Saturday, September 22, 2018

Sherlock's greatest method

When rambling upon the topics of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlockians of late, it has become very hard not to let the occasional "political" comment slip in. And these days, when some folks would rather just avoid such matters all together, those sorts of things can cost one readers. But we're talking about Sherlock Holmes here, and I suspect that is the start of such problems.

Sherlock Holmes was not a man who accepted the status quo. Young Sherlock did not come out of college, walk into Tobias Gregson's office at Scotland Yard and go, "Teach me how you to emulate you, o' respected detective predecessor!" No, he looked at the work a detective does and went, "How can I do this in the best way possible?" And then he started trying things.

Sherlock Holmes took ideas from everywhere. Sherlock Holmes listened to doctors, whose point of view was definitely different from the Yard detectives of the time. Sherlock Holmes wondered about the universes of facts held in the smallest of things: tobacco ash, a footprint, an ear. Sherlock Holmes actually insulted those who came before him in his very first recorded case.

Sherlock Holmes wanted things to be better than they were. His entire life was about that, improving the situations of anyone who came into his sphere where possible. He actually improved detective work in the rest of the world by just appearing in Strand Magazine, but that was just the cumulative effect of his overall single greatest method: getting better at doing things than they were done before.

And sometimes doing that, admitting mistakes, having Watson give him the occasional whisper of "Norbury," probably made him a little uncomfortable. It can be hard to be honest enough with ourselves to admit that maybe we need to upgrade our ways now and then. "Abbey Grange" is a great example of Holmes doubting his own conclusions, looking hard at the facts that led him to them, and jumping off a train at the last second to change his investigation's course. Those moments, the moment when we see that he's not infallible, that he can screw up and come back from it, are a large part of what make him so identifiably human and so great to our eyes.

Sherlock Holmes, to the detectives of his day, was an actual radical. He wasn't content with the way things were. And even if he pissed off Tobias Gregson or Athelney Jones on occasion, he had to keep on trying to get the best results possible.

In a time when the words "obvious buffoon who lies constantly" overheard in a restaurant make one immediately think a political debate is going on, we have to look Sherlock Holmes hard at things, even when they might make us uncomfortable due to positions we held in the past. If you live long enough, you're going to regret some of the ways things were done in your youth, because we do realize mistakes sometimes years, or even decades later, when it's too late to change our actions from before. But if we're going to improve, we have to accept those mistakes and move forward with better methods.

G. Lestrade is a man whom I think figured that out. He became close enough with Sherlock Holmes as the years went by that an overnight in Baker Street was something he could occasionally do. (And that's Canon.) We know Lestrade had his pride, disagreed with Holmes, and came up in the old system. But all that never stopped the good inspector from going to the place he knew true answers would come from when crimes needed dealing with.

The world of Sherlock Holmes may be an escape from the everyday stresses of life, and that's a prime use of Sherlockiana. But when you come back to the world that we're in, bringing some of Sherlock Holmes back with you can be a very good idea.

Including the parts with hard, honest looks and uncomfortable admissions when we make a mistake.

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