August 14, 2012
When Sherlock Holmes walks into a crime scene, he displays the uncanny ability to deduce how the crime unfolded: where the criminal entered, how the victim was murdered, what weapons were used, and so on. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard must follow procedure, cordoning off and documenting the crime scene in order to reconstruct the criminal narrative. A crime scene sketch is an important part of this process. Typically, a floor plan is drawn before a building is constructed, but the crime scene sketch is a particularly noteworthy exception, as it not only verifies information in crime scene photographs, but includes dimensions and measurement that establish precise locations of evidence and objects relative to the space of the room. This information, properly obtained, can be used to assist both the investigation and the court case. But what if this investigative method is used on the flat of the world’s most famous detective?
221B Baker Street is rarely the scene of the crime (there are exceptions, such as “The Adventure of the Dying Detective”), but is instead the scene of the deduction, where Sherlock smokes his pipe or plays his violin while unraveling the latest mystery brought to his doorstep. Whether made by pencil or computer, these architectural drawings represent a reversal of the building-plan relationship. We’ve previously described the extent to which some Sherlock Holmes devotees have constructed their own version of 221B in tribute to the great detective. However, those with a curious mind who lack the resources to collect enough Victorian antiques to recreate the famous London flat are not excluded from the game. In fact, their pen-and-paper speculative reconstructions are not limited by cost and space. With such freedom, is it possible to determine what 221B Baker street truly looked like? As with the full reconstructions, there are many different speculative floor plans on 221B, ranging from the crude to the highly detailed. Most of these scholarly drawings are found exclusively in the pages of Sherlockian journals and club publications, but two of the most widely circulated plans will suffice to illustrate the complexities of rendering a literary space.
In 1948, Ernest H. Short drafted what would be one of the more widely circulated and thorough renderings of 221B when it was published in the pages of The Strand Magazine in 1950. Short’s drawing includes the rooms and furniture of Holmes’s flat, as well as sundry artifacts from his adventures and annotations noting the origin of each item. Traces of Holmes’s exploits and evidence of his proclivities line the walls and adorn the shelves. The Baker Street flat is a reflection of its occupant: his violin, his pipe, his costume closet. Chris Redmond, of the expansive Holmesian resource Sherlockian.net has called it “probably the most elegant re-creation of the sitting-room and adjacent rooms in Holmes and Watson’s lodgings.” His claim was likely true until 1995, when illustrator Russell Stutler drew 221B for an article in the Financial Times.
Stutler created his rendering after reading through every Sherlock Holmes story twice and taking extensive notes of every single detail mentioned about the flat. The details of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories are full of contradictions that Sherlockians revel in rationalizing, and the various descriptions of Holmes’s flat are no exception. Most famously, “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” presents some difficulties for those reconstructing 221B, as evidenced by some of the clumsy resolutions in Short’s drawing. Stutler notes:
“The Adventure of the Beryl Cornet” implies that Holmes’ room (called his “chamber”) is on the floor above the sitting room while “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” clearly puts Holmes’ bedroom just off the sitting room where it communicates with the alcove of the bow window. If you need to reconcile these two descriptions you can assume that at some point in time, Holmes moved his bed down to the room next to the sitting room. This could be the same room just off the sitting room which had been used as a temporary waiting room in “The Adventure of Black Peter.” The room upstairs could then be used as a lumber room dedicated to Holmes’ stacks of newspapers and “bundles of manuscript…which were on no account to be burned, and which could not be put away save by their owner” as mentioned in the “The Musgrave Ritual.” “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons” does mention a lumber room upstairs packed with daily papers.
As we’ve seen previously, these ostensible inconsistencies in Conan Doyle’s stories can be quite rationally explained by a well-informed Sherlockian. After all, as Holmes reminded Watson in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” I highly recommend reading Stutler’s full post, which includes a list of every reference used to create the image as well as a fully-annotated version of the above drawing.
More recently, the BBC television series Sherlock has introduced an entirely new generation of potential Sherlockians to the world’s only consulting detective. Some of these men and women have already dedicated themselves to analyzing the series, which presents an entirely new canon—clever interpretations of the original stories—for mystery enthusiasts to dissect and discuss. Instead of thumbing through a text page after page in search of clues describing 221B, these new digital drafstmen are more likely to pause a digital video frame by frame to dutifully reconstruct, in digital form, the new version of the famous flat now occupied by Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Martin Freeman’s Watson. These contemporary Sherlockians turn to free drafting software or video games instead of pen and paper. The following renderings, for example, come from the free drafting program Sketchup and the video game Minecraft.
