Traces of Life
How Sherlock Holmes helped crack the case of a missing father.
In 2009, I became a father and lost my father within a matter of weeks. I was lucky and grateful that my son came first. In the months that followed, I was faced with the dual responsibility of getting my own house in order for a child while also restoring a sense of meaning to the rooms my father left behind in my childhood house, which remained in exquisite suspension.
Midway through 2010, my wife and son and I moved out of Manhattan and stayed with family in my hometown in Illinois, waiting out the renovations to our new house in Chicago, a Sisyphean slide dragged out by building-permit bottlenecks never fathomed. Living off the grid provided a unique opportunity to clear space and make sense of the family archives. Having just packed up my own life, I was prepared to share the daunting but necessary task of wading through the collections in my father’s home office. Life, as I knew it, became an archeological dig.
For a year I found comfort in Rosebud punch lines. Who knew what I’d find that day? The gems and keepsakes uncovered during these daylong searches added to our skyline of New York boxes, which already occupied an entire room in my mother’s house. One particularly tall spire of boxes acted as a kind of sundial, taunting us with the ticking of another day adrift. Six months into our stay, in need of some stowed childcare essentials, my wife had movers come back to the house, simply to reshuffle our impenetrable wall of belongings like a rototiller. Now able to access the bottom-hidden boxes, my wife and I shared a laugh at the things we packed, each a reminder of how we never realized this move would take so long. Clothes our son had already outgrown. Formula when he was already eating solids. There were even overstocked gadgets from her labor, like the stopwatch I was supposed to use to time her contractions, which never got a click. It hangs now in our Chicago house, an inside joke.
Five months after that day of reshuffling, the boxes still sat, waiting. Holdovers from our apartment life, a new swell of family mementoes, and an armada of baby products—it was, as Sherlock Holmes might say, a “three-pipe problem.”
Holmes had been on my mind ever since I found a brick-sized paperback of his collected stories in my father’s library. Book collecting was one of our closest bonds, and the stacks of required reading I absorbed from his shelves remain my most treasured finds. Something felt different about encountering these Holmes stories, however, as if they were clues unto themselves. I laughed to myself and added the book to a growing stack, a caper I’d probably never investigate.
It wasn’t until I stumbled across an odd 1943 film titled Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon on TCM that the character stuck. The film dropped Holmes, portrayed by the aquiline marquee star Basil Rathbone, into the war effort, thwarting the Gestapo from securing a Swiss-made bomb. Holmes is accompanied, as ever, by the affable Dr. Watson, portrayed by Nigel Bruce, who endearingly putters around the set like a bear shooing flies. But why was this Victorian duo riding in motorcars and flying in biplanes? A disclaimer on another Nazi-related film, The Voice of Terror, addressed the unusual timequake, stating that the immortal character of Holmes is “ageless, invincible and unchanging,” and was needed to solve “significant problems of the present day.” Both films are bookended by another disclaimer—an advert to buy war bonds.
The world of the Basil Rathbone films—their clockwork precision, their pocket-sized plots—is a calm, didactic respite, perfect for quiet nights. Anyone fearful that Guy Ritchie’s bombastic blockbusters will set the standard for a generation should rush to their Netflix queue and pile it with Rathbones.
Given his powers of deduction, Sherlock Holmes was the original anti-hoarder, zeroing in on only the most essential items for clues. In 70-minute increments, I could put aside the mountains of archival material I had left to scale and luxuriate in the minutiae under the detective’s lens—splashes on trouser legs, flecks of ash from exotic tobacco leaves—and be validated by the usefulness of the data. In Holmes’ company, senses are sharpened. Combing through my family archives felt more purposeful. I was no longer starting into bottomless boxes of disjointed belongings, wondering how the pieces would fit, but conducting a study of sorts, aware that mysteries of the material world are never-ending, but solvable.
Though no adaptation can surpass Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories and novels, I felt a certain kinship with the film serials. Filled with imperfections and occasional bouts of kitsch, they nonetheless appear comfortable residing in the cracks of the larger Holmes myth. They’re more detached, more carefree. And as an aid for unwinding after a day of searching through archives, the films are a far cry from the hoarding gurus I’d felt an unseemly alliance with ever since the dig began. Like millions of Americans, I was strung out on stuff, supported by a mentality that everything was fine, so long as there were more extreme cases to peer at on shock programming like Hoarders.
The Holmes stories were a better companion, both in print and on film, though there’s a key distinction. The great strength of the books, of course, is their full immersion in the dark side of Victorian London. The city, as Dr. Watson famously observed, was the “great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire [were] irresistibly drained.” Its crammed streets are teeming with potential threats. The pages itch with the smells and squalor of street life, and it only gets worse in the countryside.