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Holy Clues: The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes

Holy Clues: The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes

by Stephen Kendrick

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If God is the greatest mystery of them all, then why not, in pursuit of God, consult the greatest detective of them all? In this imaginative and surprisingly profound book, Stephen Kendrick reveals Sherlock Holmes as spiritual guide.

Drawing on the teachings of Christianity, Buddhism, and Judaism—as well as a host of thinkers as varied as Albert Einstein,


If God is the greatest mystery of them all, then why not, in pursuit of God, consult the greatest detective of them all? In this imaginative and surprisingly profound book, Stephen Kendrick reveals Sherlock Holmes as spiritual guide.

Drawing on the teachings of Christianity, Buddhism, and Judaism—as well as a host of thinkers as varied as Albert Einstein, Gandhi, and Vincent van Gogh—Kendrick explores the stories of Sherlock Holmes and finds remarkably prescient religious insights. He shows us the link between careful observation of clues and the Buddhist concept of "Bare Attention." He illuminates the parallel between the great sleuth's pursuit of justice and God's actions on the scene of the first murder, when Cain slew Abel. And in the detective's open, engaged mind, Kendrick finds a model for uniting the principles of science with a sincere spiritual quest. The result is a book of inspiration for the modern, skeptical searcher—and an entertaining work that sheds new light on the methods of the world's greatest detective.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An energetic, incisive, and persuasive.. . treatise on the great detective as spiritual guide." —Seattle Times

"Holy Clues makes a convincing case for the proposition that a mystery story is always and inevitably a kind of morality tale." —Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times

"It has always been my contention that the complete Sherlock Holmes stories form a sort of secular Bible. . . . Beyond being merely clever, Holy Clues is unexpectedly moving and wise." -Nicholas Meyer, author of The Seven-Percent Solution

"Kendrock's lively readings of the Sherlock Holmes stories contain a deep sense of how attentiveness to the details of ordinary life can yield extraordinary insights into the life of the spirit." —Publishers Weekly

Sean Elder

Few fictional characters have enjoyed the shelf life of Sherlock Holmes. Since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced him to readers in 1887, the master logician of Baker Street has enjoyed an existence far beyond his original 60 stories. He has been reimagined and re-created in countless stories, plays, films and television programs -- as Holmes the cokehead (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution), Holmes the adolescent (Young Sherlock Holmes), even Holmes the incompetent (The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother). In Holy Clues: The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes, Stephen Kendrick tries to pin another guise on the redoubtable Holmes: spiritual master. But as diverting as this volume is, the author's case seems rather circumstantial.

Assembling the spiritual wisdom of fictional characters is a rather tired gag in the book business that can be traced back to perennial bestseller The Tao of Pooh (1982). What makes Holmes such an unlikely subject for this kind of treatment is his strict adherence to logic and to the known world. "This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain," he tells Watson in "The Sussex Vampire." "The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply." But Holmes' creator felt otherwise: He used the sale of his detective stories to pay for his pursuit of spiritualism -- even though Holmes looks, as one critic has noted, "like an antidote to the occult, an oasis of reliable, materialistic order. There are no spirit rappings on the walls of his house in Baker Street."

Doyle, Kendrick maintains, went New Age late in life; rather than let his extremely unpopular views drag his greatest creation down, he planted secret messages, using Holmes as a mouthpiece for his beliefs about God. The evidence he presents is at best scattershot, though he acquits himself well on deduction's place in the pursuit of spiritual matters. "This passion to comprehend the beginning of things is more than a pursuit of logic and reason," he writes. "It is a profoundly religious impulse, perhaps the most primal and powerful religious instinct there is." But there is a padded, fuzzy feeling to a lot of the book. Kendrick is a Unitarian minister, and much of Holy Clues reads like a stretched-out Sunday sermon. Though he includes some salient quotations from P.D. James and G.K. Chesterton, others -- from Einstein, Thoreau, Woody Allen -- are downright bizarre.

