I Lived Like Sherlock Holmes For A Week, And Here's What I Learned
That's me, wearing a deerstalker hat I bought off the Internet. As an experiment, I spent last week living my life like Sherlock Holmes. Mainly, this meant buying into Holmes' theories of deductive reasoning, paying attention to the meaning of all the details that surrounded me, and reading the news for crimes and mysteries. I even spent Saturday playing the piano and ruminating, just as Holmes does with his violin.
Holmes is, of course, one of the biggest figures in English literature. Originated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1887 novella, A Study in Scarlet, hundreds of writers across the centuries have penned stories featuring Holmes and Watson. Numerous adaptations and reimaginings have been created, with stars like Robert Downey, Jr., Sir Ian McKellan, and Benedict Cumberbatch each putting their own spin on Holmes' character. Before setting out, I picked up The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories, edited by Otto Penzler, and immersed myself in all the different tellings of Holmes' character.
My ability to walk in Holmes' shoes, was of course limited. For one, I don't do any drugs, and so there was no way that I was trying opium. (Oddly enough, this is the first question people brought up when I told them about this project.) And while Holmes lives in 19th century London, I live in 21st century New York City. While they're both urban playgrounds — filled with people, taxis, and rain — the two settings are different beasts indeed. But these differences meant that my immersion into Sherlock's world was all the more exciting.
In my brain, I've always fashioned myself a bit of a detective. On top of Sherlock Holmes, I've spent most of my life eating up detective stories: Agatha Christie, Nancy Drew, Paul Auster, Mary Higgins Clark, the list goes on and on. I'm also a very detail-oriented person, and pride myself on being able to catch tiny errors and anachronisms, especially in writing. I have a strange habit of accidentally memorizing information, especially phone numbers, which comes in handy a lot of the time. Oh, and I love to eavesdrop. I thought with all of these qualifications, that going Holmes this week would be a piece of cake. But, I soon learned that in reality, being Sherlock Holmes is nowhere close to elementary.
1. The Subway Is a Prime Spot for Deductions
The game is afoot! The easiest spot to Holmes it up was on the subway for sure. Filled with a changing cast of characters, there were millions of deductions to be made, particularly in my longer commutes from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Every time I stepped on the train, I'd start playing what I labeled in my mind as "The Deduction Game," where I'd examine a person near me and try to decide where they were going, where they were coming from, what their life was like, etc. As Holmes says, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."I deduced that the pair of older women gabbing had just finished a book club meeting together. I looked at the man next to me's work boots and imagined him coming home from a day's work in construction. The two suit-clad bros behind me discussing their buddy's poor real estate decisions obviously worked in the Financial District. The young girl sleeping on her mom's shoulder was coming home from an overlong extra-curricular activity uptown.
2. Paying That Much Attention Makes You Feel Vulnerable
Living in New York, you learn to survive by not making waves. You keep your head down, you don't make eye contact, and you stay wrapped up in your own little universe. But this week, as I tried to glean what I could from deductions, it meant that I had to pick up my eyes and really look at the people I was sharing the world with. I found that this act made me feel immediately exposed. As if, by looking at them, I myself was being put under a huge magnifying glass. It made me squeamish. Plus, people can feel when they have eyes on them, and many times I found myself looking strangers directly in the eye and then quickly, habitually, darting my gaze away.
3. The Deduction Game is Tiring
This whole week, I couldn't stop thinking about David Foster Wallace's "This is Water" speech, in which he urges his audience to pull out of auto-pilot and pay attention to the world around them. People often draw connections between this way of thinking and the factors that influenced Wallace's suicide a few years later. However you interpret the speech, I found that playing the deduction game was mentally and emotionally exhausting. It made it impossible to ignore the harder parts of the world around me. Perhaps this is why New Yorkers are prone to looking down, because there is so much here that is hard to see. But, as Wallace says, "The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day."
4. Actual Crime Is Not Fun
While Holmes and Watson's adventures deal with complex puzzles and sophisticated murders, the reality of crime is far more ugly. The crime headlines this week were filled with violence against children, hate crimes, and a lot of hit-and-runs. Instead of promising a romp through London, reading the news made me feel upset and helpless. These crimes don't need a consulting detective to stop them. Rather, the way to be a hero in today's world is to support shelters (like the Henry Street Settlement, a shelter for survivors of domestic violence) and lend your voice to movements like #BlackLivesMatter.
5. ...Even with a Catchy Name
If my life were actually a Sherlock Holmes story, there would undoubtedly be a mention of the Subway Slasher. Here in NYC, there has been a disturbing trend of people getting slashed in the face on the subway (there was even a man slashed this week), and it's on the entire city's mind. From the sound of things, there's not one slasher in particular, but you know in a Holmes story there would be some elaborate plot connecting all the incidents. Plus, with a pithy name like that, how could Watson resist writing about it? But even with all the name's flair, the reality of subway slashings is terrifying. For instance, on Friday, a man accidentally bumped into another person on the train and was slashed. There is absolutely nothing romantic about that, it is just awful.
6. Holmesian Deductions Make for Good Writing
Though I didn't catch any murderers or uncover any secret societies, there was one big success of this whole experiment: After a whole week of playing The Deduction Game, my head is filled with characters and scenarios that I'm just itching to write about. Perhaps even just an hour or two of walking in Holmes' shoes would be the perfect cure for anyone's writer's block.
Images: Melissa Ragsdale for Bustle; Giphy.com (6)