If documentation, speculation, and informed reconstruction of a crime scenes make the criminal narrative clear, then perhaps applying the process to a “deduction scene” can do the same for the detective’s literary narrative. Like the crime scene sketch, the above deduction scene sketches of 221B Baker St are architectural drawings created ex post facto with the intent to clearly illustrate a narrative in pursuit of understanding. In “The Five Deadly Pips” Sherlock Holmes himself states that “The observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents, should be able accurately to state all the other ones, both before and after.” By drawing 221B , the reader or viewer gains a more thorough understanding of one link in Holmes’s life, his flat, and can perhaps then, by Holmes’s logic, gain more insight into the life and actions of the famous detective that continues to capture the world’s imagination.
This is the sixth and final post in our series on Design and Sherlock Holmes. Our previous investigations looked into Mind Palaces, The tech tool of a modern Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes’s original tools of deduction, Holmes’s iconic deerstalker hat, and the mysteriously replicating flat at 221b Baker Street.
August 6, 2012
Most of us think of memory as a chamber of the mind, and assume that our capacity to remember is only as good as our brain. But according to some architectural theorists, our memories are products of our body’s experience of physical space. Or, to consolidate the theorem: Our memories are only as good as our buildings.
In the BBC television series “Sherlock,” the famous detective’s capacious memory is portrayed through the concept of the “mind palace“—what is thought to be a sort of physical location in the brain where a person stores memories like objects in a room. Describing this in the book A Study in Scarlet, Holmes says, “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…”
The mind palace—also known as the memory palace or method of loci—is a mnemonic device thought to have originated in ancient Rome, wherein items that need to be memorized are pinned to some kind of visual cue and strung together into a situated narrative, a journey through a space. The science writer and author Joshua Foer covered this technique in depth in his book Moonwalking with Einstein, in which he trained for and ultimately won the U.S. Memory Championship. To memorize long lists of words, a deck of cards, a poem, or a set of faces, mental athletes, as they’re called, fuse a familiar place—say, the house they grew up in—with a self-created fictional environment populated by the objects in their list. In an excerpt from his book published in the New York Times, Foer describes his own palace construction:
I was storing the images in the memory palace I knew better than any other, one based on the house in Washington in which I grew up. Inside the front door, the Incredible Hulk rode a stationary bike while a pair of oversize, loopy earrings weighed down his earlobes (three of clubs, seven of diamonds, jack of spades). Next to the mirror at the bottom of the stairs, Terry Bradshaw balanced on a wheelchair (seven of hearts, nine of diamonds, eight of hearts), and just behind him, a midget jockey in a sombrero parachuted from an airplane with an umbrella (seven of spades, eight of diamonds, four of clubs). I saw Jerry Seinfeld sprawled out bleeding on the hood of a Lamborghini in the hallway (five of hearts, ace of diamonds, jack of hearts), and at the foot of my parents’ bedroom door, I saw myself moonwalking with Einstein (four of spades, king of hearts, three of diamonds).
According to Foer, in order for this technique to work, the features of the memory palace must be hyperreal, exaggerating the edges of normalcy in order to stand out in the mind. Whether the palace is a modernist bungalow or a faux-Italianate McMansion or a mobile home doesn’t matter, so long as it is memorable, which is to say, so long as it is a place.
The philosopher Edward S. Casey defines a “place”—as distinct from a “site”—as a physical location where memories can be contained and preserved. An empty lot, for example, would be considered a site—a generic, boundless locale which “possesses no points of attachment onto which to hang our memories, much less retrieve them.” By contrast, a place is “full of protuberant features and forceful vectors—and distinct externally from other places…We observe this when an indifferent building lot, easily confused with other empty lots, is transformed into a memorable place by the erection of a distinctive house upon it.”
From an architect’s perspective, the transformation of a site (or you could call it a space) into a place is a two-way process. Erecting a structure enables the space to contain memories, and the installation of memories turns that structure into a place. In his essay in the book Spatial Recall: Memory in Architecture and Landscape, UC Berkeley architecture professor Donlyn Lyndon explains, ”‘Place,’ as I understand it, refers to spaces that can be remembered, that we can imagine, hold in the mind, and consider.”
Lyndon argues that “Good places are structured so that they attract and hold memories; they are sticky—or perhaps you would rather say magnetic.” He suggests that buildings which try too hard to control the experience of the user ultimately fail to become true places. “Seeking to make each place a singular, memorable work of art often makes the insistence of its vocabulary resistant to the attachment of memories—to the full engagement of the people who use and live with the building.”
