The Great Detective

A very early memory:

I would have been around five years old, my brother about eleven. One night, for whatever reason, my mother and I called upon him in his wonderful corner bedroom looking out onto Knapp Street to the north, and you could even see Ash Avenue easterly through the boughs of the elms. Best of all, Bill's room commanded a wonderful view of the Fiji House, otherwise known as the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity--double-secret-probation would have been totally ineffectual with this crew. It was from these guys we learned about bombs, beer and boobs. I'm not sure study ever fell within their purview.

I don't really remember the reason for our visit, but perhaps Ma just wanted to make sure Bill was doing his homework. (She needn't investigate mine, since my only occupation in school those days was launching Lincoln Log projectiles to the ceiling or smelting crayons on the hot water radiators, neither activity requiring homework.) As he and she prattled on about this and that, my eyes went to Bill's bookcase in the tiny bedroom. They fell upon a very shiny-covered and colorful tome, fairly slender, but large vertically and laterally. Every room in our house had a bookshelf, thanks to my father.

The volume which caught my attention was a boy's collection of Sherlock Holmes tales, each stripped down to several thousand words, and illustrated throughout with four-color illustrations. (Sorry, girls, in those unemancipated days of the fifties, classic detective stories were deemed suitable for boys only--but you did have Nancy Drew in compensation). I couldn't read very much yet (The Cat in the Hat would have been pushing the limits of my ability) but I was so intrigued of what was contained here, just going by the illustrations. More than half a century later, I still recall the hound dripping fire from its mouth as it pounced upon Sir Henry from a stony crag, a hallway full of carrot-tops awaiting possible induction into the Red-Headed League, and, of course, two men wrestling mid-air, flailing about, as they tumbled from the Reichenbach Falls.

The pictures and glossy cover of this book entranced me, though the contents still remained a mystery. I was exceedingly envious of what Bill had on his own personal bookshelf.

Fast forward to winter, 1971. Finally! Home at last, no longer a fish out of water, in the state which had been waiting for me, and of course, with a new surrogate parent whom I greatly admired. In our nearly empty apartment on top of the hill, Bill and I eventually came by a crappy old black and white television set, thanks to a neighbor taking pity on the pauper appearance of our abode. First order of business, of course, was to tune in All Star Wrestling from the Calhoun Beach studios every Saturday at dinner time. Pretty Boy Larry Hennig, Handsome Harley Race, Mad Dog Vachon, Bobby "The Brain" Heenan, and others became my tutors.

Next up was Horror Incorporated for some cheesy Universal monster movies late the same night. Apparently the film vault at Channel 5 was slightly limited, so they ended up repeating some of these films over and over again. One in particular stands out, entitled The Man They Could Not Hang. Though featuring Boris Karloff in the title role, it was an abysmal, yea rotten, movie. Even Ed Wood would have been embarrassed to own up to it. Yet KSTP played it so often that Bill and I dubbed it The Film They Could Not Hang.

But Friday nights on the same channel...ah, now here was something enticing: Sherlock Holmes Theater. Once a week, this slot would feature an entry from the old Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies of the forties. Both of us were intrigued, and this was my reintroduction to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's great detective. A rather momentous occasion as it turned out.

The films, though not particularly noteworthy by modern standards, were always always great fun anyway. I was captivated by Rathbone's physical presence, but more so by his voice, perhaps the finest to ever come from Hollywood. Bruce was barely tolerable for comic relief, but pretty clearly this was not the Doctor Watson depicted in that book in Bill's room a dozen years previous.

In any event, I was hooked on the notion that a person might appear almost like a wizard, just by the application of careful observation and reasoning. In particular, those Sherlock Holmes films led to several important consequences.

First, I could tell that the movies were a pale shadow of what the stories must actually be. So I threw myself into the 56 short stories and 4 novels with alacrity.

By summer of that year, Bill and I were living at Lake Tetonka, I having just started college. I sprang a goodly portion of my slender allowance on the canonical Doubleday edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, almost four inches thick, and set to at once, allowing myself one story per day so not to run out too quickly. I would always put the book down before reaching the conclusion to see if I could unravel the mystery myself, just from the clues given. It was a glorious couple months of examining my own mind, noting any idiosyncrasies or biases in thought, intuitively developing an appreciation for deductive logic and becoming much more aware of what it means to actively observe. In short, my love of logic was born then.

