The Key to It All
Sherlock Holmes pays attention. His big details are the ones ignored as little. His knowledge of crimes and human nature come from his own experiences and from books and reports. He reads of wrongdoings, scandals, atrocities and the like, in reports from other countries, and he is a devoted reader of The Times’ “Agony” column.
Holmes is fiction, but what he observes is not—nor are his sources.
The Times did have an “Agony” column. It’s an aged rabbit hole worth diving into. The personal advertisements that ran in it aren’t so far from what’s found in this online world of ours. (Read a compilation of selected ads in the 1881 book The Agony Column of the “Times” 1800-1870 via Archive.org)
Here’s a clip of one ad, dated Wednesday, July 15, 1801:
Go deeper into the “Agony” column’s ads and you’ll find more of what was on the minds of Holmes’ clients, and neighbors, and the random passersby. You’ll find themes. The same story played out over and over—and on and on into this century. Two hundred and some years later, the ads of the “Agony” column sit well with online posts of today.
They speak to experiences and plotlines that outlast all of us.
At the end of the world, it will be the cockroaches and these plotlines hanging together.
Arthur Conan Doyle was observant himself. He had to be in order to gift Holmes with such powers of perception. They see what’s in plain site.
At the beginning of A Bohemian Scandal, John Watson visits Sherlock Holmes. Holmes states that Watson has been getting himself “very wet lately,” that “he has a most clumsy and careless servant girl,” and that he didn’t know Watson had gone into “practice again.”
Watson asks Holmes how he knows this.
Holmes shares the observations that led him to the facts:
“It is simplicity itself,” said he; “my eyes tell me that on the inside of your left shoe, just where the firelight strikes it, the leather is scored by six almost parallel cuts. Obviously they have been caused by someone who has very carelessly scraped round the edges of the sole in order to remove crusted mud from it. Hence, you see, my double deduction that you had been out in vile weather, and that you had a particularly malignant boot-slitting specimen of the London slavey. As to your practice, if a gentleman walks into my rooms smelling of iodoform, with a black mark of nitrate of silver upon his right forefinger, and a bulge on the right side of his top-hat to show where he has secreted his stethoscope, I must be dull, indeed, if I do not pronounce him to be an active member of the medical profession.”
In The Man with the Twisted Lip, a client presents Holmes with a letter from her husband—a husband who has been missing and is believed to be murdered. Upon a look at the letter, Holmes observes that, though the letter might have been written by the husband, it was addressed and mailed by someone who was decidedly not the husband.
The client asks Holmes how he can be so sure. Holmes describes the facts in plain view on the envelope.
“The name, you see, is in perfectly black ink, which has dried itself. The rest is of the greyish colour, which shows that blotting-paper has been used. If it had been written straight off, and then blotted, none would be of a deep black shade. This man has written the name, and there has then been a pause before he wrote the address, which can only mean that he was not familiar with it.”
While investigating a murder in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, Holmes needs only to investigate the murder site in order to locate the murder weapon and to identify the physical characteristics of the murderer. As is his way, Watson reports on everything that occurrs:
The Boscombe Pool, which is a little reed-girt sheet of water some fifty yards across, is situated at the boundary between the Hatherley Farm and the private park of the wealthy Mr. Turner. Above the woods which lined it upon the farther side we could see the red, jutting pinnacles which marked the site of the rich landowner’s dwelling. On the Hatherley side of the pool the woods grew very thick, and there was a narrow belt of sodden grass twenty paces across between the edge of the trees and the reeds which lined the lake. Lestrade showed us the exact spot at which the body had been found, and, indeed, so moist was the ground, that I could plainly see the traces which had been left by the fall of the stricken man. To Holmes, as I could see by his eager face and peering eyes, very many other things were to be read upon the trampled grass. He ran round, like a dog who is picking up a scent, and then turned upon my companion.
“What did you go into the pool for?” he asked.
“I fished about with a rake. I thought there might be some weapon or other trace. But how on earth–”
“Oh, tut, tut! I have no time! That left foot of yours with its inward twist is all over the place. A mole could trace it, and there it vanishes among the reeds. Oh, how simple it would all have been had I been here before they came like a herd of buffalo and wallowed all over it. Here is where the party with the lodge-keeper came, and they have covered all tracks for six or eight feet round the body. But here are three separate tracks of the same feet.” He drew out a lens and lay down upon his waterproof to have a better view, talking all the time rather to himself than to us. “These are young McCarthy’s feet. Twice he was walking, and once he ran swiftly, so that the soles are deeply marked and the heels hardly visible. That bears out his story. He ran when he saw his father on the ground. Then here are the father’s feet as he paced up and down. What is this, then? It is the butt-end of the gun as the son stood listening. And this? Ha, ha! What have we here? Tiptoes! tiptoes! Square, too, quite unusual boots! They come, they go, they come again–of course that was for the cloak. Now where did they come from?” He ran up and down, sometimes losing, sometimes finding the track until we were well within the edge of the wood and under the shadow of a great beech, the largest tree in the neighbourhood. Holmes traced his way to the farther side of this and lay down once more upon his face with a little cry of satisfaction. For a long time he remained there, turning over the leaves and dried sticks, gathering up what seemed to me to be dust into an envelope and examining with his lens not only the ground but even the bark of the tree as far as he could reach. A jagged stone was lying among the moss, and this also he carefully examined and retained. Then he followed a pathway through the wood until he came to the highroad, where all traces were lost.
“It has been a case of considerable interest,” he remarked, returning to his natural manner. “I fancy that this grey house on the right must be the lodge. I think that I will go in and have a word with Moran, and perhaps write a little note. Having done that, we may drive back to our luncheon. You may walk to the cab, and I shall be with you presently.”
