No Shit, Sherlock

Jeffrey Cohen

First, you have to understand: writers spend most of their time not writing. That’s why my mind is wandering this way.

I’m not discussing Robert B. Parker, who has 106 series running at once and probably writes in the check out line at Foodtown, or any of those other maniacs who are prolific enough to drive the rest of us to the liquor cabinet. I mean the average, garden-variety author like myself, who spends more time thinking about writing than writing. We’re nice, too.

Don’t worry, this is going somewhere. I’m pretty sure.

So, given that writers spend a good deal of time not writing, and given that we are, by nature, a slovenly, slug-like people (this is a gross generality–there are few grosser), it follows that we spend a good deal of time looking around the walls of the room in which we are, at that moment, not writing. In my case, it would be in my "office," which is supposed to be the dining room of our house, but instead has an imposing dark-wood veneer piece of furniture that doubles as a desk, bookshelf and file cabinet (perhaps that should be "triples as a desk…").

It is the sort of room that would send Martha Stewart into a screaming fit that might result in more jail time, but in which someone like Sherlock Holmes would feel quite at home, assuming that Mrs. Hudson hadn’t been in to clean recently.

It would also serve as a terrific source of information for Holmes, who was fond of looking at the stuff a guy has in his room and making enormous leaps of logic (which were invariably proven correct) based on what he saw.

So: what would Sherlock Holmes make of this room?

Let’s start with a few ground rules. Sherlock has to be a modern-day sleuth in this case, so he’d be familiar with the iMac, the fax machine and the all-in-one copier/printer/scanner/waffle iron that takes up a good deal of shelf space in the room. He’d have to be familiar with the telephone. He wouldn’t be surprised that I have a shredder (recently purchased to make me feel more like an employee of the Nixon Administration) nor would he ask me where my quill pen was kept.

Also, let’s assume for the sake of argument (and my own sanity) that no major crime has been committed in my house. Sherlock’s coming by for late afternoon tea (boy, is he in for a disappointment!) or to attend a seder, so he can see how the Semites celebrate Easter.

What would Sherlock Holmes be able to find out about me by looking around my office?

"Well, to begin, you are clearly a professional musician," he might begin. "Note the case full of music books and the vintage 12-string guitar left out of its case, no doubt for quick access during periods of practice or composition. You have an interest in neurological disorders and historical figures, as is evidenced by the few books on the bookshelves. You are enamored of a particular writer on business topics; you own hardcover editions of many of his books. You have been presented with some sort of entertainment award, are a graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa, have a large number of children aged 11 to 17 who love to read, you exercise regularly, do your own sewing, drink beer in the afternoons while watching baseball games and are planning a trip to Italy."

"Amazing, Holmes! How did you guess?"

"I never guess, Watson." (Apparently, Sherlock has brought his "friend" along with him today, without feeling the need to ask in advance. The matzo ball soup will have to stretch a little.) "It is an appalling habit. I observe, and make deductions based on the observations. For example, the entertainment award, patterened after the ‘Oscar’ (as I believe it is called), is visible on the bookshelf. The Grinnell College connection can be deduced from the t-shirt Mr. Cohen is wearing, emblazoned with the words ‘Grinnell College Alumni Assocation.’ The inordinate number of bibliophile children–at least seven or eight–in the teenage years is evident from the huge piles of Young Adult mystery books on the floor. Exercise is indicated by the large ball used for that purpose that has not been put away because it will be used again soon, and the computer print-out sheets of exercise routines on the sideboard. There is a sewing kit on the same piece of furniture, which indicates Mr. Cohen has done some tailoring recently. He has a New York Yankees bottle opener on his filing cabinet, which indicates the need for a beer–most soft drinks have recloseable tops–and the fact that it has the imprint of the team would indicate a desire to observe their contests. The trip to Italy is indicated by the number of books on Rome and its environs on the shelves."

"Is there more, Holmes?" Watson loves to ask such questions, lap dog that he is.

"Of course, Watson. Those were only the most obvious observations. I can also tell you that Mr. Cohen owns a dog, is an observant Hebrew, prefers books on cassette to printed volumes, is devoted to the latest in technology, and has a considerable ego, as is evidenced by the large crate with a dog bed inside, the local newspaper issued by a Jewish organization, to which he must subscribe, the number of books on cassette versus the smaller number of hardcover books, the many cables and wires for technological devices, and the many likenesses of himself in the room. A man’s study, Watson, is the best place to determine his true character."

All of which would be true, except for the fact that Sherlock just got it all wrong. Except for the dog. I do have a dog.

I keep a guitar and many music books in my office, because I’ll often grab it and start to play something as a way to put off writing. I am anything but a professional musician. I have works about history and neurological disorders in my office because I have had to look up details about history for an article recently, and because my son was born with a neurological disorder, a subject on which I write quite a bit. It ain’t pleasure reading, believe me.

My shelves are, indeed, lined with a good number of books on business affairs by one author. They’re in hardcover, too. That’s because I wrote them. I do some ghostwriting to pay the bills, and the author (you wouldn’t recognize the name) is a frequent client. Best to keep those handy.

