Having clarity of thought can be challenging. Why? Many of us recieve what seems to be countless sensory inputs. From the cooking of a nice meal, to the sound of people in a busy marketplace, our minds are constantly being bombarded with information that it has to process. Of course, there are other reasons that can contribute to our inability to focus. Regardless, finding clarity of thought provides us with a unique opportunity to apply some lessons from Sherlock Holmes. How does Sherlock focus his mental energies on the things that matter? How does he take an idea, in a sea of ideas and turn it into a salient one? How can we do the same in our thinking? Let's find out. In the story of the Speckled Band, Sherlock is confronted with a case that has a number of false leads. I think as a reader, we don't tend to be nearly as single minded in our analysis of what Holmes is given. That is, we don't pay as much attention as we should. Holmes always seems ever alert to opportunities to gather information and to make deductions. Let's read.
“Good-morning, madam,” said Holmes cheerily. “My name is Sherlock Holmes. This is my intimate friend and associate, Dr. Watson, before whom you can speak as freely as before myself. Ha! I am glad to see that Mrs. Hudson has had the good sense to light the fire. Pray draw up to it, and I shall order you a cup of hot coffee, for I observe that you are shivering.”
“It is not cold which makes me shiver,” said the woman in a low voice, changing her seat as requested.
Let's stop there for a moment. When Holmes first sees Helen Stoner, he makes an observation. He offers her a cup of coffee and a seat by the fire. He has made a false deduction in this instance but we don't fault him for it. He sees a young woman shivering and assumes its because of the weather. Presumably the weather must have been cold outside for him to offer those amenities. But the point of this isn't to point out the fact that he made a mistaken deduction, but rather that he was ready to do so.
Most of the time, when we encounter new places or things, how ready are we to be observant and alert to the opportunities to make deductions? It's not an easy thing to walk into a room and deny yourself the pleasure of simply allowing yourself to experience the moment. But this is not what Holmes does. When he encounters new people and things, he looks for ways to be observant. The observation he makes about Helen shivering is just one of many thoughts and observations that he makes in the story, but we can draw a conclusion from this.
Holmes is either a natural observer or he has primed himself to be vigilant when he needs to be. We can take something away from this. If we want to be more vigilant ourselves, we don't have to be a natural observer. That is, we don't have to fall into the belief system that we aren't observant. We can actively engage ourselves to be ready to be more observant and ready to make deductions. Try this. For one week, BEFORE YOU ENTER A NEW SPACE, spend a moment and tell yourself to be ready to be more observant. Priming yourself to be ready to think is a great way to guarantee that it will happen.
Let's continue with the story.
“It is fear, Mr. Holmes. It is terror.” She raised her veil as she spoke, and we could see that she was indeed in a pitiable state of agitation, her face all drawn and grey, with restless frightened eyes, like those of some hunted animal. Her features and figure were those of a woman of thirty, but her hair was shot with premature grey, and her expression was weary and haggard. Sherlock Holmes ran her over with one of his quick, all-comprehensive glances.
“You must not fear,” said he soothingly, bending forward and patting her forearm. “We shall soon set matters right, I have no doubt. You have come in by train this morning, I see.”
“You know me, then?”
“No, but I observe the second half of a return ticket in the palm of your left glove. You must have started early, and yet you had a good drive in a dog-cart, along heavy roads, before you reached the station.”
The lady gave a violent start and stared in bewilderment at my companion.
“There is no mystery, my dear madam,” said he, smiling. “The left arm of your jacket is spattered with mud in no less than seven places. The marks are perfectly fresh. There is no vehicle save a dog-cart which throws up mud in that way, and then only when you sit on the left-hand side of the driver.”
It isn't really far fetched to think that Holmes makes such sharp analysis of her journey. Note that it isn't until after she removes her veil that Holmes takes time to glance her over with one of his "all-comprehensive glances".
I don't know if Conan Doyle intended this, but when Holmes first makes the observation about Helen shivering, it's sort of off the cuff. This of course, gives rise to a conclusion that is less than accurate. It's the sort of observation and conclusion that any one one of us could make. But now Holmes does something a little different. He re-focuses his attention to make a better deductions.
