Friday, January 18, 2013

How Many Steps to Baker Street? - A "Mastermind" Special.

[To the reader: enjoyment of what follows may be enriched if you 'hear' the voices of Jeremy Brett & David Burke whilst reading.]

"So, Watson," said he, suddenly, "You do not propose to play billiards with Thurston tonight?"

I gave a start of astonishment. I had barely entered his rooms after dropping by on my way home through the swirling January snow to toast myself awhile before his invariably blazing fire.

"How on earth do you know that?" I asked.

He wheeled round upon his stool with a steaming test-tube in his hand and a gleam of amusement in his deep-set eyes.

"Now, Watson, confess yourself utterly taken aback," said he.

"I am."

"Moreover, not only do I know what you do NOT propose to do, I venture to suggest I have deduced precisely how you have chosen to pass a pleasant hour or two between arriving home and surrendering to the arms of Morpheus!"

"Oh, come now, Holmes! You can't possibly know. Why, all I have done is climb your seventeen stairs and sit in this very comfortable chair! See, I remember! Seventeen, for what it's worth!" I scoffed, without malice, intrigued, as he knew I would be.

"Ha! Watson! Watson! Will you never learn?" retorted Holmes with an affectation of infinite pity and the profoundest boredom. "I wish me to explain what is the simplest of chains of deduction! Listen and learn, my boy!

"I made, you will recall, two distinct deductions. The first may be summarily dealt with by reference to the date. Today is Sunday. Every fortnight you play billiards with Thurston at your club. An imminent collision of the Earth with a rogue asteroid would not prevent you from keeping this appointment. You are a creature of habit, as punctilious as the trusty Bradshaw. On billiards night, you invariably head straight for the club after your rounds, presenting your good self at Baker Street only afterwards for a late supper.

"It is two weeks since your last club night. You should even now be chalking your cue but you are not. This is self-evidently not your club nor am I Thurston: ergo you have rejected the world of the billiard hall for something of greater moment."

"Well, all right, Holmes. Anyone could work that out if he knew my diary as well as you. However, I cannot see for the life of me how you can possibly know what changed a mind that was all set not an hour ago to keep that very appointment of which you speak!"

Relighting his long cherry-wood pipe with a coal from the fire, Holmes smiled, gathered his dressing gown about him and settled into his favourite fireside chair.

When he eventually spoke it was in that curiously abstracted voice and manner I have often had occasion to note when he is totally absorbed in the delineation of a logical chain of deduction.

"The sequence of observations leading to the only possible conclusion I shall presently reveal began with your arrival by cab.

"Even from these upper rooms I could clearly discern in the frosted night air your hasty 'valete' to the cabby. I know you to be a generous man but your instruction to 'keep the change!' was I think motivated rather by a desire to move from cab to door as quickly as possible in this inclement weather. Indeed the door banged shut but a moment later."

"Yes...yes, go on."

"You did not linger in the hall exchanging pleasantries with Mrs. Hudson, for I heard your familiar tread upon the stair. And yet...something happened to occasion a delay, for you took rather longer than normal to climb the flight. Now! Rotund as your frame may have become, you yet retain a doctor's fitness. Something other than  a breathlessness made you pause half-way on your journey to these rooms."

"Guilty as charged!" I laughed. "But you couldn't see what!"

"Correct, friend Watson! Not then. But as soon as you entered the room, I saw everything

"My attention was caught first as you doffed your great coat. The evidence is now melted before the fire, but I noted at once the singular distribution of snow. That you sat upon the left side of the cab was both your custom and an elementary deduction from the hoar upon that sleeve. However, full half the back was similarly bedecked with snow, suggesting you had twisted in the cab to shield some item from the weather. 

"When a man walks into my room and deposits an empty cardboard package into my waste basket, I must assume he has recently opened it and extracted the contents."

Involuntarily, my eyes strayed from Holmes to the basket by the door. 

"Furthermore," he went on, now well in his stride, " when I observe the tell-tale familiar logo of '' at this moment protruding from my bin, I must assume the content to have been a book, CD or DVD ordered and purchased from that illustrious emporium. Now, the size of the package excludes an example of their excellent musical discs. A book or pamphlet? Book it is without doubt. Just look at the remnant package's construction, designed to provide postal protection to a hard back of an inch or so in thickness."

I was on the point of asking, sarcastically, the title and author of my book when Holmes intervened.

"And now! The most elegant passage of this diverting Sonata in Deduction!"

His face took on that expression of perfect bliss it evinced when my friend  played the violin.

"We must now momentarily retrace your steps," he said, gleefully. "Not only did the good doctor pause upon the stair, I heard him retreat and advance at least twice! You were counting the steps!"

I was entranced and Holmes knew it.

"As you dithered on the stair I sat here asking myself why on earth today of all days should remind you of that little object lesson in observation we both recall from all those years ago."

"The Adler case as I remember, yes!"

He continued as if I had never spoken.

"Something had triggered the memory. But what? You entered and I knew!

"You had stopped on the stair to remove a book from its packing: a book you had been so keen to peruse that you opened it and attempted to read in the cab; a book you had only just received through the post!"

"Hang on, now, Holmes! You can't possibly know it only arrived today!"

"Ah! But I do. You see, whatever book it was had prompted you to recount the Baker Street steps. Whatever book it was, you had not advanced very far in reading (the cardboard wrapping, the brief cab journey); whatever book it was is fully an inch thick and a book you do not wish me to know you are reading!"

I looked up, shame- faced, to find Sherlock Holmes standing over me.

"There is only one book that meets all these conditions, only one book which contains within its opening pages ('The Prelude' if memory serves) reference to the seventeen steps of 221b Baker Street! It is secreted in the doctor's bag you have not released from your grip since you arrived - that excellent little publication by Ms. Konnikova, the American, entitled, 'Mastermind - How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes'!"

"Brilliant, Holmes!"

"'Elementary, my dear Watson!' - to quote some of my less accurate celluloid portrayals."

As he spoke it occurred to me I might yet turn abject embarrassment into triumph. "Wait a minute! You don't have the monopoly on deductions. Permit me: - Sherlock Holmes knows his steps are mentioned in a certain book: therefore - Sherlock Holmes must have read that book!"

" I may have dipped into it," he countered, airily."it is not totally devoid of redeeming features." 

[The reader, and, especially, Ms. Konnikova, must at this point provide the delightful memory of Jeremy Brett momentarily laughing and winking at Dr. Watson, before resuming his wonted mask of inscrutability.]

"Oh, and it's risers, Watson. You count the risers not the treads. Don't worry, old friend, I won't tell anyone. I saw your mind ticking over on the stairs as to which you should count. Simple when you consider you rise to the level of Mr. Sherlock Holmes only when you raise that increasingly portly frame for the seventeenth time!" 

Helping You Up The Steps.


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