And then there was Professor Moriarty. Rather unbelievably my becoming enamored with mathematics sprang directly from these tales. As I pored over them at the tender age of seventeen, a former prejudice gradually lifted. Previously in life, I had detested mathematics and as a consequence always performed poorly in such schoolwork. But now, thanks to Doyle's great writing, I began to reassess my opinion. It was no doubt Sherlock's monologue from The Final Problem which did it:

His career has been an extraordinary one. He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty. At the age of twenty-one he wrote a treatise upon the Binomial Theorem, which has had a European vogue. On the strength of it he won the Mathematical Chair at one of our smaller universities, and had, to all appearance, a most brilliant career before him. But the man had hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers. Dark rumors gathered round him in the university town, and eventually he was compelled to resign his chair and to come down to London, where he set up as an army coach. So much is known to the world, but what I am telling you now is what I have myself discovered.

...He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.
And then, too, that was the start of my acute Anglophilia, which soon found me reading every Victorian (and earlier) novel I could lay my hands on. Four years later, I would be padding the streets of London for the first time myself, imagining the zeitgeist engendered by Dickens, Thackeray, Wilde, Crowley, Keats, Doyle and of course, Johnson.

Johnson? You know, Dr. Johnson.

Another hobby--a passion for language, really--led to this connection.

The climax of Dressed to Kill, the last of the Rathbone/Bruce films, took place in Dr. Samuel Johnson's house. I was intrigued no end, and wanted to know more about the great lexicographer who had devoted his entire life to words.

On tour with Spiff Cool and the Keen-o-Jets during the summer of 1974, I devoured Boswell's Life of Johnson during interminable drives to the next ballroom or sleazy tavern to roll out Blue Suede Shoes yet again. Not only did I learn of Johnson, but as a collateral benefit, I enjoyed what many critics consider the finest biography ever written, setting a high bar indeed for all that have followed.

A year later found me hanging out in Gough Square, London, site of the real Dr. Johnson's House, reveling in the greatest human invention ever: language. Moreover, I truly understood the veracity of Johnson's immortal comment:

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.
I love that city and the incredible tongue its writers left me.

Quite literally, both vocation and avocation sprang from the tales of Sherlock Holmes. So too my love of observation, logic, inference and in general trying to push my brain just a little more to find what it is capable of. Lastly, my constant inamorata, language, was stroked as well, for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's use of English is spectacular: glamorous, precise and evocative, while avoiding ostentation. In other words, not like I write.

Really, all that.

As the methods of Sherlock Holmes came into focus for me, I understood the importance of practice and that anything worth mastering doesn't come without pushing oneself. By fall quarter in college, when not ogling hippie chicks in the basement of the Union, I found myself observing and deducing what I could about the crowd of students surrounding me. Like Sherlock recommended, the knees of trousers or the cuffs on shirts commanded my scrutiny. Naturally, bumps in tank tops several inches below the collar line (and an absence of brassieres) also caught my attention, though that revealed more about me than the wearer.

When sitting at a Commons table, I pondered the state of cigarette butts in ashtrays: lipstick imprints, dry as a bone or dripping with saliva, chewed, half-smoked, crushed out violently or smoked until entirely consumed, broken in two, the brand, how many matches used, what kind of matches. These trifles and many others intrigued me and provided clues as to who had previously sat at the table. Inference was becoming second nature with me. So was the value of persistence when trying to form new habits of mind.

So anyway, my point is that the adventures of Sherlock Holmes have provided great recreation over the years, but also have had a very direct bearing on how I decided to use my mind in and out of the classroom. From them sprang a love of language, logic, observation, independence, and a desire to know as much as I can before using up my allotted time on Earth.

An amusing footnote: Bill, too, was quite fond of the Sherlock Holmes stories. In the last year of his life, his family physician was a certain Dr. Moriarty. However, whenever Bill would call the receptionist for appointments, or speak to the nurses, or respond to the insurance company's questions, he would always refer to his physician as Professor Moriarty. Notably, Bill was the master of keeping a straight face at all times in the midst of a prank. Before he died, he told me that just once did the recipient catch the gag and laugh.


Next installment: The Rise of Mysticism

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