What Makes a Great Detective?

Sherlock Holmes in Chapter 1 of The Sign of the Four identifies three abilities that are necessary to be a great detective.

“Oh, he rates my assistance too highly,” said Sherlock Holmes, lightly. “He has considerable gifts himself. He possesses two out of the three qualities necessary for the ideal detective. He has the power of observation and that of deduction. He is only wanting in knowledge; and that may come in time.”

Then, in Chapter 10, Holmes adds a fourth ability, what forensic science pioneer, Sir Sydney Smith, in his autobiography, Mostly Murder, 1959, calls “the power of constructive imagination”:

“I then put myself in the place of Small and looked at it as a man of his capacity would. He would probably consider that to send back the launch or to keep it at a wharf would make pursuit easy if the police did happen to get on his track. How, then, could he conceal the launch and yet have her at hand when wanted? I wondered what I should do myself if I were in his shoes. I could only think of one way of doing it…”

The power of constructive imagination is, according to Smith:

always controlled by intellect, an essential quality where there are no more facts to be observed and no further inferences to be drawn. “Doctor Bell and Sherlock Holmes,” (Mostly Murder, 1959, 31).

Dr. Joseph Bell was a professor of clinical surgery at Edinburgh University. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was Dr. Bell’s outpatient clerk and modeled Sherlock Holmes on Bell, “who had an almost uncanny gift of diagnosing not only disease but occupation and even character from a patient’s appearance,” (Mostly Murder, 1959, 29).

Smith, relates this story about Dr. Bell holding forth at a dinner party to illustrate:

‘Did you enjoy your walk over the golf-links to-day, as you came in from the south side of the town?’ Bell asked another patient, a complete stranger who had never been to him before. Bell’s out-patient clerk, although used to this deductive brilliance, was completely baffled until the surgeon explained. “On a showery day such as this the reddish clay at bar parts of the golf-course adheres to the boot, and a tiny part is bound to remain. There is no such clay anywhere else.’
It was really quite elementary, as Bell himself used to tell friends and social acquaintances after startling them with a demonstration of his remarkable gift. Elementary, my dear Watson
‘Why,’ said a fellow-guest at a dinner party, ‘Dr Bell might almost be Sherlock Holmes.’
‘Madam,’ Dr Bell replied, “I am Sherlock Holmes.’
So he was. That out-patient clerk whom he loved to puzzle, and who later qualified as doctor himself, was Arthur Conan Doyle, (Mostly Murder, 1959, 29-30).

To the above four abilities,

• the power of observation
• the power of deduction
• the power gained from knowledge of crime, character,    and mores, and
• the power of constructive imagination,

I would add the following three. To be a great detective one must also:

• see it as a calling
• have a healthy respect for the law, and
• have a deep and abiding sense of justice

What do you think?

Published in: on October 23, 2010 at 11:25 am  Comments (17)  

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17 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hey, I like this. My protagonist is also lacking in knowledge, but she does have the mental composition (brainpower + creativity) you describe above.

    I agree with 2 of your 3 add-ons – I don’t think they need a healthy respect of the law as it stands (a good detective should be able to see ethics as separate from law), but a deep abiding sense of justice and seeing their work as a calling are essential (I think), especially for a fictional detective.

    Great post.

  2. Very interesting and informative post. I agree with Robin’s comment about ethics as separate from the law. Ethics needs to become more a part of life–something taught in school which doesn’t always happen…


    • Robin and Monti,

      I’m glad you liked the post. 🙂

      I agree with you that a strong grounding in ethics will keep a detective from engaging in misconduct such as unnecessarily roughing up a suspect to obtain a confession, or planting evidence to convict a suspect the detective believes is guilty, or “losing” evidence that would show a suspect’s innocence. But more is at stake here than refraining from wrongdoing. If what one cares about is not just justice in the abstract but the enforcement of principles of justice, then a healthy respect for the law is necessary because ethical principles by themselves are not self-enforcing. Only a legal system has the power to enforce justice.

      And so it is essential that a detective understand why refraining from such conduct is necessary for a successful prosecution and the eventual conviction of a suspect who he or she has reason to believe is responsible for the crime, as well as knowing what legal procedures must be followed for that successful conviction. Without such respect, justice is undermined.

      To read a story about an actual case where this happened, click here:

      This was a case where police officers fabricated drug charges to meet arrest quotas, but it wouldn’t be any different for a murder case.

  3. I love Sherlock Holmes and your example of a real person in Dr. Bell is fabulous. Regardless of the genre you write in, good characterization is essential.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

    • I couldn’t agree with you more. Characterization is essential!

  4. Good post! Like Robin and Monti, I see the law as something some detectives would like to ignore. Yes, they have a strong sense of justice, but often feel the law interferes with what the detective “knows” to be the right punishment for the crime.

    And a fictional detective with street smarts is a lot more fun than the intellectual sleuth.

    • Many thanks. You make a good point. Some detectives do feel they can ignore the law—and they sometimes get away with it. But for me the challenge is to solve the crime while staying within the law.

      Lieutenant Columbo is one who always did. And I never found him less than delightful.

  5. Sweet posting, thanks. I’ve been intending on submitting a publish along these lines for awhile, do you mind if I quote you? I’ll website link back again to you naturally.

    • Glad you liked the post. As long as you do link back to it, please feel free to quote from the post.

  6. Your current Blog style is awesome as well!

    • Kelsi,
      Thanks. Glad you liked the post.

  7. […] • An engaging detective […]

    • Tanisha,
      Thanks for the link to my post.

  8. […] detective, Sherlock Holmes thinking is always beyond what a normal man or woman could imagine. Every single […]

    • Deanna
      Thanks for the link to my post.

  9. […] One of fictional writing’s greatest detectives, Sherlock Holmes, in the book The Sign of The Four, reflected on the four traits that make a great detective, “He has the power of observation and that of deduction. He is only wanting in knowledge; and that may come in time.” Sherlock later goes on to demonstrate a clever mind and imagination that warps the world and reconstructs the scene, a skill that represents the fourth trait, the power of a constructive imagination.1 […]

    • Juvoni,
      Thanks for the link to my post.

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