The great sleuth’s pithy aphorisms can be useful in conducting investigations as well as in all walks of life.
I have always been an avid fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s wonderful series of stories recounting the exploits of Sherlock Holmes. The tales of greatest fictional detective in history and his faithful sidekick, Dr. John Watson, captured the imagination of nineteenth century British readers the moment they were published. So too he did they capture mine a century later.
One of my 2014 New Year’s resolutions was to read the entire Sherlock Holmes anthology over that year. I made it in eight months. All 1,289 pages. As I read each story I highlighted what I call “Sherlock’s Principles” with plans to record them for distribution to my students. As it turned out life got in the way delaying my project for a year.
You don’t have to be a detective to enjoy them. As I absorbed Sherlock’s wisdom and later set them to paper it gradually dawned on me that many of the great sleuth’s pithy aphorisms can be very useful in all walks of life.
Anyway, here they are. I hope you enjoy them.
The Wisdom of Sherlock Holmes
“The proper study of mankind is man.”
“Desultory readers are seldom remarkable for the exactness of their learning.”
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgement.” —The Lauriston Mystery.
“There is nothing new under sun. It’s all been done before.” —The Lauriston Mystery.
“They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pain. It’s a very bad definition, but it does apply to detective work.” —The Lauriston Mystery.
“There is the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it and expose every inch of it.” —What John Rance had to Tell.
“Where there is no imagination there is no horror.” —Our Advertisement Brings a Visitor.
“I perched myself behind. That’s an art which every detective should be an expert at.” —Our Advertisement Brings a Visitor
“The mere sight of an official-looking person seals men’s lips.” —Tobias Gregson Shows What He Can Do.
“When a fact appears to be opposed to a long train of deductions, it invariably proves to be capable of bearing some other interpretation.” —Light in the Darkness.
“It is a mistake to confound strangeness with mystery.” —Light in the Darkness.
“The most commonplace crimes is often the most mysterious because it presents no new or special features from which deductions can be drawn.” —Light in the Darkness.
“What is common is usually a guide rather than a hindrance.” —The Conclusion.
“There are fifty people who can reason synthetically for one who can reason analytically.” —The Conclusion.
“Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner.” —The Science of Deduction.
“Three qualities necessary for an ideal detective: The power of observation, deduction and finally knowledge which comes in time.” —The Science of Deduction.
“The ideal detective must have an “extraordinary genius for minutiae.”— The Science of Deduction.
“Eliminate all other facts upon which large inferences may depend.” —The Science of Deductions.
“Observe the small facts upon which large inferences may depend.” —The Science of Deduction.
“The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.” —The Statement of the Case.
“I make no exception. An exception disproves the rule.” —The Statement of the Case.
“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever, remains, however, improbable must be the truth.” —Sherlock Holmes Gives a Demonstration.
“The chief proof of a man’s real greatness lies in his perception of his own smallness. It argues, you see, a power of comparison and of appreciation which is in itself a proof of nobility.” —The Episode of the Barrel.
“Never let them think that their information can be of the slightest importance to you. If you do, they will instantly shut up like an oyster.” —The Baker Street Irregulars.
“If you listen to them under protest you are likely to get what you want.” —The Baker Street Irregulars.
“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” —Sherlock Holmes
“Women are never to be trusted – not the best of them.” —A Break in the Chain
“The individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant.” —The End of the Islander.
“A change of work is the best rest.” —The End of the Islander.
“You have not observed. And yet you have seen.” —The End of the Islander.
You see, but you do not observe.” —The end of the Islander.
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has the data. Insensibly one begins to twist the facts to suit theories instead of theories to fit the facts.” —A Scandal in Bohemia.
“For strange effects and extraordinary combinations we must go to life itself which is always far more daring than any effort of the imagination.” —The Red-Headed League.
“As a rule the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify.” —The Red-Headed League.
“My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence.” —The Red-Headed League
“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.” —A Case of Identity.
“There is nothing so unnatural than the commonplace.” —A Case of Identity.
“The larger the crimes are apt to be the simpler, for the bigger crime the more obvious as a rule in the motive.” —A Case of Identity.
“I have trained myself to see what others overlooked.” —A Case of Identity.
“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” —A Case of Identity.
“There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for those who snatches a delusion from a woman.” —A Case of Identity.
“Singularity is almost invariably a clue. The more featureless and commonplace a crime is, the more difficult it is to bring it home.” —The Bascomb Valley Mystery.
“Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing. It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.” —The Bascomb Valley Mystery.
“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” —The Bascomb Valley Mystery.
“Observation and inference. Therein lies my métier.” —The Bascomb Valley Mystery.
“You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.” —The Bascomb Valley Mystery.
“As Cuvier (Georges Cuvier was a French naturalist and zoologist) could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone so the observer who has a thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents should be able to accurately state all the other ones before and after.” —The Five Orange Pips.
