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The Art of Deduction from Sherlock Holmes

In one of those lazy hostel nights in 2004, as my repeated attempts to sleep were futile, I finally gave up and looked for diversion. By sheer good luck, my roommate just procured a copy of Complete Collection of Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (written by Arthur Canon Doyle) which was lying on the table while he was away at a friend’s room.

I started reading it at once and was so engrossed that I realized not when it had dawned.  The next day, I was back to reading it the moment I returned from college. Reading at furious pace, I completed it in 3 days. Never had a book influenced me more profoundly till I came across Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in 2009.

Sherlock Holmes is a precursor to Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot & our own desi Feluda created by none other than Satyajit Ray (yes the popular filmmaker). From then, many such characters have been created to satiate public thirst – but none comes remotely close to the eternal popularity of Sherlock Holmes. Interestingly, the character was inspired by a Dr. Joseph Bell (for whom Doyle had worked as a clerk), who had the faculty of drawing information of his clients from observations.

The Science of Deduction

With detective genre beaten to death by successive books, movies and TV serials, it’s hard to imagine an era when the idea of a consulting detective was brand new. When we first get introduced to the character Sherlock Holmes in “The Study in Scarlet” we share the perplexity of Dr. John Watson who is unable to figure out the profession of his new co-lodger.

When Watson begins to understand his profession and compares him with Auguste Dupin [perhaps the first detective known to literary world by Edgar Allan Poe the famous American author with a peculiar taste for the macabre] he scoffs at the suggestion and remarks that his methods are superior. Doyle perhaps wished to point Holmes’ egotism thus, instead they turned prophetic but he soon eclipsed the former completely.

The adventures as narrated by Dr. Watson make an interesting read for the plot is carefully revealed to sustain suspense (many suppressed details can be ascribed to Watson’s limitations) and the characterization of Holmes is brilliantly elevated (first-person narration would sound overtly egoistic, third-person narrative would struggle to hide details). The conservative Britain setting (a superpower when this was written) also gives us a glimpse into the behavior & etiquette of the British people. (Imagine “Whom do I have the honor of meeting?” instead of the flattened “Who’re you?”)

The methods used by Holmes are not magical, though his capabilities often appear superhuman. When he reveals how he arrived at his conclusions towards the end, we are compelled to admit that they were but a unique combination of encyclopedic knowledge about crime, infinite capacity to collect clues, keen observation and first-rate logical and reasoning skills with refined intuition hitting the target bang on.

Often Holmes deduces information about his clients which stumps them (a marketing tactic?) & his suave manner enables him to extract information diplomatically from a host of other related people. Though shown to be egoistic, cold, machine-like with a Spartan lifestyle, he reveals his kinder self in few stories by letting the aggressor go if he sympathizes with the motive.

Consider the wide range of cases he’s involved with: forensics, encryption, psychological observation, personality disorder problem alongside plenty of original ideas which were later extrapolated by others to greater extent.

It’s elementary my dear Watson!

Dr. Watson curiously always finds time to accompany Holmes (Doyle invents reasons such as low inflow of patients or his colleague taking over in his absence to reason his abundant free time). Though Holmes is portrayed as cold & a loner, he cares for Watson and certain occasions demonstrate his intimate affection for his associate. The comic portrayal of Watson is not supported in the original where he is a dignified Britishman, chivalrous friend and smart in several instances.

Most stories are very small and can be finished in a sitting – the exceptions are “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, “A Study in Scarlet”, “The Sign of Four” & “The Valley of Fear”. The Hound of the Baskervilles is a masterpiece and perhaps the best-known adventure of Sherlock Holmes. The curious mix of legend (a mythical hound) and reality make it all the more interesting and we’re left gasping for the next when the lead character affirms that he had indeed seen the footprints of a real hound at the place of a murder (this was presented in series in The Strand Magazine which reported skyrocketing of sales of the next print).

Holmes & Moriarty fall off the fall 
The only antagonist worth Holmes intellect is Professor Moriarty described as the Napoleon of Crime. In The Final Problem they meet and in a scuffle they both fall into the Reichenbach Falls marking the end of the illustrious career of the detective.

Hell, you don’t like this! So did the fans of Sherlock Holmes who protested against Doyle and pleaded with him to resurrect him. Doyle by then was no longer interested in Holmes and felt that he is occupying too much of his time which could be better utilized in other historical novels (Doyle had written many historical novels which he felt were his better products and turned to spirituality towards the fag end of his career – strange and unexpected from the creator of an ultra-rational character). But the fans were insistent and Doyle was forced to bring him back to life in the next series where Holmes re-appears and explains that he averted the fall and in order to escape from other enemies hot in pursuit he avoided public appearance and spent his time in seclusion in India & Tibet.

The Book Of My Life

My biggest takeaway from this series was that it sparked my passion to learn about fellow-humans and their motivations. In a typical Sherlockian style, I’ve endeavored to deduce more about my friends with a good deal of success. Related information is always handy and greatly builds our intuition power.

I dabble with astrology often, but significantly, my deductions are generally based on my observations about the smallest things about the people which reveal a lot about them. People seldom realize that their behavior showcases a lot about them – their silence divulges a lot more of information than their talk.

Though motivations dictate our actions, we can never be sure. It is therefore useless to quality people as good, bad or evil – what matters is their specific reaction to us. For eg, a fool with noble intentions may probably cause you more harm than an intelligent person who’s indifferent to you. The mental aptitude & capabilities are as important as character in real life.

People are like a black-box, we rarely understand what’s going on in their minds. But we can see the input (stimuli) to a person and gauge his response to it – this is a neat indicator of his mental processing. Hence, it’s clear that when we’re saying that we can read others, we’re merely examining a possibility based on the input & output.

Sometimes, we can explain the behavior perfectly on flawed premises. Sometimes, we may arrive at faulty conclusions resting on correct premises. But the key differentiator in this art is: Consistency. If a person is able to accurately explain away the behavior of others on a consistent basis, he in my opinion has perfected the art of deduction. The nicety/rudeness/goodness/evilness etc is afterall a subjective matter and totally irrelevant as long as there is perceived consistency in one’s behavior.


  1. I'm enjoying your bog from New York City. Let me know if you're on facebook?


  2. Nice one Madhav, interesting read. Recently I felt in awe with 'Sherlock' series of episodes which are truly one of the best thrillers I have had seen. I suggest you should have a look at them as well for your Sherlock blog part II :)

  3. Well written madhav... now, i understood the secret behind ur "sixth sense"

  4. R. Wright : Thanks. I'm reachable at my twitter id :


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