Batya Swift Yasgur has been contributing regularly to our blog this year. The award-winning author got her start as a fiction writer in the pages of EQMM, in our Department of First Stories. Her latest story for us is January/February 2019’s “Poof.” As she reveals here, like many crime and mystery authors—including Frederic Dannay (of the Ellery Queen writing team)!— it was discovering the Sherlock Holmes stories as a child that really piqued her interest in the mystery genre. We’d love to hear from others who count the Sherlock Holmes stories as one of their inspirations.—Janet Hutchings
I have always been inordinately influenced by what I read. Perhaps it’s because I was a lonely child who didn’t fit in very well with my peers. My parents were both European and had no idea how to help me integrate with American kids (and my father, in particular, had no desire to see it happen). I had a British accent. My father, a brilliant rabbinic orator, never talked down to me, so my vocabulary was in the stratosphere, compared to that of my schoolmates. (What four-year-old apologizes to her teacher for “causing undue anxiety?”) I wasn’t allowed to watch television and had no idea who Superman was. I had never heard of peanut butter. I was also from a more Orthodox family than my peers, so my skirts were longer than everyone else’s.
Needless to say, the other kids teased me relentlessly and my life at school was unending torment. Books were my comfort and haven. Through books, I was introduced to worlds that became more real than the “real world” that I inhabited. My goals and thoughts were shaped by what I read.
So when I read the Doctor Doolittle series, I decided I wanted to become a veterinarian and learn animal language. I mastered a fairly authentic sounding bark—sufficiently doglike to cause a few heads (human and canine) to turn. But I wondered what I was saying in dog language. Perhaps it was rude?
My interest in veterinary medicine petered out when I encountered Sherlock Holmes.
I don’t know who first introduced me to Holmes. It may be that I happened upon one of the books during a foray into the library. I was about twelve or thirteen and as soon as I read the first story, I was hooked. Dr. Doolittle became . . . well . . . just so yesterday. I wanted to be a detective, and not just any old detective—I wanted to be Sherlock Holmes himself.
I got a magnifying glass and attempted to do some sleuthing, which I called “Sherlocking.” I tried to be very observant of details, which didn’t go well, as I wasn’t detail-oriented even then (and I’m notoriously poor with details now).
But what also shaped me was my hero worship of the persona of Holmes himself. He fascinated me. There was much that I didn’t understand—I didn’t know what Scotland Yard was, for example. I didn’t know what cocaine was. But the magnetic persona of Holmes captivated me.
I eventually left my detective ambitions behind after reading I Never Promised You a Rose Gardenby Hannah Green. I was inspired by Dr. Freed (the protagonist’s psychiatrist) to become a psychiatrist—a complex path that eventually led me to where I am now—a social worker with a counseling practice.
Today, with the benefit of my clinical training, I would say that Holmes could be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. When he was working on a case, he would go without sleep or food, driven by his creative, single-minded mania. After the case was solved, he would often crash into depression. He also had what clinicians would call substance-use disorder, since he turned to drugs—especially cocaine—in the absence of stimulating cases. Today, we would say he had a “dual diagnosis.”
Fortunately, I knew nothing about any of this when I was young and I was able to approach Holmes with an open mind and no preconceptions. There is a Zen saying that Holmes himself would have undoubtedly liked: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.”
The connection with Zen isn’t so far-fetched. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a mystic and his spiritual propensities must have influenced his depiction of Holmes. There is much to learn from Holmes about meditation and mindfulness—wholly giving oneself over to the moment, paying attention to every minute detail, every nuance, one-pointed concentration, and quieting the mind.
Often, Holmes would sit in silence, smoking his pipe. In the story “The Red-Headed League,” Holmes described the conundrum he was contemplating as “a three-pipe problem” and asked Watson not to disturb him for fifty minutes. Or in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson wrote: “I knew that seclusion and solitude were very necessary for my friend [Holmes] in those hours of intense mental concentration.”
In fact, Watson talked about Holmes as engaging in meditation. In one of the stories (I forget which), Watson wrote (about Holmes): “He sat in meditative silence.”
My spiritual teacher Adyashanti recounts that at the age of nineteen or so, he read the word “Enlightenment” in a book and was immediately seized with the passion to know what that was and devote himself to finding out. Looking back now, I realize that Watson’s mention of meditation had a profound impact on me. I don’t think I had ever heard the word “meditation” before. Prayer, yes—of course—but not meditation. Something about that word seized me. I knew I had to start doing meditation, whatever that was.
Meditation is now central to my spiritual path. I meditate to encounter that inner Silence. Solitude and seclusion are essential as well. So is curiosity, which is (in Adyashanti’s words), an essential asset in the spiritual path. Adyashanti also likes to emphasize that attention and time are our two most prized commodities in the spiritual endeavor—all of these being hallmarks of Holmes.
So Holmes continues to reverberate in subtle ways in my spiritual life, and my quintessential quest for Truth. In the story “The Blanched Soldier” he said, “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” It reminds me of the immortal Indian sage, Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) who said: “Let come what comes, let go what goes, and see what remains.”
Truth remains. Truth does not, cannot,“come and go.”It is both the core and the container of our reality, the most profound and abiding Mystery of who we are, and of existence itself.
A fascinating piece. What is the sound of one Sherlock deducing?….
I must have been about seven or eight when I got a book that had one of the Holmes stories and an article about Dr. Joseph Bell. Yes, I tried to do the observation-to-details thing too!