“I have seen too much not to know that the impression of a woman may be mmore valuable than the conclusion of an analytical reasoner.”— The Man Crooked Mouth.
“On the contrary, Watson, you can see everything. You fail, however, to reason from what you see. You are too timid in drawing your conclusions.” —The Blue Carbuncle.
“It’s a wicked world, and when a clever man turns his brains to crime it is the worst of all.” —The Speckled Band.
“Violence recoils upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another.” —The Speckled Band.
“Jealousy is a strange transformer of characters.” —The Noble Bachelor.”
“We can’t command our love but we can our actions.” —The Noble Bachelor.
Holmes maxim: “When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however, improbable, must be the truth.” —The Beryl Coronet
“The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” —The Copper Beeches
“I have frequently gained my first real insight into the character of parents by studying their children.” —The Copper Beeches
“The difficulty is to detach the framework of fact – of absolute undeniable fact – from the embellishments of theorists and reporters. The having established ourselves upon this sound basis, it is our duty to see what inferences may be drawn and what special points upon which the whole mystery turns.” —Silver Blaze.
“Inspector Gregory, to whom the case has been committed, is an extremely competent officer. Were he but gifted with imagination he might rise to great heights in his profession.” —Silver Blaze
“The curious incident of the dog in the night time. The dog did nothing in the night-time. That was the curious incident.” —Silver Blaze
Sherlock’s Methods: “I put myself in the man’s place and, having first gauged his intelligence, I try to imagine how I should myself have proceeded under the same circumstances.” —The Musgrave Ritual.
“It is well to test everything.” —The Reigate Squire
“It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which are vital. Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated.” —The Reigate Squire
“I can read in a man’s eyes when it is his own skin that he is frightened for.” —The Resident Patient.
“Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.” —The Greek Interpreter.
“To the logician all things should be seen exactly as they are, and to underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers.” —The Greek Interpreter.
“The authorities are excellent at amassing facts, though they do not always use them to advantage.” —The Naval Treaty.
“The most difficult crime to track is the one that is purposeless.” —The Naval Treaty.
“It may be that you are not yourself luminous but yu are a conductor of light. Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.” —The Hound of the Baskervilles
“Learn not to fear the fruits of the past, but rather to be circumspect of the future.”— The Curse of the Baskervilles.
“The world is full if obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” —The Hound of the Baskervilles.
“The detection of types is one of the most elemental branches of knowledge to the special expert in crime.” —Sir Henry Baskerville.
“I think anything out of the ordinary routine of life well is worth reporting.” —Sir Henry Baskerville.
“I am curious always of power and design.” —Sir Henry Baskerville
“Always remember ‘suggestive facts’.” —Three Broken Threads
“There is nothing more stimulating than a case where everything goes against you. We must cast around for another scent.” —Three Broken Threads.
“I presume nothing.” —Death on the Moor.
“An investigator needs facts and not legends or rumors.” —Death on the Moor
“Evil indeed is the man who has not a woman to amuse him.” —Fixing the Net.
“My eyes have been trained to examine faces and not their trimmings. It is the first quality of a criminal investigator that he should see through a disguise.” —Fixing the Net
“Intense mental concentration has a curious way of blotting out what has passed.” —Fixing the Net.
“The more outre’ and grotesque an incident is the more carefully it deserves to be examined, and the very point which appears to complicate a case is when duly considered and scientifically handled, the one which is most likely to elucidate it.”— Fixing the Net
“My hardships were not so great as you imagined, though such trifling details must never interfere with the investigation of a case.” —Fixing the Net.
“There are some trees which grow to a certain and then suddenly develop an unsightly eccentricity. You will see it often in humans.” —The Empty House.
Holmes’s Theory: “The individual represents in his development the whole procession of his ancestors, and that such a sudden turn to good or evil stands for some strong influence which came into the line of his pedigree. The person becomes as it were the epitome of the history of his whole family.” —The Empty House.
“There we came into those realms of conjecture where the most logical mind may be fault.”— The Empty House.
“It is not really difficult to construct a series of inferences. Each dependent upon its predecessor and each simple in itself. If, after doing so, one simply knocks out all the central influences and presents one’s audience with the starting-point and the conclusion, one may produce a startling though possibly meretricious, effect.” —The Dancing Man
“Every problem becomes very childish when once it is explained to you.” —The Dancing Man
Holmes’s Rule: “Give preference to those cases which derive their interest not so much from the brutality of the crime as from ingenuity and dramatic quality of the solution.”— The Solitary Cyclist.
“When man embarks upon a crime, he is morally guilty of any other crime which may spring from it.” —The Priory School.