The "entertainment award" was given to me in college, when I directed (if you want to call it that) a student film. It was a joke (as was the film). The Grinnell College t-shirt? I wear it because it was too big on my wife, who is a graduate. I went to Rutgers, and although I have a shirt with the logo on it, I never wear it. It’s too clingy.

Young adult mysteries are, in fact, taking over my office. I have at least 50 of them there. I have to read them all, because a friend asked me to. It’s a long story (and an exceedingly dull one, which is why I’m not telling it here). My kids are, indeed, between the ages of 13 and 17, but there are only two of them. They’re 13 and 17. And while they love to read, YA mysteries are their 15th preference after many, many other choices. Some genes aren’t passed along.

The exercise equipment? A promise to myself that I’ve been ignoring for quite some time. If Holmes were looking closely at me, and not my t-shirt (the man is a bit perverse), he’d quickly see that I’m clearly not a frequent exerciser. More’s the pity.

An exercise ball does sit in my office; it’s presence, and many of his other observations, can be attributed to one personality trait that Holmes didn’t mention: I’m a slob. I can’t sew; my wife left the sewing kit out weeks ago and I never put it away where it belongs. The bottle opener? My brother gave it to me last December. (When you use it to open a bottle, it actually plays a recording of John Sterling, the radio voice of the Yankees, just to remind fans what an embarrassment John Sterling is.) Ought to get to putting that away any time now. The books on Rome? We went to Italy (and came back) in June. Yeah, need to find a place for those, okay.

Jewish newspaper? They keep sending it. I don’t remember asking. I never read it. (One can only assume Holmes was kidding with that "observant Hebrew" crack.) Really should put that on the recycling pile, now, shouldn’t I? Books on cassette? Those belong to my wife. We have some subscription; it’s like Netflix, but for books on tape. Cables and wires? I often look at those, wondering what they’re supposed to be attached to, and why.

There are photographs in the room, and I’m in some of them. Mostly by accident. They’re of my wife and children, for the most part. There is one pen-and-ink drawing of me, done by a friend a few lifetimes ago when I worked in a real office. I keep it because, well, I think if someone goes to the trouble to do a drawing of you, the least you can do is keep it. It used to sit next to a framed certificate declaring me a member of the crew of the Starship Enterprise, signed by Gene Roddenberry (whom I had interviewed for a video trade magazine) and James T. Kirk. I meant to keep that forever, too–you should always hang onto a certificate signed by a fictional character–but dropped the frame it was in, and it broke. I’m sure the certificate is around here somewhere. Got to wonder what Holmes would have made of that.

So, it’s possible to observe, and immediately deduce inaccurate information. This is to be kept in mind while writing mysteries–proof has to be more than a guess–sorry, Holmes–based on an observation. Indeed, looking around a person’s home/office and making judgments about them is best left as a playful exercise meant not to come to meaningful conclusions, but merely to kill some time.

Like I just did. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes.

7 thoughts on “No Shit, Sherlock

  1. B.G. Ritts

    Ah, but your killed time has provided me with a comfy read so that I can ignore a bit longer those things about my house that need to be started. Wish I could return the favor. Thank you!

  2. Pari

    I cringe to think of what Sherlock might think of my office. He’d figure out I was a writer because of all the books on craft — that I’ve never read. There’s a small Judaica section, tons of journals. He might think I like guns since there are two targets above my computer — testimony to my participation in Firearms & Fiction.

    What else? Stuffed animals. Don’t ask. A big glow-in-the-dark alien mask. Kid art. A bottle of scotch, Chambord, and cognac. Water. Crafts supplies. Disarray galore.

    Oh, heavens. What am I doing posting this note? I’ve got to clean.

  3. JT Ellison

    Oh, Jeff, great post. I love getting glimpses into the worlds, and minds, of other writers. One trip to my office would confirm a propensity toward OCD, with labels and files in neat areas, too many books, all shelved of course, multiple briefcases, because you never know when you need to look like you know what you’re doing, pens, and tons of yellow legal pads. Since we moved, I haven’t put up a single picture, more’s the pity.Thanks for the look into your life!

  4. JT Ellison

    Oh, Jeff, great post. I love getting glimpses into the worlds, and minds, of other writers. One trip to my office would confirm a propensity toward OCD, with labels and files in neat areas, too many books, all shelved of course, multiple briefcases, because you never know when you need to look like you know what you’re doing, pens, and tons of yellow legal pads. Since we moved, I haven’t put up a single picture, more’s the pity.Thanks for the look into your life!

  5. G. T. Karber

    I think Holmes would have probably said, “Eh, another writer. You and Watson would get along.”

    I’ve always wanted to write a character that was a linguistic savant and was so perceptive that he could tell an inordinate amount about a person based on the way they pronounced their R’s.

    It would have to be a comedy.

  6. Terri

    Stumbled across your post and was very much entertained. Gotta say, I envy your talent to write about yourself in the third person.Also, my office is in the corner of my bedroom. I’m considering moving it to Starbucks.


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