Robert Perret: Why We Need Sherlock Holmes in an Improbable World

Robert Perret’s story “The Canaries of Clee Hills Mine” appears in the newly released anthology An Improbable Truth: The Supernatural Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. A sample of his story appears at the end of this post. Be sure to read it, and check out the complete anthology, published by Mocha Memoirs Press.


Release Date:  October 27, 2015

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Why We Need Sherlock Holmes in an Improbable World

“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”  SIGN

Sherlock Holmes’s famous maxim was delivered during the investigation of a locked room murder at Pondicherry Lodge described by Dr. Watson in The Sign of the Four, one of the strangest cases in the Canon.  It is an extension of Holmesian deductive reasoning, to imagine all the possibilities and then eliminate them one by one.  Elsewhere in SIGN Holmes claims “I never guess. It is a shocking habit,—destructive to the logical faculty.” but he is always guessing, he just makes every guess he can think of all at once and then waits to see which pans out.  He is famous for being super skeptical, but he begins from a place of complete naiveté in which all things are equally possible.  That is why Inspector   Athelney Jones collars the wrong man – he looks at the evidence and draws the most reasonable conclusion – while Holmes, the supposed hyper-rationalist, imposes no reason at all upon the scene and simply asks “What if?”

“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outré results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.” IDEN

Sherlock Holmes manifests fully formed, conducting clandestine research in a laboratory at St. Bartholemew’s Hospital, an institution with which he has no formal affiliation, but which he simply haunts when the fancy strikes him.  The Canon almost never looks back previous to Watson’s introduction to Holmes, so we know nothing of Sherlock’s formative years, other than some allusions to the fact that he at least attended a college at some point.  (GLOR)  He has no parents, no defining childhood moments, no origin story.  We do eventually meet his brother Mycroft in “The Greek Interpreter”, but this only serves to further illustrate Sherlock’s isolation.  The brothers, it appears, may go years at a time without communicating, and what little contact they do have is perfunctory.  Mycroft, while employed in the intelligence service of Her Royal Majesty, sits alone in a back office of The Diogenes Club, a social club where socializing is prohibited, every bit as removed from the world as Sherlock lying in a drug induced haze on the floor of 221B Baker Street.  What compels the Holmes brothers to be in the world but not of the world?

“My mind,” he said, “rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.”

Sherlock Holmes simply is – a manic force driven by curiosity and boredom and ego.  Perhaps Holmes is so open to the improbable because to him all of existence, including the affairs of people, is equally improbable to begin with.  He peers in at us through his famous magnifying glass from somewhere outside the common human experience.  Statisticians talk of The Law of Very Large Numbers in relation to improbability.  As long ago as 1866, the British mathematician Augustus De Morgan wrote, “Whatever can happen will happen if we make trials enough.”  Professor Emeritus of Mathematics David Hand¹ describes in a 2014 Scientific American article “Math Explains Likely Long Shots, Miracles, and Winning the Lottery” that this law corrects for the human misperception that any given event is unlikely because it seems unlikely to happen to us.  The example he gives is the classic “Birthday Problem.”  Statistics tells us that, in a group of 23 people, there is a better than 50% chance that two people share the same birthday, which seems, well, improbable.  This seems so improbable because most of us naturally translate that statement to means that if I walk into a room with 23 or more people, there is a 50% chance that someone has the same birthday as me.  If that were true we would constantly be meeting people who share our birthday.  But the statistic actually just addresses any one of the 23 people having the same birthday as any of the other 23 people.  To be honest I don’t understand the math behind it, but it has been a fun statistics fact for decades, so I will assume it holds up.  What this illustrates is that many things we consider to be improbable only seem so because we always insert ourselves into the equations and we lack the imagination to grasp Very Large Numbers.  For instance, it may seem very improbable that you would be pickpocketed by a monkey, but if you consider all of the pockets and all of the monkeys over all of the time that monkeys and pockets co-exist, it becomes almost inevitable that someone will be pickpocketed by a monkey.  (In case you are wondering, yup.  Go ahead and Google it.)

