Sherlock Holmes ability?

I was wondering something about Holmes. As a avid reader of Holmes, I’ve always liked his ability to deduce things from the smallest of clues. Even the recent 2009 movie had his ability demonstrated with Watson’s fiancee.

My question is: is it possible to have that kind of ability in real life, on the same level as Holmes? if so, how can I learn to do something like that?

Holmes does it to a ridiculously overblown level, but it’s not impossible in theory.

What Holmes does is a combination of deductive reasoning, ridiculous levels of knowledge on almost any given subject and savant level attention to detail.

While you’ll probably never be able to do anything remotely close to what Holmes does, you can always improve your skills in all of these things. Step 1, of course, is to read a lot, on every subject imaginable… and by a lot, I mean, a lot, crack open an encyclopedia and never put it down. Ever. Step 2, practice deductive reasoning – frankly, I’m not sure how one would practice that. Step 3, notice anything and everything around you, and then apply deductive reasoning as to the reason it is there/like that.

Poof, presto magico, you’re Holmes incarnate.

For a (relatively) more realistic version of this, watch the TV Show Psych, where the main Character, Shawn Spencer, uses these methods to fool people into thinking he’s a Psychic Detective.

Not really. If you take the time to really examine most of Holmes’s deductions in the books, the vast majority are lucky guesses – the clue could have easily led to a dozen other possibilities. And many of them are based on extremely dubious (or demonstrably wrong) science.

I do know someone who successfully used a real Holmsian gambit, though. He noticed that one side of a friend’s face was somewhat sloppily shaved that morning. “You get that light fixed in your bathroom yet?” he asked. Freaked the guy right out.

That’s pretty funny. I had one friend do something similar. There was this person he didn’t know among all his friends at this table. He noted that the person had car keys on a belt loop and it was a key for a nissan. He told me that he took the gamble and thought that the odds of this person having a small car was pretty good. being a college, having a truck, and paying for gas usually don’t mix.

So he asked the person “So how is your Nissan Sentra?” and the guy went nuts.

I read somewhere that Doyle based the character of Sherlock Holmes on his teaching professor for medicine at University (Wendell? Can’t remember the name) who had a very sharp eye for detail and combined it to startle his patients with conclusions.

But yes, I bothers me in Sherlock Holmes as in all other detective shows (e.g. Columbo) that a lot of these conclusions are based on general assumptions. In one story, a young lady came to see him, and besides noticting her return ticket in the upturn of her glove, he also noticed the specific calluses on her fingers to indicate that she played piano; he remarked to Watson that the calluses could also be specific to another profession, but that one look at her “finely spirited features” ruled out manual labor, and her simple dress meant that she supported herself with teaching the piano (orphaned) instead of just playing it as a typical upper-class daughter.

In one other story, Holmes showed to Watson the difference between seeing and observing, using the example of the stairs leading up to their apartment. Watson saw them every day, but didn’t know how many steps there were. Holmes had observed that there were 22 steps. He also admitted that this particular fact was likely of no practical use, but you had to get in the general habit of observing things all the time so when it’s necessary, you can recall it.

That is actually a good exercise for your daily life: you walk past a post box, a tobacco shop, a telephone box on your daily walk to the bus stop, but if a stranger stops you and asks you “Where can I buy some cigs?” Do you remember where the next tobacco shop is? (Esp. if you are a non-smoker and so the information is unimportant to you).

The character of Sherlock Holmes, or at least his ability to deduce things from small clues, was based on a real person, Dr. Joseph Bell.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle worked as a clerk for Bell at the University of Edinburgh. Obviously, Bell was a doctor and not a detective, but Bell would often pick a random stranger and would guess things like their profession or activities that they had recently engaged in. Bell believed that this sort of attention to details was extremely important to forming a correct medical diagnosis, and led to Bell becoming a pioneer in the field of forensic pathology.

Sherlock Holmes was perhaps a bit exaggerated, but the basic ability was inspired by a real person, and therefore obviously it is possible for someone to have this sort of ability in real life.

Yes. Probably the most useful information that Holmes “deduces” is better described as good assessment of human nature.

I’d known a guy for a couple of weeks when I noticed he was using a nice bag for his gym stuff that had “Northrop Grumman” on it. Remembering that he’d mentioned his father worked for a defense contractor, I asked him out of the blue, “Can your dad get me one of those, too?” He was taken aback the way that the people who first come into Holmes’ office are. But, really, my friend was too young to ever have worked for Grumman, and it’s pretty typical of a parent to give away work things like that to their kids.

The really unexpected “clues” that help Holmes solve a particularly difficult situation are usually gotten because of some obscure knowledge that he already has. For example, he might know that there’s a notorious ring of Swedish smugglers operating out of some English port, and in his case he comes across something he can identify that’s from Sweden (such as the ash from a kind of Swedish cigarette). So–unbeknownst to the reader–Holmes goes off and searches the registry of Swedish ships while the reader is with Watson consoling the client or something.

So if the OP really wants to “solve” things as Holmes does, he has to study a lot really random things to an absurd degree–in fact, more that Holmes could possible do in the lifetime of a human, and certainly not in a way characteristic of a person who uses cocaine and morphine out of sheer “boredom.”

It’s worth noting, though, that the conditions of living were significantly different at that time and place. In modern day, if I see a fat man with a beard in an airport wearing shorts and a t-shirt, he could be some lazy bastard on a holiday or he could be a mega-millionaire. Rich people are liable to dress about the same as poor people and the amount of physical labor undertaken by the rich and the poor is liable to be about the same. We’re all perfectly clean, instead of covered in soot, mud, or chemical fumes. There simply isn’t much to separate us visually based on what we do, compared to back then.

Back then, you would have calluses, tans, smudges, quality of clothes, items of clothes, accents, etc.

And probably Holmes’ most used means of “deduction” is to look at a person’s clothing in order to determine his/her occupation or recent activity.

But regardless of the particulars of society then and now, the motivation of Holmes’ techniques stems from 19th Century positivism, and presumably a modern-day Holmes would take into consideration present conditions and habits of dress, transportation, employment etc. Instead of concluding that a guy is a haberdasher because of the cut of his clothes, Holmes would conclude that the guy must be a meth head because of the scratch marks on his face.

Quoth Todderbob:

Don’t listen to him! He’s just trying to keep you occupied and distracted while he tunnels into the bank next door.

I remember being amused by Robert L Fish’s “Schlock Holmes” parodies, in which the titular detective was always making deductions similar to those in the Conan Doyle stories, except that his were wildly off the mark.

I wonder if Holmes would be more or less effective in the google-era.

I once noticed a minivan with the vanity plate 5XKDC. We were refueling on a long distance trip out of state, but they had local plates. There were three approx teenage boys, a dad and a mom. I figured that the KDC was the initials of all of them. So I called out “Hi, Kevin!” and waved. One of them snapped his head around, and kind of waved back sheepishly with the kind of look that said “I don’t know who the hell you are but I’m trying to not admit it.” The rest of the family just looked querilous. I just got in our van and sat down and snickered.

You mean querulous? They were upset that you knew his name? :stuck_out_tongue:

A related thread:

Sherlock Holmes-style observational deductions

That only works if you have red hair.

I’d imagine that a lot of veteran police detectives can probably come reasonably close to a Holmesian level of deductive powers.


I wonder if Doyle ever wrote about all the deductions that Holmes got wrong

With the right age range (they’d be, oh, about 22 or 23 right now), you can pretty much pull that off with “Ryan”, even without the license plate clue.

My personal take on Columbo is that he is an authentic psychic. He recognizes the guilty person as soon as he meets them, but still has to gather the evidence for a conviction.