Saturday, 6 March 2010

90. Elementary

I've always been interested in the fact that Sherlock Holmes is held up as a paragon of logic and reasoning, when he's anything but - he just casts that illusion. And I also like the fact that Conan Doyle was repeatedy duped by con artists, promising visions of the afterlife or fairies at the bottom of the garden. So this is an attempt to square the two.

All tales have a beginning, a middle and an end. Just not necessarily in that order. That was the lesson taught to me by my dearest friend and colleague Mr Fortitude Saville.

I remember it clearly. Mrs Hudson had cleared away the dishes from a most robust luncheon and Saville and I had retired to the drawing room. Saville was applying himself with wordless Trojan industry to a box of Egyptian tobacco.

With silence hanging in the air as thickly as the blue smoke emanating from Saville’s pipe and for want of some kind of conversation, I touched on one of his favourite subjects: himself and his mysterious methods.

“My dear Saville,” I said, “I am still puzzled at our most recent case. It is truly remarkable that you could have determined who, in a city of more than three million souls, was sending those poison pen letters to young Lady Constance. Even after all these years, I am still unsure as to how you can produce such prodigious, nay, miraculous, instances of deduction.”

He took a long drag on his pipe and looked at me with that familiar heavy-lidded ennui. “Your uncertainty is no accident. Deduction itself s a simple process; even you would be able to grasp it, Herring.” He leaned forward. “What is important is that we make sure other people don’t grasp it.”

“I don’t follow,” I said.

“Precisely!” Saville walked across to the fire mantle and leaned against it in a pose of artful nonchalance as he gathered, or chose to cast the impression of gathering, his thoughts. “What one omits is just as important what one says. And so is when one chooses to say something. You see, every story has a beginning, a middle and a conclusion, but not necessarily in that order. Indeed, the most effective sequence for the gentle reader, in terms of crude if pleasing sensationalism, is most certainly not that order. It is a question of presentation, Herring.”

Although I appreciated Saville’s patience and slow deliberateness of explanation as he sought to illuminate his methods for my singularly dim eyes, I struggled to comprehend. As a master of observation, he perceived this in a trice.

“I am using an analogy, Herring. You know what that is, don’t you? Any case that I deign to investigate is nothing but a small story. It begins with a problem, proceeds through observation and deduction, and concludes with the solution. And a deduction is a small story itself, beginning with a general rule, proceeding to a particular instance, and concluding with the truth. All that one requires is a rule that one knows to be true, and then to apply it to the instance before you. If alpha, then beta.

“It really is elementary. And rather dull – both for me and for the clients whom I charge so rather handsomely for my services. And that, Herring, is precisely we must obfuscate and call upon a little sleight of hand. Far better to give them the beginning and the end, and leave the dreary middle to their imagination. Would you pay to see a magician who unconjured his illusions as he performed them? Maybe once, but then you would try to perform the tricks yourself.”

I suddenly felt like I didn’t know my closest companion in the slightest it. “Magicians, Saville? That doesn’t sound very scientific.”

“Science! I couldn’t give a damn about science. Give me magic and mystery any day. You may not have observed, Herring, but science does not pay. So let us not lay bare our methods, like a common street whore, but rather, like the dancing girls of Paris, tempt, tease, tantalise. Detection is a performance.”

I felt indignant and not a little hurt, as though my chair were shifting unnaturally beneath me. Had Saville been lying to his – no, our – clients these last six years? Was I the victim of sustained falsehoods, too?

A cold look flashed across Saville’s face. “Let me show you. Oh, my dear Watson, do not excite yourself. Your emotions are no doubt still a little agitated after last night. Just because you had been so ill-prepared to become caught in a downpour, was that any reason to strike your servant girl simply for being clumsy?”

Lizzie. I felt like I myself had been struck. “How did you know that?”

Saville drew smoke down deep into his lungs, held it there and slowly exhaled, looking like an Oriental dragon, his lithe frame wrapped in his silk smoking jacket. Eventually, he said: “There are some cuts on your shoe. The only way to get those cuts is from a shoe being rather clumsily scraped. If your shoe was being clumsily scraped, that must mean that you have a clumsy servant and that she had cause to scrape your shoe. And if she had cause to scrape your shoe, you must have been muddy, and therefore wet. And I know your temperament towards the fairer sex all too well.”

He was right. How was he right? Were the signs so clear? I felt like I was being made a fool of. “And this is your ‘deduction’?” I asked.

Saville laughed. “No, that was abduction – the polar opposite. I saw an effect and looked to determine its cause. But I begin by telling you my shattering conclusion and then present the reasoning in reverse, as if it were deductive reasoning, rather than abductive. Generally, my methods are abduction.” A smile one might expect to find along the banks of the Nile flashed across his face. “You may interpret that as you will.”

“Of course,” he continued, strolling around the drawing room, “in any piece of deduction, of the general rule is true, then your conclusion will be logical, if not actually true.”

He looked at me. “All snowballs are cold. Herring is cold. Therefore Herring is a snowball. Do you see? Clearly false – you are many things, Herring, but not frozen water shaped into an orb. But with the impression of logic. And that is all that is necessary. One cannot argue with cold, impersonal logic, Herring. And people do not like to argue or think too hard. If it is ostensibly logical, that will suffice. We live in an age in which soft-headed cretins pay kings’ ransoms for mediums, mesmerists and Theosophists to show them ghosts in the parlour, ectoplasm in the drawing room and fairies at the bottom of the garden. They want to believe. And it is so very easy to lie when the other party wants to believe.”

I felt dazed. “But how is that you’re always right?” I asked. “There are hundreds of reasons why I could have cuts on my shoe.”

“Are you aware of Occam’s razor?”

I believe I unconsciously brushed my cheek.

“No, Watson, it is not a product for your barber. It is the principle that the simplest explanation – the least elaborate – is most likely to be true. It is also patent poppycock. Consider the case to which you referred, the Case of Poisoned Pen.”

I remembered what I had seen; what I thought I had seen. “You identified the writer from the quality of note paper, the typeface of the newspapers he had cut out and affixed to it, and from his handwriting on those words he had been unable to find in each day’s Times,” I said.

“Yes. Rather elaborate, don’t you think?”

I concede that it was.

“No, the simplest reason, is that I knew who was sending the letters is because I ordered that idiot Jew to send them on my behalf, so that cretin girl would come to seek my help. And I knew about your conduct towards dear, sweet Lizzie because I have been bedding the girl these last six weeks.”

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