The search for spirituality in the mystery story is a well-mined vein, and Kendrick draws on some of the best literature extant. But in trying to make Holmes into Mr. Natural, he appears to be chasing a red herring. There is entertainment here, and he has some fresh insights -- for example, the relationship between Holmes' study of Buddhism (during the unaccounted-for years between "The Final Problem," when Doyle faked his detective's death, and "The Adventure of the Empty House," when he resurrected him) and the end of his cocaine habit. Kendrick appreciates Watson's humanizing influence on rather glacial Holmes, and the importance of their Bones-Spock relationship. But fuzzy thinking and repetitious writing hinder his case. As Holmes might say, "Cut out the poetry, Watson."

Patricia Monaco
This is a thoroughly research premise, liberally fleshed out with literary references, that offers an original approach to the eternal quest for God.
Napra Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Arthur Conan Doyle's inimitable detective Sherlock Holmes once remarked to his erstwhile assistant, Dr. Watson, "you see, but you do not observe." Kendrick, the parish minister of the Universalist Church of West Hartford, Conn., contends that Holmes's remark functions much like a Zen koan, generating insights into the realm beyond reason. Kendrick engages in a close reading of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories to demonstrate that detective fiction erects a method of discovering truth that requires much of the same engagement that various religions require to discover spiritual insight. Holmes's inquisitiveness and his attention to the details of the case resemble, the author says, what Buddhism calls "bare attention." Following his analysis of the Holmesian "gospel," Kendrick comes to several conclusions: "Our vision is sound; we have to train our hearts and minds to notice what we see"; "Nothing is little; our lives are more significant than we can know; it is often through our pain and guilt that we encounter the hidden God"; "Religion is found not only in the spectacular but in the simple, the ordinary, the plain and everyday, and all this is aglow with the mystery of awe." Kendrick's lively readings of the Sherlock Holmes stories combine a deep sense of how attentiveness to the details of ordinary life can yield extraordinary insights into the life of the spirit. (June) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
At first glance, it seems unusual to combine Sherlock Holmes with the Gospel, but in Kendrick's book the juxtaposition makes sense. Holmes did not preach the gospel, of course, but the methods he uses in his detective work also apply to seeking the divine. Holmes proceeds by paying attention--really paying attention--to the smallest and most ordinary of things, by presuming nothing, and by realizing that life is stranger than fiction. As Kendrick, a Universalist minister in Connecticut, notes, this approach will not apply to the fundamentalist who sees no mystery in God or to those who attribute all to blind fate but rather to the majority of us who realize that God requires some seeking. Unusual in its approach, this book may appeal to readers looking for something different in spiritual reading. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--John Moryl, Yeshiva Univ. Libs., New York Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.18(w) x 8.01(h) x 0.44(d)

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter One: The Master's Instructions

The worst roommate of all time must have been Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who kept tobacco in the toe of his slipper, performed malodorous chemical experiments at all hours, saluted his queen by forming the letters V.R. on his Baker Street walls with bullet holes, and, in general, lived a chaotic and eccentric life.

The worst part of all for the faithful John H. Watson, fiction's most famous roomie, must have been the many and wearying demonstrations of his own slowness in the mental department. Dr. John H. Watson is not a fool, but he accepts that part of the bargain of being Holmes's partner in adventure is to have to endure being shown up over and over: "I trust that I am not more dense than my neighbors, but I was always oppressed with a sense of my own stupidity in my dealings with Sherlock Holmes." In fact, it is an old narrative trick, as old as the easily awed questioners of Socrates and the inability of Jesus' disciples to understand the message of their teacher, highlighting genius with an ordinary soul standing in for you and me. Besides, Holmes cannot be a teacher without a dutiful student.

At the beginning of the first short story, "A Scandal in Bohemia," Holmes performs his favorite trick, one that often begins the stories. He deduces from small details of Watson's appearance, clothing, and shoes that his friend has been walking in the country, has a careless servant girl, and is back in medical practice. After carefully detailing how he picked up all the little clues, Watson laughs. "When I hear you give your reasons, the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe my eyes are as good as yours."

Holmes agrees, and makes one of the most important statements in all the canon: "You see, but you do not observe."

Then he challenges Watson to state how many steps lead to 221-B, steps he has climbed hundreds of times.

