he did purely because they seemed to him the best way to do things. With that thought in mind, let us consider Sherlock Holmes at the scene of the crime:

“Sherlock Holmes was transformed when he was hot upon such a scent as this. Men who had only known the quiet thinker and logician of Baker Street would have failed to recognize him. His face flushed and darkened. His brows were drawn into two hard black lines, while his eyes shone out from beneath them with a steely glitter. His face was bent downward, his shoulders bowed, his lips compressed, and the veins stood out like whipcord in his long, sinewy neck. His nostrils seemed to dilate with a purely animal lust for the chase, and his mind was so absolutely concentrated upon the matter before him that a question or remark fell unheeded upon his ears, or, at the most, only provoked a quick, impatient snarl in reply.”

This Watsonian description from “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” is one of the best keys available to understanding the genesis of the child that would one day become Sherlock Holmes. It is, very simply, Holmes acting as a hunting hound, hot on the scent of his prey . . . just as a child might do. Children love imitating their pets, and a boy and his dog can often be as close as brothers. With the bright lad that was Sherlock Holmes, however, I think the process may have gone one step further. I would even go so far as to say this:

Sherlock Holmes learned to be a detective from his dog.

It’s the only thing that makes sense, really. To become a Sherlock Holmes in adult life, one has to start developing detective skills at a very young age. And what other childhood companion could teach a youngster such skills? It’s not like the local constables encourage children to tag along on their beats. (And as should be obvious from their later run-ins with Holmes, what did they have to teach him anyway?)

But one can easily imagine a young Sherlock Holmes, studying his own pet, and asking his father or older brother, “What is puppy doing with his nose to the ground?”

The reply comes as something along the lines of “He’s picking up little bits of scent with his sensitive nose, and seeing from those traces what other creatures have been here before him.” But, unlike other children, who might have let that explanation go in one ear and shoot out the other, and then moved on, young Sherlock seems to have turned it over and over in his head as he spent time with his canine companion. He began to wonder how he, like his dog, could pick up little traces of other people’s passing and see who had been somewhere before him and what they had done. True, he didn’t have the dog’s sense of smell, but he did have keen eyes, nimble fingers, and a sharp brain at his disposal. A few simple and successful experiments would quickly confirm for the boy that he could use a dog’s methods as his own. Whether it was scouring the kitchen for clues to see what kind of pie was in the oven or checking brother Mycroft’s boots to see if he had gone fishing, young Sherlock Holmes would begin to see that his dog had a thing or two to teach him.

While brother Mycroft might have helped Sherlock hone his reasoning skills as he grew to manhood, playing observation games with him as they later did in “The Greek Interpreter,” observation games were just about all Mycroft was capable of. The elder Holmes brother was much too lethargic to have been much of a role model or decent companion to a being with the energies of Sherlock Holmes in child form. The younger Holmes would have dashed out of Mycroft’s ken in a second, never to be seen for the rest of the day. Having inherited his father’s energies, the independent youngster needed a companion who could race with him across the downs of Sussex in search of prey, and one as loyal and faithful as a certain doctor he would share adventures with in later life.

And all that adds up to one thing . . . a dog.

From behaviors like that written up in “Boscombe Valley,” I think we can see just where young Sherlock found his favorite childhood companion, as well as an origin-point for the detective career that was to follow. Sleuth-hounds were man’s first and best detective force, and even though he seemed to look down on all human competition, Sherlock Holmes did respect the canine practitioners of his art.

“I would rather have Toby’s help than that of the whole detective force of London,” he says of one particular dog in The Sign of the Four. And it’s certainly of some significance that Toby’s owner, an older man named Sherman, is the one of those unique individuals who calls Sherlock Holmes by his first name, indicating a relationship much closer than that of dog-borrower and dog-lender. In fact, it would seem to indicate that Sherman knew Sherlock as a lad, before formalities like “Mr. Holmes” would be expected. Add to that the way Sherlock compares Toby’s prowess to the detectives “of London,” which hints at a non-London origin for Toby, and you get the strong possibility that both Sherman and Toby were acquainted with young Sherlock during his Sussex days.

Now, I would not go so far as to suggest that Toby was actually the dog who showed Sherlock his detective destiny . . . the lifespans of our canine friends are not quite that long. But if Sherman was a close neighbor of the Holmeses and their Sussex villa, then perhaps Toby was a son, grandson, or nephew of Sherlock’s original pet. And when he needs a little extra help in The Sign of the Four, where does the great detective go?

Back to his roots.

And to the latest incarnation of the detective master who started him on the path he would walk the rest of his life . . . man’s best friend.

Sherlock’s dog.