Good-night Mister Sherlock Holmes

March 14, 2009

“… the calculation is a simple one.”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mark Loper @ 8:33 am
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In Silver Blaze, Holmes and Watson are on a train going to Exeter. Holmes has been reading all the papers have to say about the disappearance of the horse, Silver Blaze. Apparently satisfied, he thrusts the papers under the seat and comments to Watson:

“We are going well,” said he, looking out of the window, and glancing at his watch. “Our rate at present is fifty-three and a half miles an hour.”

“I have not observed the quarter-mile posts,” said I.

“Nor have I. But the telegraph posts upon this line are sixty yards apart, and the calculation is a simple one.

So how did Holmes calculate the speed of the train? According to Watson, Holmes was looking out of the window then glanced at his watch so we will assume he counted a set number of poles, then noted elapsed time.

Let’s assume Holmes decided to count, say, 26 posts (or 25 sixty-yard intervals), how many seconds would have elapsed when he again looked at his watch? We know that the rate of the train divided into the distance equals elapsed time (Rate x Time = Distance → Time = Distance ÷ Rate). In this case we know the rate is 53.5 mph and the distance of the 25 posts is 1500 yards (the posts are 60 yards apart).  After Holmes counted, the 26th post, he would have consulted his watch and noted 57.35 seconds elapsed time.  The calculation would have been: 1500 yards/57.35 seconds = 53.5 mph. Maybe not a simple calculation but for Holmes, apparently it was.

But wait, we’re talking Sherlock Holmes here, surely thee is a better way.

Suppose Holmes noted the time interval between any two posts (60 yards)?  The elapsed time would have to be 2.33374 seconds which would be difficult to note on a simple pocket-watch but the distance between any four posts (180 yards) would be 7.001 seconds, a much easier determination and 180 yards in 7.001 seconds is a relatively simple calculation and yields: 53.509 miles per hour.


March 12, 2009

“The curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

I believe The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes to be the best of the Sherlock Holmes stories. This is only opinion and others will obviously disagree with me — and this is not to say there’re aren’t some great stories in the other collections and that there aren’t some average stories among the Memoirs — but these, ah, these seem to me to depict Holmes at his very finest.

Silver Blaze — the first story in the collection — is a perennial favorite among Holmes fans (and one of Doyle’s favorites too).  It has a little something for everyone and one line in particular has found its way into English speaker’s lexicon:  “The curious incident of the dog in the night-time” has become almost cliche for something that is counter-intuitive and is sure to ferret out Holmes fans if uttered in a group of any size.

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.


Holmes handily solves the problem — though Watson too was first rate, recognizing the possibility Silver Blaze walking out of the stable behind the stable boy and the likelihood John Straker’s leg wound was accidentally self inflected.  Holmes makes the pivotal conclusion Fitzroy Simpson could not have anticipated curried-mutton was to be served the night of the horse abduction (which would have masked the taste of the powered opium) thereby eliminating him as a suspect. And of course the curious incident of the dog in the night-time in which Holmes garners a clue based on what the dog did not do.

The story itself is very tightly written but there were a couple errors or inconsistencies describing the sport of horse racing which Author Conan Doyle acknowledges in an essay entitled “Highlights of Sherlock Holmes”:

“I have, for example, never been a racing man, and yet I ventured to write “Silver Blaze”, in which the mystery depends upon the laws of training and racing. The story is alright, and Holmes may have been at the top of his form, but my ignorance cries aloud to heaven. I read an excellent and damaging criticism of the story in some sporting paper, written clearly by a man who did know, in which he explained the exact penalties which would have come upon every one concerned if they had acted as I described. Half would have been in jail and the other half warned off the turf forever.”

I noticed at least one of these when I first read Silver Blaze. It occurred to me that Silas Brown — the horse-faker who, at Holmes instruction, was holding Silver Blaze at Mapleton until the day of the race — stood to gain a great deal even though he was culpable in the abduction of the horse. Brown was the only one who knew Silver Blaze was going to run (other than Holmes) so he could have — and apparently did — influence the betting in his favor. It’s unlike Holmes to allow a criminal to profit.

No, other than the errors that Doyle has himself acknowledged, Sliver Blaze is Holmes at his finest. The only irregularity I found — and remember, Holmes is held to a higher standard than regular men — concerned Dawson the stable-boy from Mapleton.  Holmes offered Dawson a half-crown for information about the missing horse but he was prevented from collecting by the arrival Silas Brown.  Yet there is no mention of any further interaction between Dawson and Holmes. Surely Holmes didn’t stiff the kid?

That is not at all like Holmes.  We’ll assume he left it atop a fence post on his way off the Mapleton property. No doubt young Dawson was watching from a distance and Holmes would surly have been aware of that.

I also wondered how Silas Brown was able to keep the disguised Silver Blaze hidden until race day?  Probably Holmes had it right when he observed of Mr. Brown:

“Oh, an old horse-faker like him has many a dodge.”

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