This is perhaps why, when building a mind palace, we are told to enhance and distort the standard features of our design. As we add character and color, our own emotions and reactions become the plaster between the walls of our palace and the hooks on which we hang the ace of hearts or the Prince of Wales or the breakfast cereal. Just as we usually think of memory as the property of the head, we often place emotion in the heart and reaction in the gut, and suddenly through this process, the whole physical body becomes integrated into memorization.
In another essay in Spatial Recall, Finnish architecture professor Juhani Pallasmaa asserts, “Human memory is embodied, skeletal and muscular in its essence, not merely cerebral,” later punctuating his point with a quote from Casey, the philosopher: “[B]ody memory is…the natural center of any sensitive account of remembering.”
In other words, while the mind palace technique may seem charmingly counterintuitive to the average rememberer of grocery lists, it is probably the most innate method of recall we have, if we learn how to use it. Which is, of course, why Sherlock Holmes was able to mentally reconstruct crimes in order to solve mysteries, and why Joshua Foer had a relatively short road to becoming a national memory champion.
August 2, 2012
In our previous post on the tools that assist Sherlock Holmes in making his astounding deductions, we looked at the optical technologies of the 19th century. Holmes was at the cutting edge of science with his surprising and sometimes disconcerting use of these devices. In Victorian England, he was indeed the most modern of modern men. But what tools would such a man use today? According to Steven Moffat, creator of “Sherlock”, the incredibly successful BBC series that re-imagines Sherlock Holmes in present-day London, the most important tool used by the world’s only consulting detective is his mobile phone.
Yes, the simple mobile phone. Perhaps not as elegant as a well-crafted magnifying glass, but nonetheless suited for solving mysteries in modern London. While the high-tech investigators of “CSI” and similar shows have a bevy of machines available at their disposal, Sherlock Holmes has no need for such resources. Nor is it likely that Sherlock, an independent sort with a collection of social quirks and personal idiosyncrasies (to put it kindly), would have the desire to work within such an organization. Of course, he still has his personal lab and conducts his own experiments in his 221B Baker Street flat, but in this contemporary portrayal, the mobile phone has replaced the iconic magnifying glass as the tool most closely associated with Holmes.
In fact, in the premiere episode of the BBC series, ”A Study in Pink,” Sherlock’s first onscreen “appearance” is in the form of a visualized text message that interrupts a Scotland Yard press conference. One could understand the appeal of the text message to Holmes, as it is purely objective mode of communication; a means to reach a single person or a group of people without having to confront ignorance or recognize any social mores. But of course the phone does much more than send texts.
Many of today’s mobile phones are equipped with GPS devices and digital maps. Sherlock, however, has no use for such features for he has memorized the streets of London. He quickly accesses this mental map while pursuing a taxi through the city’s labyrinthian streets and rooftops. The entire chase is visualized using contemporary digital map iconography. The implication is clear: Sherlock’s encyclopedic knowledge of London is as thorough as that of any computer – and easier to access. Though the specific mode of representation is updated for today’s audience, this characterization keeps true to the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories. In “The Red-Headed League” Holmes tells Watson, “It is a hobby of mine to have an exact knowledge of London.” As we see in Sherlock, an intimate knowledge of streets and houses is as useful in the era of Google maps as it is the time of gas lamps.
In Sherlock viewers are able to watch the eponymous detective conduct web searches via the same unobtrusive, minimal graphics used to represent his text messages. Overlaid onto the scene as a sort of heads-up-display, these graphics let the viewer follow Sherlock’s investigation and learn how his mind works. Although the relevance of his web searches may not always be immediately obvious, such is the fun of watching a detective story unfold. And such is the the wonder of Sherlock Holmes. Today, we all have access to unimaginable amounts of data, but Sherlock’s genius is in how he uses that information.
As with the magnifying glass, the mobile phone merely augments Sherlock’s natural abilities. And, as with the magnifying glass, the mobile phone is so closely associated with Holmes that it becomes, in a way, indistinguishable from the detective. This is made evident when the same onscreen graphic language used to show text messages and web searches is also used to show Sherlock’s own deductive reasoning. In “A Study in Pink,” as Holmes makes his rapid deductions about a dead body, we see his thought process appear onscreen in real-time: the woman is left handed, her jacket is wet but her umbrella is dry, her wedding ring is clean on the inside but scuffed on the outside, the metal has aged. It’s elementary that victim is a serial adulterer in her late 40s. As we follow along with the help of this Holmes-Up-Display, we’re invited to reach the conclusion along with Sherlock but we also get a glimpse of how quickly his mind works.