It was about ten minutes before we regained our cab and drove back into Ross, Holmes still carrying with him the stone which he had picked up in the wood.
“This may interest you, Lestrade,” he remarked, holding it out.
“The murder was done with it.”
“I see no marks.”
“There are none.”
“How do you know, then?”
“The grass was growing under it. It had only lain there a few days. There was no sign of a place whence it had been taken. It corresponds with the injuries. There is no sign of any other weapon.”
“And the murderer?”
“Is a tall man, left-handed, limps with the right leg, wears thick-soled shooting-boots and a grey cloak, smokes Indian cigars, uses a cigar-holder, and carries a blunt pen-knife in his pocket. There are several other indications, but these may be enough to aid us in our search.”
Lestrade laughed. “I am afraid that I am still a sceptic,” he said. “Theories are all very well, but we have to deal with a hard-headed British jury.”
“Nous verrons,” answered Holmes calmly. “You work your own method, and I shall work mine. I shall be busy this afternoon, and shall probably return to London by the evening train.”
“And leave your case unfinished?”
“But the mystery?”
“It is solved.”
“Who was the criminal, then?”
“The gentleman I describe.”
“But who is he?”
“Surely it would not be difficult to find out. This is not such a populous neighbourhood.”
Lestrade shrugged his shoulders. “I am a practical man,” he said, “and I really cannot undertake to go about the country looking for a left-handed gentleman with a game leg. I should become the laughing-stock of Scotland Yard.”
“All right,” said Holmes quietly. “I have given you the chance. Here are your lodgings. Good-bye. I shall drop you a line before I leave.”
Having left Lestrade at his rooms, we drove to our hotel, where we found lunch upon the table. Holmes was silent and buried in thought with a pained expression upon his face, as one who finds himself in a perplexing position.
“Look here, Watson,” he said when the cloth was cleared “just sit down in this chair and let me preach to you for a little. I don’t know quite what to do, and I should value your advice. Light a cigar and let me expound.”
“Pray do so.”
“Well, now, in considering this case there are two points about young McCarthy’s narrative which struck us both instantly, although they impressed me in his favour and you against him. One was the fact that his father should, according to his account, cry ‘Cooee!’ before seeing him. The other was his singular dying reference to a rat. He mumbled several words, you understand, but that was all that caught the son’s ear. Now from this double point our research must commence, and we will begin it by presuming that what the lad says is absolutely true.”
“What of this ‘Cooee!’ then?”
“Well, obviously it could not have been meant for the son. The son, as far as he knew, was in Bristol. It was mere chance that he was within earshot. The ‘Cooee!’ was meant to attract the attention of whoever it was that he had the appointment with. But ‘Cooee’ is a distinctly Australian cry, and one which is used between Australians. There is a strong presumption that the person whom McCarthy expected to meet him at Boscombe Pool was someone who had been in Australia.”
“What of the rat, then?”
Sherlock Holmes took a folded paper from his pocket and flattened it out on the table. “This is a map of the Colony of Victoria,” he said. “I wired to Bristol for it last night.” He put his hand over part of the map. “What do you read?”
“ARAT,” I read.
“And now?” He raised his hand.
“Quite so. That was the word the man uttered, and of which his son only caught the last two syllables. He was trying to utter the name of his murderer. So and so, of Ballarat.”
“It is wonderful!” I exclaimed.
“It is obvious. And now, you see, I had narrowed the field down considerably. The possession of a grey garment was a third point which, granting the son’s statement to be correct, was a certainty. We have come now out of mere vagueness to the definite conception of an Australian from Ballarat with a grey cloak.”
“And one who was at home in the district, for the pool can only be approached by the farm or by the estate, where strangers could hardly wander.”
“Then comes our expedition of to-day. By an examination of the ground I gained the trifling details which I gave to that imbecile Lestrade, as to the personality of the criminal.”
“But how did you gain them?”
“You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.”
“His height I know that you might roughly judge from the length of his stride. His boots, too, might be told from their traces.”
“Yes, they were peculiar boots.”
“But his lameness?”
“The impression of his right foot was always less distinct than his left. He put less weight upon it. Why? Because he limped–he was lame.”
“But his left-handedness.”
“You were yourself struck by the nature of the injury as recorded by the surgeon at the inquest. The blow was struck from immediately behind, and yet was upon the left side. Now, how can that be unless it were by a left-handed man? He had stood behind that tree during the interview between the father and son. He had even smoked there. I found the ash of a cigar, which my special knowledge of tobacco ashes enables me to pronounce as an Indian cigar. I have, as you know, devoted some attention to this, and written a little monograph on the ashes of 140 different varieties of pipe, cigar, and cigarette tobacco. Having found the ash, I then looked round and discovered the stump among the moss where he had tossed it. It was an Indian cigar, of the variety which are rolled in Rotterdam.”
“And the cigar-holder?”
“I could see that the end had not been in his mouth. Therefore he used a holder. The tip had been cut off, not bitten off, but the cut was not a clean one, so I deduced a blunt pen-knife.”
Sherlock Holmes pays attention to what’s going on around him.
The key to building relationships and contacts, to pitching, to writing—to pretty much everything—is to pay attention.
Every mistake is a lesson.
Every success is a building block.
Every person met is a mentor.
Every location visited is a scene.
Get out AND get lost in every story you can find.
They will inform every part of your work, from your creation to your marketing. Just take a look at Doyle’s work for proof.
(If you do choose to get lost in stories, Gutenberg.org’s collection of Arthur Conan Doyle’s works is a good place to visit. For audiobook fans, Stephen Fry’s narration of Holmes’ adventures is wonderful. It’s been my companion for some time.)
Monthly Live Q&A
Join the 2020 Mastermind with Steven Pressfield and get access to his monthly live Q&A along with 12 new titles.