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've been posting excerpts from it, which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Hope you've enjoyed this little preview!
How to Outwit a Criminal Mastermind
"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." —Sherlock Holmes describing Professor Moriarty in "The Final Problem"
1. Gather evidence of the mastermind's crimes. This first step is the most difficult, for as Holmes said of Moriarty, "so aloof is he from general suspicion . . . so admirable in his management and self-effacement" that finding proof of his criminal ties may seem impossible. Holmes's method was comprehensive: He surreptitiously searched Moriarty's house on three occasions (and found "absolutely nothing"), peeked into the mastermind's finances ("I made it my business to hunt down some of Moriarty's checks"), and tracked the doings of Moriarty's criminal associates. Most importantly, he took every precaution to conduct his investigations without the mastermind's knowledge; unfortunately, Holmes reports in "The Final Problem," Moriarty was "too wily for that." If you too are found out, proceed to the next step.
2. Thwart his attempts to assassinate you. "The only conceivable escape for him," said Holmes of his archenemy, "lay in silencing my tongue." Yet it's not from the mastermind himself that the blow likely will fall, but from one of his many agents, and it's in their interest to kill you quickly and quietly. That can only mean one thing: snipers. Holmes's prodigious paranoia of assassins wielding silent-but-deadly air guns in "The Final Problem" likely saves his life, as does his insistence on keeping clear of windows and closing all shutters. Do likewise, and in addition make yourself as difficult as possible to track, keeping to alleys and by-ways rather than main thoroughfares and using rear windows and garden walls to access buildings. Keep a revolver close at hand, but use it only if absolutely necessary, else you might end up in the dock for murder, rather than your enemy.
3. Make yourself scarce. Once your damning evidence has been assembled and the machinations of the mastermind's ruin are in motion, he will be at his most dangerous. Desperate, the mastermind will do anything to destroy you before the net of justice closes around him completely; it's prudent, therefore, to get as far away as possible until the game is won. Don a disguise, as Holmes did when Moriarty came after him in "The Final Problem," and hop the next train out of town. Tell no one save your most trusted confidant of your plans, for your enemy has spies everywhere. Travel light but leave nothing behind that you cannot live without—a lesson that Holmes and Watson learned the hard way when Moriarty's henchmen set fire to their famed Baker Street rooms as they fled.
4. Resist the temptation to have the mastermind arrested prematurely. Certainly the mastermind's desperate, last-minute attempts to assault you will involve a few arrestable offenses, but these are petty crimes compared to the vast network of felonies in which he has had a hand. Bide your time or risk watching him tried for an offense against which his powerful lawyers can easily defend while his henchmen go free, swearing vengeance against you. Or, as Holmes explained the dilemma to Watson, "We should get the big fish, but the smaller would dart right and left out of the net."
5. Don't let down your guard. He will eventually find you, of that you can be certain; all you can do is delay the inevitable showdown. Lest he should take you by surprise, adopt an attitude of hyper-vigilance, as Watson describes Holmes doing: "I could tell by his quick glancing eyes and his sharp scrutiny of every face that passed us, he was well convinced that, walk where we would, we could not walk ourselves clear of the danger that was dogging our footsteps."
6. Prepare for the final assault. The mastermind will attack when he thinks you're most vulnerable. You must let him do it, but be ready. In "The Final Problem," Holmes and Watson flee London for the tiny Swiss hamlet of Meiringen and are trekking to see the fearful Reichenbach Falls when a messenger boy arrives with an urgent plea for Dr.Watson: A woman is dying at the hotel and needs Watson's attention. Though it's clear to Holmes that the boy is in Moriarty's employ and his plea is nothing but a thinly veiled scheme to get Holmes alone in a dangerous locale, Holmes goes along with it; the showdown must happen, and he is ready.
7. Fake your own death. This step assumes that you have succeeded in besting the mastermind in the previous step, as Holmes did Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. After using martial artistry to send Moriarty plunging to his death, Holmes finds himself confronted by a unique problem: He has succeeded in ridding the world of a criminal mastermind, yet his own life is in more danger than ever. Moriarty's henchmen remain free, and they will surely seek revenge. To return to London would mean facing assassination at their hands, and traveling under his own name would mean pursuit by those same would-be assassins. He's forced to choose between facing death or feigning death and so opts for the latter, traveling far and wide for three years under an invented identity.
Other excerpts from The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: