Let Holmes be Holmes: Diagnosing the great detective

At the end of The Final Problem, Doctor John H. Watson calls Sherlock Holmes “the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known.” That simple statement indicates the depths of the good doctor’s feelings for the great detective. There is no equivocation here; the statement could be carved in stone.

And after rereading the Canon, I understand how Watson came to this opinion of his friend. Over the course of four novels and 56 short stories, he has seen Holmes equally mete out justice and mercy, solve seemingly impenetrable mysteries, divine the human heart, don disguises, placate clients, charm housemaids, masterfully play the violin, explain the supernatural and even extol the virtues of flowers. Altogether, I get the image of a complex man, an amazing man, a mercurial man, a man forged by past tragedies and largely self-created (he is after all the world’s only consulting detective). What I do not see is an autistic man.

I bring this up because the recent Sherlock Holmes movies and the BBC series Sherlock have predictably renewed speculation on whether Holmes has autism and more specifically Asperger’s Syndrome. I suppose this speculation is understandable were one to base a diagnosis solely from portrayals of Holmes on film and television. After all, it’s understandable that actors would enjoy emphasizing Holmes’ more bizarre personality traits.

I will also grant you that it is entirely possible to construct a brilliant detective who lies at the far end of the autism spectrum—Adrian Monk is a perfect example—but I don’t think Holmes is any further out on that spectrum than most intelligent people. Holmes is definitely eccentric, but I think his is a studied eccentricity. There’s evidence of that from Watson’s list of Holmes’ abilities in A Study in Scarlet, which over the Canon we find is highly suspect and may be an instance of Holmes intentionally misleading Watson. And I also think an autistic detective could be the “best and wisest” etc., but I don’t think he would be Sherlock Holmes.

I think if you truly consider Holmes from the writings, you will find that he is not in lock step with the characterization of Asperger’s listed at the National Institutes of Health, WebMD and the Mayo Clinic websites. Here are some of those characterizations (I have removed traits more appropriate to children) and how I think Holmes does not exhibit these traits.

limited range of interests
Anyone who believes Watson’s list—“SHERLOCK HOLMES—his limits”—in A Study in Scarlet might well believe that Holmes only concerns himself with that knowledge needed to be a detective. Of course, if you think about it, that’s hardly limiting. But Holmes’ fondness for Shakespeare and Goethe and his knowledge of music belie a limited range of interests.

repetitive routines or rituals
If anything, Holmes hates routine. He’s like a shark and needs to keep moving. If he’s not on a case, he’s not happy. And his work means that he might be pretending to be an opium smoker or a Nonconformist minister or he might be tracking a suspect in the woods or staking out a house patroled by wild animals. There is nothing routine in the life of Sherlock Holmes.

peculiarities in speech and language
I can think of no man more eloquent that Holmes. His epigrams and dictums are justly famous: “the dog that did nothing in the nighttime” and “when you have eliminated the impossible …” and “the game is afoot.” OK, he stole that last from Shakespeare, but I bet he delivered the line beautifully. After all, Holmes must have the ability to sound like a working man, command the police to do his bidding and be able to address the queen. I think his command of the language cannot be doubted and as Watson said in A Scandal in Bohemia: “The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when [Holmes] became a specialist in crime.”

socially and emotionally inappropriate behavior; the inability to interact successfully with peers
I admit that Watson is his only close friend, but I think Holmes has a vast network of people who trust him and who would lay down their lives for him. He has the respect and grudging admiration of the police and even his landlady risked her life for him.

There are instances, I’ll grant, when Holmes displays inappropriate gestures or remarks, but usually they’re calculated displays to distract a suspect or to cover his clue gathering. In fact, one of the most egregious examples of Holmes’ inappropriate behavior—shooting “VR” into the wall at 221B—neither prompted Mrs. Hudson to throw him out or Watson to leave, and so I’ve always thought the incident had something to do with a case.

problems with non-verbal communication
Holmes knows what Watson is thinking almost at the moment Watson is thinking it (CARD), simply by observing his friend. He must be a master both at reading emotion and providing non-verbal clues to clients and witnesses. Watson often comments how Holmes can put people at ease.

clumsy and uncoordinated motor movements
Holmes has many physical skills, including boxing, single stick and as a violinist. His physical strength and dexterity seems an innate ability for Watson comments that Holmes abhors exercise for its own sake.

abnormal eye contact
“With hardly a word spoken, but with a kindly eye, he waved me to an armchair, threw across his case of cigars, and indicated a spirit case and a gasogene in the corner.” “His eyes sparkled, and he sent up a great blue triumphant cloud from his cigarette.” (SCAN)

Yes, he can be aloof. He deserves to be. He is Sherlock Holmes. He is also smug, sarcastic and superior. So are many of my friends. So am I. So are many Sherlockians.

But Holmes is also a man who had a beating heart, as is shown by Watson’s statement in The Three Garridebs: “It was worth a wound—it was worth many wounds—to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.”

If you truly read Holmes, rather than just remember his portrayal in films and television, you must realize that above all things, Holmes is a social animal. He is happiest surrounded by the millions in that great cesspool of London. It seems very odd then that if he has Asperberger’s Syndrome he should be drawn to a profession that requires such an innate understanding of the human condition.

So the question arises: why do I so dislike the idea of diagnosing Holmes with Asperberger’s? I guess I find the diagnosis too dismissive of the complexity that is Holmes’ nature. To say he has autism and that explains why he is the person he is, seems too simple. I think Holmes’ genius comes by hard work and dedication to the craft he created, the science of deduction. Romantically, I also relish the thought Holmes has a secret past tragedy that compels him to be the man he is. Obviously I am not alone in this for many pastiches have suggested this.

In conclusion, I can well believe that Holmes has emotional problems and probably would benefit from seeing a psycho-therapist as in The Seven Per-Cent Solution. He may suffer from either dyslexia or presbyopia, based on the number of times he asks Watson to read for him, but I doubt Holmes the raconteur (he can keep Watson amused for hours), Holmes the actor, Holmes the social animal, Holmes the chameleon, is autistic.

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