‘Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant early example of a fictional detective.’
Starting with this extract, how far do you agree with this statement?
Doyle introduces Holmes to a curious readership in late-Victorian England in anticipation of his fictional descendants such as Poirot, Marple and Marlowe, all of whom possess unique characteristics that wholly set them apart from mere mortals. Within this extract and beyond there are numerous examples of Holmes’ brilliance, which make it impossible disagreeing with the declarative opinion.
In this extract, Watson challenging Holmes immediately informs the reader that his deductive powers of are of the highest order, since he, as his character innately demands, would relish any challenge from a lesser mind such as Watson’s; this is because Holmes is blessed with a superior mind and can discover clues where others would inevitably fail. It is how he goes about the business of deduction from observation and inference that makes him such a brilliant, enigmatic detective.
He states ‘I never guess’ because he is imbued with the gift of cold, hard logic, unlike Athelney Jones, who blunders foolishly into a crime scene, propounding preposterous theorises that lead nowhere. Holmes does not care about headlines or notoriety, yet he is singularly obsessed by an almost monomaniacal search for the truth. Any other approach involving guessing would destroy ‘logical faculty’ and leave mortals floundering.
His opening riposte to Watson, his trusted companion, amply demonstrates his arrogance and tendency to feast upon the scraps he is fed by Watson in the latter’s hope that he might, on occasion, fail to find the answer. The use of the personal pronouns ‘you’ and the possessive ‘my’ accentuate that Watson should follow his line of reasoning and exploration. This is swiftly followed by the juxtaposition of ‘small facts’ and ‘large inferences’, implying that Holmes only needs those few scraps of information to arrive at a swift and clear conclusion, leaving him in no doubt about the veracity of his findings.
He deduces, almost instantly, the ‘careless’ behaviour exhibited by Watson’s brother by paying particular attention to minor details on the watch, such as its ‘dinted…cut’ and ‘marked’ appearance; these seemingly inconsequential marks lead him to deduce a man’s entire character with little prior background information, thus swiftly enhancing his brilliance. We must remember that Holmes ‘rebels at stagnation’: his mind needs to be working at all times to enable him to deliver the truth. Thus, within moments, he has easily inferred that Watson’s brother is both careless and wealthy.
Watson’s differential response (‘I nodded’) emphasises how much he respects Holmes, even reveres him, and is prepared to accept his theories, almost without question, again reflecting the detective’s benign brilliance and coruscating powers of concentration. Watson is a dutiful pupil to Holmes’ subtly domineering master, who wilfully pursues the path not taken.
The remainder of the extract perfectly illustrates Holmes’s powers of deductive reasoning derived from a well-educated, exceedingly well-read mind that leaves no opportunity for a mistake to staunch his brilliance. He has prior knowledge (‘customary for pawnbrokers’), extreme attention to minor detail (‘numbers visible…on the inside of the case’) and the wave of these inferences, building to a crescendo. Here, he displays his almost indifferent approach to detective work with a throwaway remark –‘where is the mystery in all this?’ – that makes the whole process appear so straightforward, when he has employed the skills of a detective with both consummate intellect and the ease and grace of a tiger. To this end, it is not surprising that Doyle often depicts Holmes as an animal, since his natural senses and perceptions are heightened, with sight especially taking on a higher mantle and significance. He is like an animal too in the way he mercilessly pins down the evidence, grabs at the jugular of doubt and then squeezes out the truth with undisguised relish.
The brilliance of Holmes is readily revealed in the remainder of the novel. Whilst some could view his brilliance as a symptom of his sociopathic tendencies, he does manage to display some humanity and a wry sense of humour, especially when both he and Watson are on the trail of Bartholomew Sholto’s murderers and he decides to employ Toby, the cross-breed tracker dog, to find the provenance of the creosote footprint left at Pondicherry Lodge. The outcome is disappointing for Holmes but he makes light of it, since he can now start afresh and pursue a different avenue of deduction via the Aurora and interviewing of interesting local witnesses.
Prior to this the reader encounters his brilliance at Pondicherry Lodge before the loud, blustering arrival of Athelney Jones. In these private moments, when only Watson and him are present, he commands the setting, being described like a ‘bloodhound’, bird-like, with his nose close to the ground, picking up on fingerprints in the dust, constructing fact from theory in an instant.
His cool efficiency and unemotional candour serve him well and enhance his almost supernatural brilliance. He is inside himself, yet outside the strictures of society, exemplified by his addiction to cocaine and his seeming ability to stay in control. He is bored unless he is busy, so the cocaine transports him to a higher plane, sets him above Athelney Jones and affords him an almost transcendent status, followed by Watson, faithful and dependable; he is ably assisted by The Baker Street Irregulars, his band of urchins who willingly commit themselves to a worthy cause on his behalf without question.
In conclusion, it is Holmes’ unique status outside of the normal parameters of society that makes him so compelling a character and so brilliant a detective. He operates within his own private universe, from where he divines answers to theories that others struggle to comprehend. The reader and Sherlock’s fictional admirers are left in awe and grateful submission at his accomplishments. Thus he remains preternaturally brilliant, solitary yet inescapable,the master of his deductive domain.