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Sherlock Holmes Debuted 120 Years Ago

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Now, sure the Jerusalem psychiatrist want to call in a sleuth to uncover the real identity of a messianic wannabe, we have an obvious choice.

He's been ferreting out the truth for 120 years now, starting with this introduction.

(Soundbite of "A Study in Scarlet")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As Actor) Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As Mr. Sherlock Holmes) How do you do?

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As Dr. Watson) Hi.

Unidentified Man #2: (As Mr. Sherlock Holmes) You've been Afghanistan, I presume.

Unidentified Man #3: (As Dr. Watson) How on earth did you know that?

SEABROOK: That scene enacted by the BBC comes from the 1887 issue of Beeton's Christmas Annual. That's where Arthur Conan Doyle's literary detective first sprung to life.

In this first Sherlock Holmes story called "A Study in Scarlet," Dr. Watson discovers in Holmes an eccentric investigator and a scientific enthusiast. So how did Sherlock Holmes know and so quickly that Watson had been in Afghanistan?

(Soundbite of "A Study in Scarlet")

Unidentified Man #2: (As Mr. Sherlock Holmes) Hey, the gentleman of a medical type but with the air of a military man, clearly an army doctor then. He has just come from the tropics so his face is dark and that is not the national tint of his skin, so he must be fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded, clearly in Afghanistan. The whole train of thought did not occupy a second.

SEABROOK: This story spans the globe as Sherlock Holmes traces assorted London murder back to a thwarted love affair in the heart of the American West. The crime, Conan Doyle later writes, was the result of an old-standing and romantic feud, in which love and Mormonism bore apart.

Finding ourselves book-ended these days between headlines about Mormonism and Afghanistan, we scoured this story for other clues as to how Sherlock Holmes might unravel the mysteries of today's world. There among its pages we found this bit of wisdom.

(Soundbite of "A Study in Scarlet")

Unidentified Man #2: (As Mr. Sherlock Holmes) If I were to know by this time that when a fact appears to be opposed to a long train of deductions, it invariably proves to be capable of bearing some other interpretation.

SEABROOK: And if that seems in inscrutable, remember: Not everything is elementary, my dear Watson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.