The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: How to Disguise Yourself

Ransom Riggs

It's been well over a century since the first Sherlock Holmes adventure was published, and yet the master detective remains as popular as ever; witness the upcoming release of Holmes, starring Robert Downey, Jr., the Holmes-inspired television phenomenon that is House, M.D., and countless adaptations over the years. But what is it about this 19th century detective that we still find so compelling today? Why do modern-day detectives still study his methods and techniques? What can we still learn from Sherlock Holmes? I set out to answer those questions, and the result is my new book, The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: the Methods and Mysteries of the World's Greatest Detective. All week I'll be posting excerpts from it, which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Quirk Books did a great job designing it -- a cute little hardback that would look right at home on your grandfather's shelf o' classics -- and Eugene Smith's illustrations are top-notch. Hope you enjoy this little preview!

How to Disguise Yourself
"It was not merely that Holmes changed his costume. His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed. The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime." - A Scandal in Bohemia

sherlock - disguise small
sherlock - disguise small /

"¢ Select a new identity. You will fool no one by simply donning exotic clothes willy-nilly; a disguise lacking in coherence appears to be just what it is-a disguise. Instead, think like an actor: Imagine a character most unlike yourself and let that guide your selection of clothing, the manner in which you speak, the cover story you concoct, and so on. Consider the sex, age, profession, economic status, and personality of this character, as Holmes did when he disguised himself as an aged seaman in The Sign of the Four : "Altogether he gave me the impression of a respectable master mariner who had fallen into years and poverty," reports a briefly duped Watson.

"¢ Change your clothes. In his career, Holmes wore a black robe and hat to become an talian priest in "The Final Problem," a "blue blouse" to portray a rough-edged French plumber in "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax," and a tweed suit and cloth hat to appear like "any other tourist" in The Hound of the Baskervilles, among many other costumes. But Holmes does more than simply take these clothes from the rack and drape them on his person; he adapts them to the subtleties of his roles. For instance, his aged sailor costume in The Sign of the Four consisted mainly of a pea-coat, but it wasn't just any pea-coat: Watson describes it as "old" and "buttoned up to his throat," touches that reinforce both the poverty and infirmity of the character Holmes is playing.

"¢ Change your hair. Holmes's sailor disguise employed not only a wig but fake whiskers and eyebrows as well, creating the impression of an unkempt man rarely acquainted with scissors or a razor. But false hair can be dangerous; nothing will ruin your cover more quickly than an ill-fitting wig.

sherlock disguise
sherlock disguise /

"¢ Change your face. This can be achieved by artificial means-with makeup to create wrinkles or flesh-colored putty to reshape the nose-as well as naturally, through facial expressions. For maximum effect, employ both techniques simultaneously, as Holmes does in "The Final Problem": "The aged ecclesiastic had turned his face towards me," Watson writes. "For an instant the wrinkles were smoothed away, the nose drew away from the chin, the lower lip ceased to protrude and the mouth to mumble . . . and the next the whole frame collapsed again, and Holmes had gone as quickly ly as he had come." He takes a different approach in "The Dying Detective," affecting the look of a man on his deathbed by applying petroleum jelly to his forehead, daubing his eyes with irritating nightshade to turn them angry red, and encrusting beeswax around his lips.

"¢ Change your body. Desperate fools might submit to a surgeon's knife in order to change their bodies, but for a master of disguise, such measures are superfluous. Your natural stride should be lengthened or shortened, or a limp adopted. Holmes often altered his height by stooping while in disguise, a wonderful trick but no easy thing to maintain over a long period, as he pointed out after portraying a hunched bookseller in "The Empty House" -- "I am glad to stretch myself, Watson," said Holmes. "It is no joke when a tall man has to take a foot off his stature for several hours on end."

"¢ Alter your speech. An accent is easy enough to fake, but a new manner of speech is considerably more difficult. The most elaborate role of Holmes's career was that of an Irish American traitor named Altamont in "His Last Bow," whose voice alone was enough to convince the Germans on whom he was spying of his authenticity. "If you heard him talk you would not doubt [that he is Irish American]," Von Bork assures a German comrade. "Sometimes I assure you I can hardly understand him. He seems to have declared war on the King's English as well as on the English king."