All I Needed to Know I Learned from Columbo: Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Knew Just Enough

My new ebook, All I Needed to Know I Learned from Columbo is now available on Amazon. It takes a look at 7 great  fictional detectives (Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Father Brown, Dan Holiday, Boston Blackie, Columbo, and Adrian Monk), examines their careers in books, TV, and radio and then gleans one or more life lessons from their stories.

To provide you an idea of what the book is like, I’m pleased to offer Chapter 1 for your reading pleasure.

Chapter 1

Sherlock Holmes

In 1887, Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet. When we first meet Holmes, he’s a young eccentric who needs a roommate. Dr. John Watson, an injured veteran of Afghanistan, moves in with Holmes and begins to learn what a unique fellow his companion is.

In A Study in Scarlet, Holmes emphasizes his role as a consulting detective. The job, as described by Holmes, involved helping other detectives who have gotten stuck in their efforts to solve a case. This emphasis on being a consultant disappears in later stories as Holmes often has clients of his own.

Holmes took on a wide variety of complex mysteries, told in short stories and novels. He captured the interests of readers, but Doyle became worried Holmes was preventing hom from moving in more serious literary directions, so in 1893, Doyle killed off Holmes in a fight with his newly introduced archenemy, Professor Moriarity.

Doyle only left his audience demanding more. Doyle wanted to cash in by creating a stage version of Holmes. After a long process, he found actor/playwright William Gillette who adapted Holmes to the stage. Gillette added greater definition to the Holmes character in the public mind. The phrase, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” had its genesis in Gillete’s play.

Gillete  traveled throughout the world, playing the role of Holmes on stage for forty years, and later became the first actor to play Holmes on the radio. These efforts increased the public demand for more Sherlock Holmes stories. Doyle tried to respond to this demand in ways that wouldn’t commit him to further projects. He released Hound of the Baskervilles as a novel that was set before Holmes’ death. Doyle finally relented and brought Holmes back from the dead for The Return of Sherlock Holmes. That collection of short stories ended with Watson stating Holmes had forbidden him from writing down any additional stories.

Public demand persisted and two more short story collections and another novel followed before the last Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story appeared. Even after Doyle died, the public demand for Holmes didn’t. Hundreds of film, television, and radio adaptations have been made since.

The most famous movie adaptation paired Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson. This partnership endured for fourteen films and more than two hundred half-hour radio shows from 1939-46. For years, this performance stood as the standard. Now many Holmes fans prefer the British Television episodes of Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett for their fealty to Doyle’s stories, rather than the improvisations most of the Rathbone-Bruce films made in moving Sherlock Holmes to the 1940s.

Rathbone and Jeremy Brett of the ITV series have the most supporters for all-time best Holmes. However, new entrants continue to appear. In late 2009, Robert Downey, Jr. played Holmes on the silver screen while 2010 marked the launch of a new BBC program imagining Holmes living in modern times called simply, Sherlock.

Hundreds of pastiches have been written outside the Holmes canon of the fixty-six stories and four novels. Nearly 125 years after a Study in Scarlet appeared, public worldwide interest in the character of Sherlock Holmes remains unabated. People are curious about every facet of his life. He provokes more “what if” questions than any character in literature. He is the definitive fictional detective.

Life Lesson: The Man Who Knew Just Enough

But is Sherlock Holmes Smarter than a Fifth Grader?

A modern Holmes could do many things. However, based on A Study in Scarlet, he’d do well to stay away from quiz shows.

In A Study in Scarlet, Dr. Watson begins the process of trying to get to know his new roommate. He’s quickly impressed by Holmes’ knowledge in many areas, but Watson finds himself astonished and almost scandalized by Holmes’ lack of knowledge in other key areas outside of his professional interest:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

“But the Solar System!” I protested.

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

With a lack of general knowledge skills, Holmes wouldn’t make it far on Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? However, Holmes offers sound advice for those who aren’t planning on making their careers as quiz show contestants.

Some of what happened to Holmes’ knowledge is natural phenomena. We do tend to forget things that we learned in school when it has little relevance in our lives. Many parents have felt a sense of embarrassment at being unable to help their junior high students with their math homework. However, the difference is the practice of remembering and forgetting is usually an involuntary process.

What Holmes followed is a process of being mindful and choosing what information will be allowed to take up room in his brain. This is a key lesson in the information age. We have access to endless streams of interesting information. However, we can become so overwhelmed it comes to mean nothing.

Holmes’ focus of only retaining career-related information is not necessarily healthy. Holmes was a workaholic while most of us seek to balance work with a family life and leisure pursuits. However, Holmes does set an example as to how we ought to arrange our brain-attics as letting the brain arrange itself has unpleasant results. Multiple surveys have shown Americans often have better knowledge of pop culture than they do personal finance, world affairs, and even their own religions. Ignorance of important matters is not because people have chosen to be ignorant, but because they’ve not made a mindful effort to choose what information they want to learn.

While it may sound easy to forget useless and unwanted information, it’s actually quite a challenge. It is far easier to start with acquiring new information.

The first key is to find out what’s important to you. What information would you like to know or become an expert on?  Would you like to understand a culture, a science? What skills can you acquire that would make your life better or more productive?

The second key is set out to learn about a topic you care about. This doesn’t require a classroom. Many experts are self-taught. Be sure to begin with resources that speak to your current level of knowledge. In addition to reading books and listening to CDs, search for podcasts and blogs that relate to your topic and follow them, so you continually get new information relevant to where your interests lie.

Part of your inventory may be taking a look at information that clutters your brain, but attracts your attention. After the 2009 season of America’s Got Talent ended, I resolved never to watch another season. It cluttered up my brain and took my time for something that wasn’t really fulfilling and enjoyable once it was all said and done. What activities or television shows lead to brain clutter will depend a lot on your own personality.

Beyond skills and knowledge, our brain can become cluttered and confused in our experiences. Many of us easily recall negative experiences. When taking a customer service course a few years back, my class was asked to recall a positive customer service experience and then a negative one. Most described the positive experience in only 30-45 seconds, but could take five minutes describing every detail of the ordeals they’d gone through six or seven years before. We retain and remember the negative experiences of life and the positive gets pushed away, and hence can be harder to remember.

One way to prevent this is by writing down the blessings and good things as they happen to you in your life. Recording it on paper will help you to remember and reading it can help you clean out the mental junk when it begins to accumulate.

Keep Being Mindful

Throughout his career, Holmes displayed knowledge of some topics beyond the bare-bones sketch given by Dr. Watson. This doesn’t negate Holmes points to Watson on their first meeting. Holmes continued to learn throughout his life. Life can lead us to find that we need new pieces of information that we had no idea we would need when we started out. However, Holmes’ decision to get new information came through a mindful process. Holmes didn’t just let information happen to him and neither should we.

If you want to read more, All I Needed to Know I Learned From Columbo is available for the Kindle for only $1.99 through as well as through Amazon’s U.K. Kindle Stores for the U.K, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. and we’ll shortly be made available in other ebook formats.

If you enjoyed this post, you can have new posts about Detective stories and the golden age of radio and television delivered automatically to your Kindle.

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  1 comment for “All I Needed to Know I Learned from Columbo: Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Knew Just Enough”

  1. lenny
    July 15, 2014 at 9:08 pm

    Great, Columbo is certainly the greatest fictional detective ever. Did not use guns nor violence and solved more cases than Sherlock Holmes over his 30 career.

    As I don’t do Kindle look forward when book is released via on-demand printing.


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