Now that he has redoubled his concentration, what is he focusing on? The idea is so simple it almost seems silly to contemplate. The question is this, "how did this person arrive here"? I don't know about you but I don't normally ask this question when I encounter someone. Also, I don't think other people are asking that question either. It's such a simplistic idea that it feels a bit wasteful considering it, but I think this is exactly what Holmes is doing when he focuses his attention.
We might take for granted how a person arrives at a destination, but it's a universal truth that if someone is in a location, they had to travel in some capacity to get there. So how did Helen arrive at 221B? Holmes points out some of the most obvious things first. To get to 221B she would have to walk to some degree and possibly take a train or some kind of wheeled vehicle. The presence of a ticket in her hand would have been a clear indication of a train ride because hansoms didn't distribute tickets. Additionally, the splatter pattern from the dog cart was distinctive enough for him to reach a conclusion about where it came from.
Thinking this way isn't always easy. We are often looking for social cues to help lubricate our conversations or are preemptively trying to figure out what people want as they interact with us. That's all well and good, but notice that Holmes deliberately takes a moment to do a meaningful once over of his client and capture some really insightful information. The thing we can take away from this is twofold.
The first thing we can take away from this is when we find ourselves engaging with others on a non analytical plane, we might have to refocus our attentions. We might do this by counting something or taking a step back and doubling down on our attention.
The second thing that we can do to be better at making deductions like Holmes is to be present to the idea that when we encounter any situation, certain absolutes exist. For example, if a person walks into a meeting with a cup of coffee, they must have gotten the coffee somewhere. Spend a moment thinking about where they could have gotten the coffee. It may have come from a breakroom, a coffee shop, or perhaps home. Regardless of where it came from, you should be alert to the opportunity to make a deduction that already has a lot of foundation built into it.
Try this- Next time you encounter a situation that doesn't allow you to really spend a lot of time to observe. Stop. Take a moment to do a quick observation check on the thing that you need to focus on. Don't spend to long focusing, just enough to capture 3 specific details about the person or the situation you are presented with. Then spend some time trying to flesh out what you have seen. Additionally, priming yourself to be alert to the need to focus and be observant before entering a space, can go a long way towards being more present when you need to be.
THE CASE PARTICULARS
As we advance the story, Holmes is told of a conniving man that has supposedly killed his daughter in law, Lulia, and is about to kill her twin sister, Helen Stoner. She explains,
“She died just two years ago, and it is of her death that I wish to speak to you. You can understand that, living the life which I have described, we were little likely to see anyone of our own age and position. We had, however, an aunt, my mother’s maiden sister, Miss Honoria Westphail, who lives near Harrow, and we were occasionally allowed to pay short visits at this lady’s house. Julia went there at Christmas two years ago, and met there a half-pay major of marines, to whom she became engaged. My stepfather learned of the engagement when my sister returned and offered no objection to the marriage; but within a fortnight of the day which had been fixed for the wedding, the terrible event occurred which has deprived me of my only companion.”
Sherlock Holmes had been leaning back in his chair with his eyes closed and his head sunk in a cushion, but he half opened his lids now and glanced across at his visitor.
“Pray be precise as to details,” said he.
“It is easy for me to be so, for every event of that dreadful time is seared into my memory. The manor-house is, as I have already said, very old, and only one wing is now inhabited. The bedrooms in this wing are on the ground floor, the sitting-rooms being in the central block of the buildings. Of these bedrooms the first is Dr. Roylott’s, the second my sister’s, and the third my own. There is no communication between them, but they all open out into the same corridor. Do I make myself plain?”
“The windows of the three rooms open out upon the lawn. That fatal night Dr. Roylott had gone to his room early, though we knew that he had not retired to rest, for my sister was troubled by the smell of the strong Indian cigars which it was his custom to smoke. She left her room, therefore, and came into mine, where she sat for some time, chatting about her approaching wedding. At eleven o’clock she rose to leave me, but she paused at the door and looked back.