In the recent Guy Ritiche Sherlock Holmes films, slow motion effects are used to illustrate the speed at which Holmes can think. But in Moffat’s version, the same point is made using the language of digital search technologies. Sherlock thinks as fast as we can google. Probably faster. But there are some things that even Sherlock can’t know. Where, for example, did it recently rain in the UK? For these facts Holmes turns back to the mobile phone –as trusty an ally as Watson– and we see his deductive process continue as he types in his search queries. Graphically, the transition from human thought to web search is seamless. As it did in the 19th century, Sherlock’s use of technology blurs the line between machine and man. Even in a time when Watson has become a “Jeopardy!”-playing supercomputer, Moffat’s Sherlock, like Conan Doyle’s original figure, is still “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen.” With the right tools and the right knowledge Sherlock Holmes, in any era, is a frightfully modern man.
This is the fourth post in our series on Design and Sherlock Holmes. Our previous investigations looked into Sherlock Holmes’s original tools of deduction, Holmes’s iconic deerstalker hat, and the mysteriously replicating flat at 221b Baker Street.
July 31, 2012
Sherlock Holmes’s extraordinary talent for deduction has been well documented by Arthur Conan Doyle. Though they often seem nearly mystical in origin, Holmes’s deductions were in fact the product of a keenly trained mind. Holmes was well-versed in forensic science before there was a forensic science to be well versed in. In his first adventure with Dr. John Watson, A Study in Scarlet, Watson himself enumerates the skills, talents, and interests in which Holmes exhibited a useful capacity. According to Watson, Holmes’s knowledge of botany is “variable”, his skill in geography is “practical but limited”, his knowledge of chemistry “profound”, and regarding human anatomy, his knowledge is “accurate.” The applied knowledge of these various sciences made “the science of deduction” possible. But you don’t have to take Watson’s word for it. Forensic scientist and Holmes scholar Dr. Robert Ing, has closely read Conan Doyle’s stories to craft a more specific list of skills that Holmes demonstrates a working knowledge of: chemistry, bloodstain identification, botany, geology, anatomy, law, cryptanalysis, fingerprinting, document examination, ballistics, psychological profiling and forensic medicine. But knowledge by itself is not enough. In order to put these skills to use to find and decipher the clues that lead to his uncanny deductions, Holmes relied on the optical technology of the time: the magnifying glass and microscope. By today’s standards (not to mention the fantastic machines used in television shows like “CSI”) these tools are not advanced, but in Victorian England they were incredibly precise and quite well made.
In his paper “The Art of Forensic Detection and Sherlock Holmes,” Ing deduced that when working at a micro-scale, Holmes would have most likely used a “10 power silver and chrome magnifying glass, a brass tripod base monocular optical microscope probably manufactured by Powell & Lealand.” The specific brands for these tools are never mentioned in any Holmes story, but Ing notes that these items were the most popular at the time.
To get more specific, the microscope Holmes likely used known as the Powell & Lealand No.1, the design of which remained almost completely unchanged for the better half of the nineteenth century. It was known for having some of the finest brass finish and workmanship of the time. The No. 1 was also quite versatile. Its pivoting arm allowed the eyepiece to be turned 360 degrees, completely away from the staging area if necessary. And the body of the microscope is constructed to allow for interchangeable eyepieces – the monoculuar piece (shown) can easily be replaced with the binocular piece or a longer monocular eyepiece, a feature that is also made possible by Powell and Lealand’s unique tube design. And of course the No. 1 also includes an ample stage and the standard macro and micro adjustments. While many microscopes were redesigned and improved over decades, the No. 1 was able to retain its original 1840s design because it was crafted to make it easy to replace parts as lens technology improved. It was a beautifully designed and well-crafted product.
In the 1901 edition of his treatise The Microscope: And Its Revelations, British physician and President of the Microscopal Society of London Dr. William Carpenter, writes that he
“has had one of these microscopes in constant, and often prolonged and continuous, use for over twenty years, and the most delicate work can be done with it to-day. It is nowhere defective, and the instrument has only once been ‘tightened up’ in some parts. Even in such small details as the springing of the sliding clips–the very best clip that can be used– the pivots of the mirror, and the carefully sprung conditions of all cylinders intended to receive apparatus, all are done with care and conscientiousness.”
Surely as diligent an investigator as Holmes would only have the most precise, most reliable microscope.