"How many? I don't know."

"Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point."

The answer is seventeen, a relatively insignificant fact, to be sure, but Holmes is absolutely insistent that each one of us must learn to see this world in just such a clear way. Watson never quite awakens to the fact that he is living with someone as focused as a Zen master, a spiritual teacher who just happens to have a fondness for tracking down criminals. Despite the light tone of the stories and their sly wit, Holmes is not playing a game with his "teachings" but rather enacting quite serious demonstrations about how to truly see our world. These stories are, at last, not just about apprehending criminals, but about apprehending reality. The detective is instructing his friend to learn what Buddhists call "bare attention." An old Zen tale describes a student badgering the teacher Ichu over and over about the core of the teaching. The master writes with his brush the word Attention. Not satisfied, the student asks, "Is that it?" In response, he writes, Attention, Attention. Now irritated, the student replies, "What is profound about that?" Writing the word three times, he calmly answers, "Attention means attention."

Which means the moment of perception before our thoughts take over, before our concepts and notions intervene. Bare attention is seeing things as they exactly are. Holmes sees with brilliance, true, but he sees, more importantly, with keen accuracy and without grand theories that twist truth into ideas and down blind alleys. The Buddhist psychotherapist Mark Epstein describes bare attention as "impartial, open, nonjudgmental, interested, patient, fearless, and impersonal."

Jesus speaks to this in Matthew, alluding to Isaiah's observation that "You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. . . ." To which Jesus adds: "Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it . . ." (13:16). Not to mention police!

You and I are generally used to seeing things the way Watson does. Holmes is not content, however; he clearly thinks anyone can reach insight in the way we approach seeing. The problem is that our usual vision is equivalent to blindness. The Jewish writer Abraham Joshua Heschel states it in another fashion: "The demand, as understood in Biblical religion, is to be alert and open to what is happening. . . . Every moment is a new arrival, a new bestowal." Perhaps the worst sin, then, is to stop paying attention.

This chapter is perhaps the very heart of this book, outlining five principles drawn from the Holmes stories that show us how to see with new attention. I caution you, however, not to make the mistake of thinking that simply seeing with our eyes is the point. It is said Helen Keller was once asked if there was anything worse than being blind. She replied, "Having no vision."

An intriguing illustration of this is to be found in the Max Carrados detective stories that appeared in the Strand magazine, an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the Holmes tales and which, unlike the vast majority of Sherlock's rivals, are actually still readable. (There is nothing as effective for raising your opinion of Arthur Conan Doyle as a writer than to read the dated and painfully dull works written in imitation of him.) The twist is that Max Carrados is blind. In the introductory story, "The Coin of Dionysus," Max tells his friend Carlyle, "Do you know, Louis, I always had a secret ambition to be a detective myself. . . . That makes you smile?"

"Well, certainly, the idea—"

"Yes, the idea of a blind detective—the blind tracking the alert—" Max replies.

But in fact, it is Carrados who solves the mysteries, not his sighted friend. Ernest Bramah wrote of his blind detective that he is "blind, quite blind, but so far from crippling his interests in life or his energies, his blindness has merely impelled him to develop those senses which in most of us lie half dormant and practically unused." It is unlikely that any of us will ever uncover a murderer, but no mystery in our lives can ever be solved without insight and, as we shall see, a little artistic vision. What is dormant within us must be brought to life, made vivid.

These following five instructions from the Master are what we need to become people capable of such inner vision and insight.

(1) nothing is little

(2) notice what you see

(3) the deceptiveness of the ordinary

(4) the bizarre is not necessarily mysterious

(5) presume nothing

Meet the Author

Stephen Kendrick is the Parish Minister of the Universalist Church of West Hartford, Connecticut, and has peviouslty served churches in Maryland and Pennsylvania and Unitarian chapels in West Midlands of England. He recieved his B.A. from Princeton, his M.Div. from the Harvard Divinity School, and a master's degree in creative writing from the Hollins College Writing Program. His articles have appeared in The Christian Century, The Hartford Courant, and The Hartford Advocate. He lives in West Hartford.

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