“‘Tell me, Helen,’ said she, ‘have you ever heard anyone whistle in the dead of the night?’
“‘Never,’ said I.
“‘I suppose that you could not possibly whistle, yourself, in your sleep?’
“‘Certainly not. But why?’
“‘Because during the last few nights I have always, about three in the morning, heard a low, clear whistle. I am a light sleeper, and it has awakened me. I cannot tell where it came from—perhaps from the next room, perhaps from the lawn. I thought that I would just ask you whether you had heard it.’
“‘No, I have not. It must be those wretched gipsies in the plantation.’
“‘Very likely. And yet if it were on the lawn, I wonder that you did not hear it also.’
“‘Ah, but I sleep more heavily than you.’
“‘Well, it is of no great consequence, at any rate.’ She smiled back at me, closed my door, and a few moments later I heard her key turn in the lock.”
“Indeed,” said Holmes. “Was it your custom always to lock yourselves in at night?”
“I think that I mentioned to you that the Doctor kept a cheetah and a baboon. We had no feeling of security unless our doors were locked.”
“Quite so. Pray proceed with your statement.”
“I could not sleep that night. A vague feeling of impending misfortune impressed me. My sister and I, you will recollect, were twins, and you know how subtle are the links which bind two souls which are so closely allied. It was a wild night. The wind was howling outside, and the rain was beating and splashing against the windows. Suddenly, amid all the hubbub of the gale, there burst forth the wild scream of a terrified woman. I knew that it was my sister’s voice. I sprang from my bed, wrapped a shawl round me, and rushed into the corridor. As I opened my door I seemed to hear a low whistle, such as my sister described, and a few moments later a clanging sound, as if a mass of metal had fallen. As I ran down the passage, my sister’s door was unlocked, and revolved slowly upon its hinges. I stared at it horror-stricken, not knowing what was about to issue from it. By the light of the corridor-lamp I saw my sister appear at the opening, her face blanched with terror, her hands groping for help, her whole figure swaying to and fro like that of a drunkard. I ran to her and threw my arms round her, but at that moment her knees seemed to give way and she fell to the ground. She writhed as one who is in terrible pain, and her limbs were dreadfully convulsed. At first I thought that she had not recognised me, but as I bent over her she suddenly shrieked out in a voice which I shall never forget, ‘Oh, my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!’ There was something else which she would fain have said, and she stabbed with her finger into the air in the direction of the Doctor’s room, but a fresh convulsion seized her and choked her words. I rushed out, calling loudly for my stepfather, and I met him hastening from his room in his dressing-gown. When he reached my sister’s side she was unconscious, and though he poured brandy down her throat and sent for medical aid from the village, all efforts were in vain, for she slowly sank and died without having recovered her consciousness. Such was the dreadful end of my beloved sister.”
“One moment,” said Holmes, “are you sure about this whistle and metallic sound? Could you swear to it?”
“That was what the county coroner asked me at the inquiry. It is my strong impression that I heard it, and yet, among the crash of the gale and the creaking of an old house, I may possibly have been deceived.”
“Was your sister dressed?”
“No, she was in her night-dress. In her right hand was found the charred stump of a match, and in her left a match-box.”
“Showing that she had struck a light and looked about her when the alarm took place. That is important. And what conclusions did the coroner come to?”
“He investigated the case with great care, for Dr. Roylott’s conduct had long been notorious in the county, but he was unable to find any satisfactory cause of death. My evidence showed that the door had been fastened upon the inner side, and the windows were blocked by old-fashioned shutters with broad iron bars, which were secured every night. The walls were carefully sounded, and were shown to be quite solid all round, and the flooring was also thoroughly examined, with the same result. The chimney is wide, but is barred up by four large staples. It is certain, therefore, that my sister was quite alone when she met her end. Besides, there were no marks of any violence upon her.”
The first thing that alerts Holmes to take the case seriously is the motivation. I didn't include the section of the story that highlights that the stepdaughters are wealthy. When Dr. Roylott initially had an amicable relationship with his daughter in laws, but after his wife's death he descended into a lifestyle that became a source of great concern.
