Friday, February 26, 2010

Sometimes Even Sherlock Holmes Has to Look Something Up

Let's talk handbooks.

I loved them as a boy, handbooks of all kinds covering everything from model railroading to rocketry; they were books that you could make happen in the real world. It was only later that I realized that almost any book can be a handbook. What's The Great Gatsby, after all, but a handbook on how to woo a woman by being a cool and mysterious millionaire?

The one I carried most was the Boy Scout Handbook. Need to hitch up a horse or a boat? It has you covered. Want to bake a potato in aluminum foil beneath a bed of coals? It'll tell you how. Trying to follow a deer? Bingo, it's here. Hiking, camping, lifesaving, even the rudiments of morality: this book has plenty to offer the enterprising and adventuresome lad.

But can it tell you how to make a dramatic entrance? How to analyze footprints, fingerprints, typography, or bullets? What if you need to fake your own death by surviving a plunge into a waterfall? I don't remember that from my Scout handbook, and I could have used it more than once, let me tell you.

These are all necessary skills for the really enterprising and adventuresome lad. Even cavemen knew how to hike and camp, but only The Sherlock Holmes Handbook by Ransom Riggs can teach you to find a secret chamber or examine a crime scene with flair and panache.

Now, all things being equal, you should be learning from Sherlock Holmes far more directly by reading the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in which he stars; I suggest the Barnes and Noble editions for being inexpensive and compact. I particularly recommend "The Musgrave Ritual," "A Study in Scarlet," and "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" as excellent examples of the art of detection, though you can hardly go wrong with any of the tales.

Yet there are times when you can't read a whole short story to look up just one principle of forensics, and that's when The Sherlock Holmes Handbook comes in handy. Nicely organized and illustrated, not to mention compact and durable, you can keep this volume in your coat pocket or under the seat of your hansom for those tough spots when stress and danger strain your memory.

We've all been there, right? You're fleeing from Professor Moriarty and you come across the footprints of someone following you. It's been a stressful week, with two dozen thugs from the London underworld hunting you at every turn, and you've forgotten the ratio between the length of a foot and the height of a person. Fortunately, it is on page 35 of your handbook: simply divide the length of the foot by 0.15 for a bare foot and 0.16 for one in a shoe.

As a kid, I carried my Boy Scout Handbook everywhere. I was disappointed, though, at how infrequently those skills came up. Sure, I'd go crashing through the Florida palmetto fronds to follow an animal's trail once in a while, but you really only use those skills once a month at a Scout campout. Even the stuff you do every day, being trustworthy and loyal and all the rest, doesn't need to be looked up that often.

No, I'd have found The Sherlock Holmes Handbook far more useful in my day-to-day life as a kid--though that may say something scary about my childhood. The section about analyzing bullet evidence would have been especially helpful for that time when my father accidentally shot the dining room table.

But there's something else about a handbook, really, something aspirational: when we carry one around, we're kind of hoping we'll have to use it. We're hoping to be the kind of person that book represents.

If you're the kind of person who aspires to use the power of analytical reasoning to bring justice to the world, this is your handbook. If you're the kind of person who aspires to learn the secrets of royalty, to live of the mind, to do interesting things with zest and enthusiasm--this is your handbook.

(Though maybe you should know how to build a fire, too.)


Diana Munoz Stewart said...

What a great article. I didn't realize until I read this how sorely lacking in such a handbook my life has been. I must purchase before my next crime solving expedition--which will probably be something along the lines of who left the mustard out. It's usually the butler.

Will Ludwigsen said...

See? You could probably teach Holmes a thing or two. Maybe he knows how to analyze bullets and shoe prints, but you've got the whole mustard angle covered.