Boy Sherlock

March 27, 2013

Already a detective at eight, when I was about ten years old (about 1954), I became Sherlock Holmes.

I had become increasingly enthralled by the famous detective’s exploits gleaned from a borrowed book, and then my doting grandmother presented me with my very own volume of the complete tales (four novels and fifty-six short stories). I was soon off and sleuthing.

Like Sherlock (in A Study in Scarlet) I carried about a magnifying glass, envelopes, and a simple tape measure (the type tailors use). I took samples of various kinds of trace evidence and examined them at my own version of Holmes’ “chemical corner” (mentioned in “The Adventure of the Empty House”), complete with “low-power microscope” (“The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place”). I also sought to confirm the detective’s assertion (in A Study in Scarlet) that “the height of a man, in nine cases out of ten, can be told from the length of his stride” (although, of course one’s stride is hardly an invariable).

So it is perhaps understandable how I would react upon reading (in “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman”) that Holmes had observed a certain feature of the protagonist’s appearance. As Holmes succinctly told Dr. Watson, who had missed the detail, the man had his “Left shoe wrinkled, right one smooth.” This meant, he explained, that the man had an “artificial limb.” (Well, at least he had an inflexible foot.)

My curiosity piqued, I wanted to see just such an instructive pair of footwear. Then I remembered a storekeeper on our little town’s Main Street, a man said to have a wooden leg. An Armenian American, the gentleman would no doubt have been characteristically described by Watson as “swarthy,” and, I must say, he always seemed to me a rather exotic figure.

The man typically stood outside his cluttered little department store to greet people, so I had the perfect opportunity to make my observation. This I did one summer day. I feared I would seem obvious, but I nevertheless passed by—my eyes cast to my quarry’s feet—not once but twice, getting a good look at, yes, the mismatched toes of his boots!

I thus developed a small boy’s notion of becoming—what philosopher Paul Kurtz would in fact label me several decades later (after much additional schooling and self-training)—“the modern Sherlock Holmes.” Obviously, something was awakened in me that very long time ago.