Andres O'Hara-Plotnik



Arthur Conan Doyle was a practicing physician when he published A Study in Scarlet in 1887, the first in the Sherlock Homes series. He had enrolled in medical school eleven years earlier, and since then had served as a ship’s doctor on voyages to the Arctic and to Africa.

Sherlock Homes is not a doctor, but a detective, self-taught in medicine. Watson first meets Holmes in a medical lab by a mutual acquaintance.

“A medical student, I suppose?” said I.

“No – I have no idea what he intends to go in for. I believe he is will up in anatomy, and he is a first-class chemist; but, as far as I know, he has never taken out any systematic medical classes. His studies are very desultory and eccentric, but he has amassed a lot of out-of-the-way knowledge which would astonish his professors.”

Doyle abandoned his medical practice four years later to advance his writing career. He created a protagonist who skipped medical school altogether and taught himself everything he wanted to know. Yet Homes is not the model for liberal studies, but instead is brutally utilitarian in his thinking. Watson learns about Homes’ study habits early in the story.

“You see,” he explained. “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that comes across, so that knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he as a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out of the useful ones.”

This idea is now becoming quite popular.

But imagine a character who believes that every piece of information encountered he either uses or discards. It is a curious trait for a character created by a doctor, who would not use the years of medical training to practice medicine, but to write stories.

Homes has great faith in science as a way to detect guilt and innocence. When he meets Watson, he is devising a test that identifies blood on clothes more than a few hours old. Naively, he believes that this will administer justice fairly, or at least catch criminals who go unprosecuted. He does not seem to be interested in the reverse: innocent people behind bars. Yet unlike Homes, Doyle, later in life, spoke out against two wrongfully accused men.

On the way to their first case, Homes tells Watson

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgement.”

Homes believes that, just like the contents of his mind, he can understand an entirety of a criminal case. He knows when he has all of the data, and make pronouncements with absolute certainty.

“You can take him to the mortuary now,” he said. “There is nothing more to be learned.”

Watson buys into Homes’ certainty.

I had begun to realize, that Sherlock Homes’s smallest actions were all directed towards some definite and practical end.

There is a mystique in someone who believes that he can come into a situation and learn all there is to know. It is a common trait among detective stories, but a curious one nonetheless: that truth is just a thorough collection of facts.


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This entry was posted on December 11, 2012 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , .
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