The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: How to Keep Your Mind Sharp

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 Keep Your Mind Sharp
A long series of sterile weeks lay behind us, and here at last there was a fitting object for those remarkable powers which, like all special gifts, become irksome to their owner when they are not in use. That razor brain blunted and rusted with inaction. —The Valley of Fear

holmes - violin
holmes - violin /

"¢ Starve yourself. Though Watson often nagged him to eat, Holmes rarely took food while working on a problem, and during especially taxing cases he sometimes went for days without a meal. "The faculties become refined when you starve them," he once explained to Watson. "As a doctor . . . you must admit that what your digestion gains in the way of blood supply is so much lost to the brain."

"¢ Smoke copiously. Just because you refuse food while deep in thought doesn't mean you must live like an ascetic. Tobacco was the first thing Holmes reached for when puzzling over a problem:"Holmes had pushed away his untasted breakfast and lit the unsavoury pipe which was the companion of his deepest meditations," Watson writes in The Valley of Fear. While working on the "Mazarin Stone" case, Holmes humbly begs Watson not "to despise my pipe and my lamentable tobacco" because "it has to take the place of food these days." We learn still more of his habits while Holmes is contemplating the outlandish "Red-Headed League" mystery, so difficult he deems it "a three-pipe problem."

"¢ Ignore that which is unimportant. Just because there are an endless number of things to be learned about the universe, Holmes proposes in A Study in Scarlet, doesn't mean one should try to learn them all—quite the opposite, in fact. When Watson is dumbstruck that his brilliant friend doesn't know the composition of Earth's solar system, Holmes lays out the following theory: "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to his gets crowded out . . . it is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

"¢ Always keep your mind occupied. "To let the brain work without sufficient material is like racing an engine," Holmes says in "The Devil's Foot." "It racks itself to pieces." When there is no case at hand—and sometimes even when there is—Holmes turns his attention to chemistry experiments, to his violin (the introspective work of German composers is best for the mind, he claimed), or, in extreme cases, to cocaine. Watson defends his friend's taste for the latter thusly: "He only turned to the drug as a protest against the monotony of existence when cases were scanty and the papers uninteresting." Holmes himself provides a somewhat less apologetic explanation: "I suppose that its influence is physically a bad one. I find it, however, so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment."

Other excerpts from The Sherlock Holmes Handbook:

How to Disguise Yourself
Opium Dens and Narcotics in the Victorian Era
How to Fake Your Own Death