The Proust Questionnaire in Vanity Fair, which poses a plethora of intriguing questions to a new notable figure each month, is always interesting and one of my favorite features of the magazine. One of the questions regularly asked is, “Who is your favorite hero of fiction?”
It seems like I personally have a different answer to this one every time I read the section. One month I might tell you my favorite literary hero is Elric of Melniboné and the next I would assure you it is Repairman Jack. Even as I write this, I’m recalling how much I like Hiaasen’s recurring character Stranahan and Gaiman’s tragic alter-ego Dream. Burroughs’s John Carter and Maguire’s Elphaba Thropp are also favorites of mine.
But when I really sit and think about it, there is one figure that always stands a head above my other beloved heroes. That would be the gaunt and imposing figure of a one Sherlock Holmes of 221B Baker Street. Sherlock Holmes is, to my mind, the quintessential hero: ethical, observant, intelligent, cunning, wise, sophisticated, charismatic, brave, chivalrous, cultured, and an absolute master of disguise. I’ve read every original Holmes story (most more than once) and while I'll grant that some are better than others, not one has ever disappointed me.
The thing that is so wonderful about Sherlock Holmes is his ability to use simple observations to appear as if he is privy to special information or, to the less scientifically grounded, psychic. By simply noting the condition of a man’s pipe, he can tell you that the man is energetic, muscular, left-handed, careless, wealthy, and that he values the pipe very highly*. By taking a quick glance at Watson’s boots one evening, he could tell that Watson had recently enjoyed a Turkish bath and had gone there with a companion**.
Holmes was so adept at what he did, that he somehow became a veritable reality. I have met people who thought Sherlock Holmes was an actual private detective who lived in 19th century London. Talk about skillful writing! Doyle authored a legend.
The Adventure of the Purple Pumps
I had an opportunity at work the other day to put to
practical use what I had learned about observation and deduction from the Sherlock Holmes canon. A coworker of mine – lovely woman named Nicole – came into the office looking as radiant and fashionable as ever. I should tell you that I have an abnormally fervent appreciation for stiletto-heeled shoes; if a woman is wearing high heels, I will notice. So, anyway, after I wished Nicole a good morning, I said to her, “So, you really love your new boots, huh?”
Now, the fact that a straight man was commenting on her footwear would have been enough to surprise her, but she was completely shocked that I had so perfectly called it. The boots she had on were indeed new, she told me, just purchased two days prior. She then insisted I tell her how I could possibly have been so certain they were new, since she had worn them the previous day, as well, and even some friends of hers hadn’t noticed them.
“Well, the fact you wore them yesterday was a factor, to be sure,” I said. “But women wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row all the time; that alone wouldn’t be enough to convince me they were new.”
She asked, “Is it because they’re still so shiny?”
“They are in excellent condition,” I replied, “but that could merely indicate you take impeccable care of your belongings. No, oddly enough, it is your blouse which removed any doubt that the boots were more than a few days old.”
“Yes. Your blouse is mauve – the exact shade of mauve as a pair of four-inch pumps you own. On any other day, you would have worn those pumps with this blouse. But today you chose to wear a pair of black boots – and a pair you just wore yesterday, at that! That could only mean that the desire to wear the boots outweighed the more studied fashion choice of perfectly coordinated pumps. And why would that be? Well, because they were brand new, of course, and the thrill had yet to wear off.”
After I had explained all this, Nicole agreed, just as Watson always did when Holmes would enlighten him to one of his skillfully derived conclusions, that the deduction was really quite simple, perhaps even… elementary.