"You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive" is the observation that launched a thousand films, sequels, and imitators. The first words (after "How are you?") that Holmes says upon meeting Watson in "A Study in Scarlet" have become the template for all that follows: A display of extraordinary, apparently superhuman deduction, seemingly arbitrary but, upon closer inspection, the result of the methodical assemblage of a handful of details. Other men see; Holmes observes. And who among his fans has not, even briefly, imagined that we, too, might observe as Holmes does?
Maria Konnikova takes this impulse and gives us hope in her first book, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, although the book might be more accurately titled "How Sherlock Holmes Thinks Like Sherlock Holmes." Readers looking for a prescriptive program to turn them into Holmesian cogitation machines may come away disappointed. But those seeking to understand the neurological and psychological underpinnings of the great detective's mind will find a knowledgeable guide in Konnikova.
She deploys two useful metaphors as the scaffolding upon which she builds her examination. First there's the Holmes system and the Watson system of thinking. System Watson is characterized by "lazy thought habits – the ones that come most naturally, the so-called path of least resistance." System Holmes, on the other hand, is "a world where every single input is examined with ... care and healthy skepticism." Throughout the book, several well-known scenes from the stories are effectively parsed through the lenses of System Holmes and System Watson.
Konnikova also devotes considerable time to the notion of a "brain attic," a term used by Holmes himself in "A Study in Scarlet." She examines both the attic's structure and contents through a series of chapters – Stocking the Brain Attic; Exploring the Brain Attic; Navigating the Brain Attic; Maintaining the Brain Attic – that look in detail at aspects of memory formation, retention, and retrieval. She is particularly astute in her examination of the role of imagination and creativity, traits that seem, on the surface, to be superfluous to Holmes's strictly logical approach but turn out to be crucial.