“One should always look for a possible alternative, and provide against it. It is the first rule of criminal investigation.” —Black Peter
“The affair seems absurdly trifling and yet I dare call nothing trivial when I reflect that some of Sherlock’s most classic cases have had the least promising commencement.” —The Six Napoleons
“The Press is a most valuable institution, if you only know how to use it.” —The Six Napoleons
“Perhaps when a man has special knowledge, and special powers (like Sherlock) it rather encourages him to seek a complex explanation when a simple one is at hand.” —The Abbey Grange
“A small thing, and yet where events are compressed into a few hours it may prove essential.” —The Second Stain
“The motives of women are inscrutable.” —The Second Stain
“It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts.” —The Second Stain
“The early hours of a case are the precious ones.” —The Valley of Fear
“All knowledge comes useful to the detective.” —The Valley of Fear
“The old real turns and the same spokes turn up. It’s all been done before and will be again. —The Valley of Fear.
“The temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient data is the bane of our profession.” —The Valley of Fear.
“How often is imagination the mother of truth.” —The Valley of Fear
“I am a believer in the genius loci.” —The Valley of Fear.
“The interplay of ideas and the oblique use of knowledge are often of extraordinary interest.”—The Solution
“If criminals would always schedule their movements like railway trains, it would certainly be convenient for all of us.” —The Solution
“Unwelcome truths are not popular.” —Lodge 341
“It is an error to argue in from of you data. You find yourself insensibly twisting them round to fit your theories.” —Wisteria Lodge.
“We can only possess our soul in patience.” —Wisteria Lodge.
“Only a man with a criminal enterprise desires to establish an alibi.” —Wisteria Lodge.
“There are no better instruments than discharged servants with a grievance.” —Wisteria Lodge.
“There is only one step from the grotesque to the horrible.” —Wisteria Lodge.
“Approach a case with an absolutely blank mind which is always an advantage.” —The Cardboard Box
“The smallest point may be the most essential.” —The Red Circle
“Education is suggestive in itself. Together they have a cumulative force.” —The Bruce-Partington Plans
“Each fact is suggestive in itself. Together they have a cumulative force.” —The Bruce-Partington Plans
“Every fresh advance which we make only reveals a fresh ridge beyond.” —The Bruce-Partington Plans
“When all other contingencies fail, whatever remains, however, improbable, must be the truth.” —The Bruce-Partington Plans
“The best way of acting a part is to be it.” —The Dying Detective
“One of the most dangerous classes in the world is the drifting and friendless woman.” —The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax.
“When you follow two separate chains of thought you will find some point of intersection which should approximate to the truth.” —The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax
“Thrice is he armed who hath his quarrel just.” —The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax
“Such slips are common to all mortals, and the greatest is he who can recognize and repair them.” —The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax
“To let the brains work without sufficient material is like racing an engine. It racks itself to pieces.” —The Devil’s Foot.
“To revenge crime is important but to prevent it is more so.” —The Illustrious Client
“A woman’s heart and mind are insoluble puzzles to the male.” —The Illustrious Client
“Some people’s affability is more deadly than the violence of course souls.” —The Illustrious Client
“A confederate who foresees you conclusions and course of action is always dangerous, but one to whom each development comes as a perpetual surprise, and to whom the future is always a closed book, is indeed, an ideal helpmate.” —The Blanched Soldier
“I see no more than you, but I have trained myself to notice what I see.” —The Sussex Vampire.
“One forms provisional theories and waits for time or fuller knowledge to explode them. A bad habit but human nature is weak.” —The Sussex Vampire
“It has been a case for intellectual deduction, but when this original intellectual deduction is confirmed point by point quite a number of independent incidents, then the subjective becomes objective and we can say confidently that we reached our goal.” —The Sussex Vampire
“Women lead an inward life and may do things beyond the judgement of man.” —Thor Bridge
“We must look for consistency. Where there is want of it we must suspect deception.” —Thor Bridge.
“When the crime is cooly premeditated, then the means of covering it are cooly premeditated also.” —Thor Bridge
“When once your point of view is changed, the very thing which was so damning becomes a clue to the truth.” —Thor Bridge.
“One drawback of an active mind is that one can always conceive alternative explanations which would make our scent a false one.” —Thor Bridge.
”It is easy to be wise after the event.” —Thor Bridge
“The gravest issues may depend upon the smallest things.” —The Creeping Man
“When one tries to rise above Nature one is liable to fall before it. The highest type of man may revert to the animal if he leaves the straight road of destiny.” —The Creeping Man
“The ways of Fate are indeed hard to understand.” —The Veiled Lodger.
“The example of patient suffering is in itself the most precious of all lessons to an impatient world.” —The Veiled Lodger
“It is only the colorless, uneventful case which is hopeless.” —Shoscombe Old Place
“You do occasionally find a carrion crow among the eagles.” —Shoscombe Old Place
“You’ll get results by always putting yourself in the other fellow’s place, and thinking what you would do yourself. It takes some imagination but it pays.” —The Retired Colourman