Holmes achieves some of his most amazing deductive results when he disregards what is likely to have happened and ask as many “What ifs?” as he can without presupposing limits.  For instance, in The Sign of the Four Holmes out-deduces Inspector Jones because Holmes is not limiting his thinking to things likely to have happened to the heir of a contested estate in the locked room of an English manor house.  Jones ignored the key piece of evidence because it did not fit with that person in that place and that time.  Jones saw a solution that met his preconceived criteria, but he did not observe the one thing in the room that pointed to the truth.  Jones did not ask “What if?,” his police-trained mind was hung up on “how” and “why” and because of that the wrong man was arrested and the true murderers almost got away with their crimes and a fortune.

We need Sherlock Holmes, the iconoclastic, misanthropic genius precisely because he inspires us to ask “What if?”  We, like Inspector Jones, are tied to the cosmic wheel of the ‘dull routine of existence.’  Incredibly improbable in its own way, but as we slog through our daily routines – jobs, bills, schooling, chores, hunger, pain, grief, fatigue, love, joy, life, death – we have to accept the commonplace at face value.  We, as mere mortals, can’t ask “what if?” at every turn and reconsider everything we encounter from scratch.  Holmes, sitting outside of the human experience of space and time, with his fingers steepled, gazing at us through hooded eyes, can challenge every assumption, observe the wonderful chain of human events, and then reveal the truth to us as a pithy aside.  Holmes as a character transcends Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories and withstands a postmodern assault of vampires, zombies, Elder Gods, femme fatales, aliens, Adolf Hitler and anything else us mere mortals can throw at him because his raison d’etre, asking the eternal “what if?” transcends genre and medium and culture and time.  Sherlock Holmes is the restless mind that follows every clue, undaunted by improbability.

¹ Sherlock Holmes held a Professor of Mathematics, James Moriarty, in great esteem, considering the man’s prodigious genius to equal to his own.  Dare we do any less?

About the Author

Robert Perret is a devout Sherlockian and librarian living in northern Idaho with his wife and children.  He loves the Canon and the RDJ portrayal at the same time.  Deal with it.  He writes both traditional pastiches and weird Sherlock Holmes stories.  Past artistic endeavors include creating a comic strip about an anthropomorphic popcorn maker and winning an Innovative Haiku contest with a poem that involved a frog and a pond.  He may provide a Sherlocku upon request.

From “The Canaries of Clee Hill Mines” by Robert Perret

Holmes placed a hand on my arm and we came to a stop. I could see him close his eyes and slow his breathing. Lacking his Eastern training in meditation I did my best to make as little noise as possible. I saw Holmes jerk his head to one side ever so slightly and then a moment later I felt the gentlest of winds stir the hairs on my right hand. I looked down at that hand and was surprised to see the pistol it was holding shaking erratically. Even my fingers had gooseflesh and it was then I realized with a shock that I was terrified so far beyond reason that my mind appeared to have disassociated with my body. Holmes began smoothly stalking down the passage from which the wind had blown. I looked down and saw my feet clumsily stomp along one after the other. As we progressed down the tunnel I heard a clicking sound like crickets in the distance. I think my mind read it as an indication that we were exiting the mine to return to the surface, for I found myself strangely soothed. However as we progressed the clicking became chattering and scraping and squealing and my terror returned. We saw an opening to a larger chamber ahead and the inhuman sounds now echoed all around us. In the lamplight I saw a strange constant movement ahead.

“The royal chamber,” observed Holmes. When I failed to give a sensible response he continued. “I’ve taken to studying bees as of late. Admirable creatures. Truly superior. But I digress. We have followed a proverbial worker bee back to the royal chamber. I suspect we will not be welcomed.”

As we crossed the threshold all noise and activity stopped. In the silence we could hear the sound of water dripping from overhead into an underground reservoir. Around us, on every possible surface of the cavern, like bats, were hundreds of the uncanny Feeders. They regarded us with their milky, dead eyes. Holmes continued in and pointed his lantern around, taking in the ceiling, the walls, the floor and then moving to the lake. He gasped.


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