Sherlock & The Art of Deduction


Do you consider yourself an artist? Many of us have spent at least some time doing something we could consider art. Now whether that art was good or not, largely has to do with how much time we spent on the project and how much skill we acquire honing our skills.

I have spent about 10 minutes coming up with a definition for what an artist is and I think it's pretty okay. Hopefully it can enlighten our thinking of what an artist is. An artist is any person that expresses themselves through various mediums, (Music, Art, Dance, Etc...) with the intention of creating a moment of intrigue and wonder. Obviously, I'm no "artist" when it comes to making definitions, but we get the idea. With this definition, an artist can be virtually any person using any medium.

In my mind, no story like the The Valley of Fear, portrays Holmes as an artist in such an obvious way. Watson says, "Holmes had the impersonal joy of the true artist in his better work, even as he mourned darkly when it fell below the high level to which he aspired; he truly embodied the the concept of an artist. If you haven't read it, it's a pretty good story and shows Holmes at his finest.

I never used to understand why Holmes would wait until the end of the story to share his findings with everyone. Why doesn't he just tell us what he knows? Why can't he share his insights or clues with us? Of course, good story telling is one of the hallmarks of Conan Doyle and he knows how to spin his craft, but from the perspective of Holmes, why should he wait to tell us his beliefs?

The Best Laid Plans And All That

I remember this time I was with some friends and we decided to go get something to eat from a restaurant. We spent something like thirty minutes deliberating about, where we should go, why we should go, and how we should get there. The most frustrating part about it, was I felt that some of the best choices were overlooked to accommodate the tastes of the entire group. Have you ever been in this situation?

In the end, I offered up three locations for us to eat and none of them were accepted. I didn't care in the end what we did as long as we got something, anything to eat. This very trivial scenario, is sort of what I imagine how Holmes must feel is the reason he didn't share his plans with others. Let me explain.

In the story of The Valley of Fear, Holmes is on the hunt for a supposed murderer. He collaborates with the very competent inspector MacDonald of Scotland Yard. However, the collaboration leaves "Mr. Mac." pretty upset with Holmes.

To anyone unfamiliar, Holmes is always about four steps ahead of everyone else, he will hint at ideas that would lead to the right conclusion, but never enough to give the solution away. In a way, he sort of wants the glory of the hunt to be his. Inspector MacDonald exclaims, “You are holding something back. It’s hardly fair of you, Mr. Holmes.” Needless to say, the inspector was annoyed.

Holmes - “You know my methods of work, Mr. Mac. But I will hold it back for the shortest time possible. I only wish to verify my details in one way, which can very readily be done, and then I make my bow and return to London, leaving my results entirely at your service. I owe you too much to act otherwise; for in all my experience I cannot recall any more singular and interesting study.”

Yes, Holmes holds back his telling information about a missing dumbbell and how that plays into the crime. Yet he remains cryptic until the last. Two inspectors, Watson and Holmes are in for a potentially long vigil as the trap that Holmes has set is in the works. There is nothing to do but to wait for the culprit to show up. But this is where Holmes lets us know his true nature.

Holmes laughed. “Watson insists that I am the dramatist in real life,” said he. “Some touch of the artist wells up within me, and calls insistently for a well-staged performance. Surely our profession, Mr. Mac, would be a drab and sordid one if we did not sometimes set the scene so as to glorify our results. The blunt accusation, the brutal tap upon the shoulder—what can one make of such a denouement ´ ? But the quick inference, the subtle trap, the clever forecast of coming events, the triumphant vindication of bold theories—are these not the pride and the justification of our life’s work? At the present moment you thrill with the glamour of the situation and the anticipation of the hunt. Where would be that thrill if I had been as definite as a timetable? I only ask a little patience, Mr. Mac, and all will be clear to you.”

(The Valley of Fear)

The Art of Deduction

Remember that definition we went over at the start of the post? Holmes is a true artist within his mind and I think that we can give him that. He sets the stage and the scenes for his investigations to reach their climaxes like the director of a play. This is what fascinates us about his investigation work. As we see in other stories, once he reveals his deductions, they don't seem nearly as impressive.

I think this is one of the reasons that Holmes waits to reveal his findings. He genuinely wants to play out the the adventure to the end. This is his highest art and we love it. Like an artist, Holmes has to hone his skills and perfect his craft. This is no easy feat. Most artists will spend years working on their skills and Holmes is no different. Each case brings him closer to realizing his art at its highest form.

Additionally, like my fumbled attempt at suggesting a potential meal spot, I think Holmes chooses to withhold his conclusions in fear that his plans will be botched by an incompetent second party. He wants complete direction and control of the narrative of events until there is no more reason for his presence. As he says, "I only wish to verify my details in one way...and then I make my bow and return to London, leaving my results entirely at your service."

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