Now let us turn our attentions to the magnifying glass. The object with which Sherlock Holmes is perhaps most closely associated – and rightfully so. In fact, A Study in Scarlet was the first work of fiction to incorporate the magnifying glass as an investigative tool. In that text, Watson dutifully documents, though he does not fully understand, Holmes’s use of the magnifying glass:
As he spoke, he whipped a tape measure and a large round magnifying glass from his pocket. With these two implements he trotted noiselessly about the room, sometimes stopping, occasionally kneeling, and once lying flat upon his face….As I watched him I was irresistibly reminded of a pure-blooded well-trained foxhound as it dashes backwards and forwards through the covert, whining in its eagerness, until it comes across the lost scent….Finally, he examined with his glass the word upon the wall, going over every letter of it with the most minute exactness. This done, he appeared to be satisfied, for he replaced his tape and his glass in his pocket.
As Holmes stalks the room, Watson compares him to a bloodhound. However, the image of Holmes at work –puffing on his pipe, oblivious to the world around him as he methodically walks back and forth with a large magnifying glass– also evokes a more modern (19th-century modern) comparison: the detective as a steam-powered, crime-solving automaton with a single lens for his all-seeing eye. Indeed, in a later story, Watson calls Holmes “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen.” In the 19th century, these optical technologies changed the way we see the world. The magnifying glass and the microscope reveal aspects of our world that are invisible to the human eye. Sherlock Holmes does the same. The magnifying glass has become so closely associated with Holmes that it is, essentially, a part of him. He internalized and applied this new technologically-assisted understanding of the world so that the optical devices of the 19th century were merely an augmentation of his natural capabilities. As an avatar for humanity’s rapidly expanding perception of the world, Sherlock Holmes was the most modern of modern men.
July 26, 2012
Glen S. Miranker, a.k.a. A Singular Introspector, a.k.a, The Origin of Tree Worship, has one of the largest collections of Sherlock Holmes books, art, and ephemera in the United States. Fortuitously yesterday, while researching the illustrations of the Holmes canon, I discovered that part of Miranker’s collection is currently on view at the Book Club of California in San Francisco. I rushed right over.
As part of our series on Sherlock Holmes, I had been reading up on the visual depictions of Holmes and the extent to which the handful of artists who illustrated Arthur Conan Doyle’s texts over the years—namely Sidney Paget, Frederic Dorr Steele, and H.M. Brock—actually (arguably) did more to define our idea of the quintessential detective than the author himself.
Sherlock’s unmistakeable deerstalker hat, for example, was never mentioned in the printed words of the Holmes books. When Sidney Paget illustrated Doyle’s story, The Boscombe Valley Mystery, for publication in The Strand Magazine in 1891, he gave Sherlock a deerstalker hat and an Inverness cape, and the look was forevermore a must for distinguished detectives—so much so that while the deerstalker was originally meant to be worn by hunters (hence the name), the hat now connotes detective work, even without a detective’s head inside it.
Of course, as many Sherlockians know, the deerstalker wouldn’t have been Holmes’s daily choice of headwear. These hats were country gear, not fit for the city. But several of Doyle’s most popular stories were set outside of town, including The Hound of the Baskervilles, which happens to be the primary focus of Glen S. Miranker’s collection.
Inside the Book Club of California, which sits on the fifth floor of an easily missed building in downtown San Francisco, Miranker’s objects fill three glass cases and cover one long wall. There is antiquarian edition after promotional advertisement celebrating the genius of Doyle’s third novel. Miranker even possesses a couple of leaves from the original manuscript, which, the exhibition text explains, are incredibly rare:
Most of the Hound manuscript was distributed as single pages in a promotion to bookshops for public display by its American publisher, McClure, Phillips…After the exhibition, most of the pages were thrown away. As a consequence of this rude treatment, there is only one known chapter intact (in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library) and perhaps fewer than three dozen single pages.
Needless to say, Miranker claims to have purchased items for his collection that cost more than his first home. One suspects that later homes have rebalanced that equation, as Miranker was for a time the Chief Technology Officer at Apple, among other tech executive jobs. Today, Miranker collects not only Sherlockian items, but also items related to cryptologic history and radio.
Because many of the objects in Miranker’s collection feature art and illustration, it’s easy to see how the Sherlock stories became like celebrity glue, making wildly famous any person or product that became associated with the fictional detective. Commercial art on cigar boxes, cigarette papers and playing cards featured not only Sherlock himself, but also actors who had played him in the theater, and all the set and costume pieces that distinguished his persona. These drawings were done by a variety of artists over the years, and their overall styles reflected the graphic zeitgeist of the time (30s Hollywood, 50s noir), but all were influenced by the earliest drawings, which endowed Sherlock with his signature accessories.
If you find yourself in the Bay Area and you have a penchant for literary history (Sherlockian or otherwise), it’s worth a few minutes of your time to drop by the Book Club of California to see what’s on display.