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Mastermind

Maria Konnikova examines the neurological and psychological underpinnings of the great mind of Sherlock Holmes.

April 5, 2013

Mastermind By Maria Konnikova Viking Adult 288 pp.

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Reviewed by Mark Sarvas for Barnes & Noble Review

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He has inspired countless iterations in print and film at the hands of interpreters as diverse as Nicholas Meyer, Michael Chabon, Billy Wilder, Jeremy Brett, and Nicol Williamson. Most recently, we've seen Guy Ritchie's lumbering, noisy feature films go head-to-head with the BBC's superb modern-day "Sherlock." Add to the mix "Elementary," CBS's wan "Sherlock" clone, and it's clear that more than a century after he tumbled into the Reichenbach Falls, Sherlock Holmes's grip on our imagination remains unshakable. 

But why? It can't be entirely on literary merit; the Holmes canon of 56 short stories and four novels by Arthur Conan Doyle can be wildly uneven. (Try reading "The Valley of Fear," or most of the stories from "His Last Bow," for that matter. Holmes was never quite the same after he emerged from the falls.)  Many of the stories lack suspense, at least by 21st-century standards. So why do we keep returning to 221B Baker Street?

"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. 

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