Sherlock Holmes and The Girl on the Train

My kid, like millions of other people, is awaiting the new season of BBC’s Sherlock. I myself went back and started listening to all of the original stories, mostly delighted that Sherlock has adapted the original Conan Doyle stories to a new time. As I listen to the old stories and watch old episodes of Sherlock, and of Elementary, another Sherlock Holmes-based detective series starring Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller, I realize what I have never liked about Sherlock Holmes.

I call it the “single explanation fallacy.” It’s the idea that any observable phenomenon has only one explanation, one cause. And Sherlock Holmes depends on it. In one story, Sherlock Holmes observes to Watson that he has a careless servant who’s about to be dismissed. As always, Watson is incredulous until Holmes points out that his boots are gouged where a careless servant scraped them, and Mrs. Watson was unlikely to tolerate such sloppiness. And of course, that is the explanation, because how else could a man’s boots have gotten scraped that way?

Enter The Girl on the Train, a 2012 novel written by Paula Hawkins about an alcoholic woman who gets involved in the disappearance of a woman whom she’s been watching as she rides the train to and from London. Rachel, the first-person protagonist, is an unreliable narrator – the opposite of Sherlock Holmes. She has frequent blackouts where she can’t remember what she saw or whom she was with, including on the night the woman disappeared. It’s on this failure of memory that the entire plot hinges.

When the news of the woman’s disappearance emerges, Rachel comes forward to say that she saw the woman with a man who was not her husband, kissing in their back yard. Like Sherlock Holmes, she has observed this couple closely, and she comes to a quick conclusion: that the woman was having an affair, and that the lover has done something to her. But as the story unwinds, her every assumption is challenged and turned inside out. Nothing she saw was what it seemed to be; nothing had a simple explanation.

In real life, nothing does have a single simple explanation, which is why there are no real-life Sherlock Holmeses. Any observable phenomenon can arise from many sources, and making assumptions that turn out to be incorrect can often be as intriguing a story as getting it right.

Which leads to the real story of what happened to John Watson’s boots: John Watson is having an affair with the servant, and she’s using their indiscretion to shirk her duties. Watson doesn’t dare wake her when he comes in late after walking through the London mud, so he had to scrape the boots himself in the dark rather than wake the servant and risk her ire, or his wife and risk her discovering his affair. Then he gets up early and leaves before his wife can see the poorly-scraped boots. And when Sherlock Holmes gets it wrong too, he just goes along with it because everyone knows that Sherlock is the kind of egoist who gets nasty when challenged.


lise-quintanaLise Quintana is the publisher behind Zoetic Press. She has keen observational skills, but is more like Mycroft Holmes, preferring to never leave the house and conjecture from the comfort of an easy chair.