When Julia wanted to get married, her father in law didn't' seem to care. But within two weeks of the announcement she was dead. Holmes is instantly in tune with the idea that the death of Julia could be caused by murder.
The sisters knew that during the night, Dr. Roylott had not gone to sleep because they could smell the smoke of his cigars. This piece of information, we find out later, is what alerts Holmes to the idea that the rooms must be connected by some form of ventilation system.
The night that her sister died, Helen hears 3 small whistle sounds that awaken her from sleep. This sound is the precursor to the terrifying scream of her sister Julia. When she got to her room, she heard the whistle sound again and a clanging of a metal sound. Her sister meats her at the door, obviously in mortal danger, points to the Dr. Roylott's room and says, "the speckled band".
Holmes wants to confirm that her sister was in her nightgown. Why? What he wants to know, isn't to clear until later in the story but knowing if her sister was in bed alerts Holmes to the nature of the crime. He confirms this piece of information Helen tells him, "in her right hand was found the charred stump of a match, and in her left a match-box." This piece of information is very telling.
If we use our imagination a little, it's not hard to figure out what had occured before the young woman met her end. She had been in her bed as evidenced by the nightgown. We can say that comfortably because this is her bedroom and she had, like other nights, gone to her room for the night to sleep. A nightgown is the only appropriate sleeping attire for a young woman at this time, so we can conclude she was in bed.
But something had caused her to get out of bed. She had grabbed a box of matches used one. The sound that had woken Helen, occurred sometime before her sisters scream. It is likely that this woke up Julia as well. But the most telling thing is the matches. If something larger than a small rodent is in your room, what would you do? Likely, you would try to get out. Even if it was just a small rodent, you would likely leave. But what if you found something in your room that was so small that you couldn't readily identify it or it was so foreign that it would prevent you from exiting instantly? You would probably pull out a light to see what it is. That's exactly what Julia did. All of these things leads Holmes to the conclusion that something small must have been in her room. But what was it?
To get the answer to that, you will have to continue reading the story. But there are some really good takeaways we can get from even covering this much information. Holmes often extracts important information from what seems to be the trivial. The day to day things that we may dismiss seem to light up to him. Why is that? We can speculate on this question a lot but I don't know if it's simply that he is observant. I know plenty of people that are observant but don't notice important things. I think it generally comes back to his willingness to be on the lookout for things that don't make sense or are out of place. Additionally, because Holmes' work involves some level of problem solving he can approach a lot of his clients that way, as needing a problem solved.
I think the reason a lot of us don't think the way he does is because we don't approach things in life with this baseline framework. I don't drive my vehicle and think of the things that might be wrong or out of place with it unless there is something obviously wrong with it. I don't see a puzzle or a problem, so I might not register that I need to be on the lookout for something unique or special. It's not until I am asked to focus my attention a little bit more or make comparisons that I start to engage my inner Sherlock Holmes. To illustrate this concept, let's present an image of my vehicle for you to observe.
Compare the photo of the grey vehicle against the the blue one. Mine is the grey one. Don't read on until you have really looked at both photographs.
What differences did you catch? There probably weren't very many, besides the make, model, and colors. But the one thing that should have stood out was the mud caked onto my tires. If you didn't notice that, its okay. The point of this exercise wasn't to force you to be hyper observant, the purpose was to highlight the point that if I hadn't placed two vehicles next to each other and asked you to compare them, the mud on my tires might have been borderline useless. Often when we observe, the type of intention that we bring to the observation often has to do with objectives and comparisons. With little to no prompting our brain can of course see the same things it would have normally seen, but once we have a focus or goal, our ability to make inferences and deductions comes into play. This is what Holmes has primed his mind to do on que and I think we can do it to.
Try this - Tomorrow, spend some time making observations of things around you. Then think of the things that may not normally belong to those things you observe. In the example above, the mud on the tires were the thing that was out of place, even though mud can certainly be on car tires.
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