Virginia Tech® home

Brain Teasers

What can detective fiction teach us?

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes, played with great panache by Benedict Cumberbatch, is the quintessential genius-as-detective. Archives du 7E Art/Hartswood/Alamy

The stout, florid-faced gentleman with fiery-red hair posed “quite a three-pipe problem.” And so Sherlock Holmes “curled himself up in his chair, with his thin knees drawn up to his hawk-like nose, and there he sat with his eyes closed and his black clay pipe thrusting out like the bill of some strange bird.”

In those tobacco-infused moments of contemplation, Holmes does more than solve the mystery of “The Red-Headed League”; he also devises a trap to catch the criminals.

“That’s one of Sherlock’s great strengths,” says Shoshana Milgram Knapp, a Virginia Tech associate professor of English who teaches detective fiction. “He doesn’t limit himself to the mystery his redheaded visitor brought him, which was why the man’s ludicrous job had disappeared. Instead, Sherlock redefines the problem: Why, for months, had the man been lured from his home at the same time every day?”

Detective fiction, Knapp believes, is an excellent model for life—and for reasoning. It teaches us to identify the telling detail, to find nuanced patterns, to separate the important from the inconsequential and irrelevant, and to challenge our own assumptions. It requires us to search for consistency and coherence and to weigh the reliability of evidence as we seek to assemble the entire puzzle.

“Ultimately, detective fiction isn’t about crime, but about the truth,” says Knapp. “It’s not surprising that some totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi Germany, disliked detective fiction because it shows that an individual mind can discover the truth, even with an entire force of people working to prevent the truth from emerging.”

The genre also carries the component of justice, Knapp adds. It’s not enough simply to use your mind to discover the truth; you need to ensure that other people learn it as well, to allow corrective actions to be taken.

“Detective fiction rewards the alert mind at the same time it trains us to think, to find the truth, and to champion justice,” Knapp says. “Sherlock Holmes stories are classic examples. And Dr. Watson, with his non-genius mind, is the perfect foil because he allows Sherlock to explain his deductions to the reader.”

Watson does often admit to feeling the limitations of his own acumen.

“I trust that I am not more dense than my neighbors,” he laments, upon the solving of a mystery, “but I was always oppressed with a sense of my own stupidity in my dealings with Sherlock Holmes. Here I had heard what he had heard, I had seen what he had seen, and yet from his words it was evident that he saw clearly not only what had happened but what was about to happen, while to me the whole business was still confused and grotesque.”

Perhaps poor Watson—like others of us with non-genius minds—could benefit from a further delving into detective fiction.

Written by Paula Byron