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Sherlock Holmes Takes a Shot

by George Anderson on July 1, 2011  •   Print This Post Print This Post   •   

“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” quoted from: The Sign of the Four (1890) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Shelock in ProfileIt is with some excitement that I present an interesting account purporting to be recovered audible speech from a recent Ouija Board session. The voices were found imprinted into a hard drive that was in the same room.  The subject spirit is believed by some to be Dr. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with background voices consistent with what could have been in life some of his more articulate admirers and confidants.

“I say Watson, why do you not see this conundrum from a different perspective than that of our client or the plodding stalwarts of Scotland Yard?   Is the mind so conditioned to obey a certain path that it cannot approach from a different direction?  I nurture a habit of hearing all that is said and even more that is not said, and thus, often have sufficient data on which to successfully validate or reject my theories.”

“I unerringly test these theories against facts and do not fall into the all too common error of selectively applying facts to fit theories.  We are not defending a Doctoral thesis in this endeavor or puffing up a Lloyd’s stock offering, Watson, instead we are eliminating the impossible instances from our necessarily comprehensive development of theories or, if you please, scenarios.”

“Pray tell me if you have brought your dependable Webley and that it is loaded and in readiness for our evening foray.”

The members of what had unexpectedly become a séance recognized the tailored and disciplined cadence of Sherlock Holmes’s manner of speech and anticipated that the master of story telling, Doyle, might have yet another tale to relate from the grave.

Sherlock and Watson“In all cases where I have erred heavily, the root cause has been an ego or circumstantially driven prerogative to act before the entire problem has been elucidated.  I have been honored with great successes but have not yet succeeded in one endeavor. That is to totally disprove the existence of the paranormal.  On the other hand, I do observe that the paranormal when its presence is suspected does not appear to directly interfere in the affairs of the living.  In this respect and for this reason, it receives little care from me in my investigative ruminations.”

“It is so easy to become biased toward a scenario if you allow circumstantial evidence to take the place of provable facts.

It is much like the time when you, Watson, fired your pistol at a sword wielding Musselman.  After the event, we discovered that you had managed to place three bullets into the fiend’s torso with only one discharge being heard.  Indeed, in the aftermath everyone wished to abandon further investigation and let the matter be forgotten.  I could not.  Inspecting the firearm, I discovered only one cartridge discharged.  All the other cartridges were whole save one that had the bullet missing.   Two projectiles were missing and three in the assailant’s body.  Would that we could theorize this over an evening’s pipe but it was to be some time before we had our answer due to more pressing business.”

“I must now allow my faithful and observant companion Dr. Watson narrate our current episode.”

“My name is Dr. John Watson and the story I here relate is as true as my powers of observation allow.   I have already provided you with Holmes’ intimate comments on one of his favorite subjects, the disciplined use of inductive logic.  He firmly believes that facts are the key to any case and that he must go to every possible extreme to acquire them.  His whole existence is dedicated to preparing his mind to keenly observe and understand what he saw, heard, and sensed when he is on a case.”

Revolver Webley Mk VI“At lamp lighting hour, I took out the trusty Webley revolver and carefully removed excess oil from the cylinders before inserting each round.  I worried that they all dated from the 2nd Afghan War and may have some duds in the lot.  Memories of my last time holding the pistol caused me to shudder as I remembered Holmes explaining that I had fired a single cartridge at a charging drug demented Jihadist.  That single cartridge by a curious mixture of circumstance had managed to propel three separate bullets into the man’s lower abdomen.  A single fault in the loaded cartridges provided the mechanism for this outcome.  All six of the brass cartridge cases had invisible cracks in the forward end where the bullet was normally held by a tight fit.  Over the years, cracks caused by the humid climate had permitted the bullets to become loose.  They did not fall out because a small amount of varnish had been applied as waterproofing and this film held fast.”

“The first round to enter the barrel came as the result of a fall taken as I exited the hansom cab and struck the gun on the cobblestones.  The varnish failed to arrest the bullet’s forward inertia and the bullet entered the barrel until it engaged the rifling.  In the dark I inspected the revolver by feel and spun the cylinder before returning it to my overcoat pocket. When we inspected the gun days after the shooting, we could account for only two bullets.  Where did the third bullet come from?”

“Holmes had it immediately,” ‘It’s really straightforward, Watson, you already had a bullet in the barrel. The last time you fired the weapon, there was a misfire and the bullet lodged in the barrel.  You did not detect this because you had not yet had time to clean the weapon before it was again taken up in service. I reckoned this to be a fact when I found a spent cartridge case in your effects that still contained a significant amount of unburned powder.  Only the force of the primer was available to push the bullet into the barrel.    Had this not been a revolver or had the cartridge contained the new cordite powder derived from Nobel’s invention, you would have burst the barrel and lost the match with our murderous assailant.  Those old Afghan rounds have done the Queen’s duty.’

Webley_455_Ammunition“I must apologize for this excursion of thought.  My Afghan service wounds occasionally affect my adrenal system when I recall stressful past events.  At present, Holmes and I are in a cab headed to the East End docks where we expect to observe Professor Lestrade in the disguise of a seaman debarking from a small coaster.”  ‘I have used the evil geniuses’ own powers against him this time, said Holmes.  I trust you have read about the excellent paper by the late Reverend Bayes. It’s quite exquisite even though I find some other of these Royal Society papers a bit full of themselves.  But for Bayes ability to propel the power of the mathematics of chance in a backwards direction, I would not be able to keep a surprise meeting with Lestrade tonight.  You see Watson, Bayes understood that mathematics is a tool that can be applied to real problems.  Our problem is that we have knowledge of events that are linked to and suggest prior events.  If we wish to identify the prior events from a series of scenarios we apply Bayes theorem.  Someday when more learn of his genius the world will have more uses than you and I could imagine.

As we approached the docks, Holmes became agitated and began putting ciphers on a piece of foolscap.  I could not understand their meaning but ultimately with a heavy sigh, Holmes ordered the cab around and we retraced our journey.  ‘My dear Watson, said he, sometimes in our complex world we misstep.  I have detected a multiplication error in my computation and have selected the wrong place and the wrong criminal. Bayes is not at fault and we shall have good reason to use his work again.  I must first visit my brother, Mycroft, and brush up on my understanding of this daunting modern mathematics notation.’

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