According to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, his fictional bloodhound Sherlock Holmes was a master of deduction. I beg to differ.
But first, a couple of drive-by swipes at Sir Arthur. For a start, he regularly commits what has come to be called the Holmesian fallacy.
An example from The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
This is fallacious reasoning because the human being doesn’t exist who could eliminate all possible alternatives. He or she would have to be a master of every conceivable field of knowledge.
But as Sir Arthur himself had earlier admitted (though apparently he forgot it), Holmes could never meet this standard. Here is Dr. Watson listing Holmes’ strengths and weaknesses, at the outset of their partnership.
1. Knowledge of Literature: Nil.
2. Philosophy: Nil.
3. Astronomy: Nil.
4. Politics: Feeble.
And so on. Holmes gets passing grades in botany and law, and top marks in chemistry, anatomy and sensational literature.
But it is evident that a man with such a limited field of vision could never determine with bulletproof logic whether a proposed solution must be impossible.
Moving on, Sir Arthur frequently relies on improbable coincidences — something for which any literary critic would pan him. So, for instance, in the Adventure of The Second Stain, when an important diplomatic paper has been stolen, Holmes lists three foreign agents who might have committed the theft.
“There are only these three capable of playing so bold a game — there are Oberstein, La Rothiere and Eduardo Lucas. I will see each of them.”
Dr. Watson: “Is that Eduardo Lucas of Godolphin Street?” Holmes, “Yes.” Watson, “You will not see him.” Holmes, “Why not?” Watson, “He was murdered in his house last night.” Case as good as solved.
However, let’s return to the main indictment, that Holmes was not the master of higher order logic Sir Arthur claims for him. Instead, Conan Doyle succeeds in his triumphant parade of Holmesian “deductions” by surreptitiously turning each divide in the road into a one-way street. He offers only a single route forward, when many others were available.
We’ll take The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor as an example. (Warning: Plot disclosures ahead.)
In this story, Lord Robert St. Simon has been deserted on his wedding day by the woman he just married. Sir Arthur sets about retailing Holmes’ investigation by dismissing, or burying, alternate theories that would have been just as viable.
The first instance arises when the newlywed bride drops her bouquet while walking down the aisle, and someone sitting in a nearby pew hands it back to her, with a note attached.
Holmes infers this must be the explanation of the bride’s decision to abandon St. Simon, because “she could not have spoken to anyone (else), for she had been in the company of the bridegroom.”
Sez who? Not the bride, as the details of her story emerge. Sir Arthur made this up to take other possibilities off the table.
So who is this mysterious churchgoer? Holmes deduces it must have been an American, since the bride hailed originally from the U.S., and “she had spent so short a time in this country that she could hardly have allowed anyone (else) to acquire so deep an influence over her.”
Really? Keep in mind this is the same Holmes who opined (of women), “Who can build on such quicksand. Their most trivial action may mean volumes, or their most extraordinary conduct may depend on a hairpin or curling tong.”
Another of Sir Arthur’s forgetful moments? (And he had more than his share. In his first story he has Watson, who was then serving on the North-West frontier, being “struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet”. In the next we read that Watson “sat nursing my wounded leg. I had a Jezail bullet through it some time before …”)
Then again, who exactly is this Yank? The bungling Inspector Lestrade inadvertently supplies the critical “clue,” when he gives Holmes a note which appears to implicate the bride’s lady in waiting.
Holmes scans the note, ignores the side presented to him (I know, I know, I can only deal with so much of this at one time), and reads the reverse side, which turns out to be a portion of a hotel bill. How convenient.
That side reads, “Oct. 4th, rooms 8s., breakfast 2s. 6d., lunch 2s. 6d., glass sherry, 8d. ( “s” standing for shillings, and “d” for pennies — in Latin, denarii.)
From this somewhat pricey bill, Holmes infers the writer of the note had stayed at an expensive hotel, and improbably, finds it at his second point of inquiry. The hotel’s guest register gives the name of our American.
Now there were, in those days as now, hundreds of hotels in the city, quite a few of them expensive (London was then the centre of the Empire.) That Holmes gets lucky at just his second try, beggars belief.
This is not deduction. It is the helping hand of a storyteller who, knowing where the trail ends, makes sure from the start that all paths lead in that direction.