Traces of Life

How Sherlock Holmes helped crack the case of a missing father.

Illustration of Sherlock Holmes in The Man with the Twisted Lip, 1891.

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.

The film serials, however, provide a stark contrast. Rooms are spacious. Soundstage exteriors are filled out handsomely by inky shadows and an overtaxed fog machine. Each parlor is another minimalist slate to dust for prints, were they not so spotless. When Holmes fakes a drowning death while netting fish in Scotland, rear-projected waves flow by undisturbed—not a splash to contend with. Even the bohemian seediness of 221B Baker Street becomes orderly and inviting. On the page, Holmes pins unread letters to the mantelpiece with a jackknife, but on the screen, his workspace is a model of efficiency. Files are neatly indexed. Violin strings are always in tune. I’d found my comfort zone.

Inevitably, it was back into the breach for another afternoon of archive hunting, secure I had another of the 14 Rathbone films to take the edge off later. My brother and I would set up our own little stations in the attic, reverting to gallows humor to make each other laugh uncontrollably and deal with the weirdness of the assignment. Would it be like yesterday, when we found our baby teeth sealed in envelopes, or our father’s briefcase from his ad days, fully intact? One case, a metaphor for the ’70s rat race if ever there was one, contained nothing but a travel-sized box of Bayer.

On cue, my brother would pop a box top and express relief that it was just another cache of newspapers—a quick lateral to the recycling bin. Fighting the urge, I’d inevitably take a closer look, trying to decipher what it was about each daily paper that made my father keep it. The urge to reconnect with a random morning in, say, 1988, was overwhelming. What movies were showing in my favorite theaters that weekend? Did the Blackhawks beat the North Stars that day? Sure enough, the papers would migrate to my own bedside table, the crisp page-turns keeping my wife up at night.

Around this same time, it was reported that more than 11,000 pages outlining victims of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal in Britain were found in an evidence room at Scotland Yard, neglected. Holmes, who loved mocking the agency’s sluggish detectives, would surely be vindicated. In his hands, the daily newspapers were an essential dragnet—a tool not to be wasted. False reports were routinely slipped into the papers to throw criminals off a scent, and without want ads, several unsuspecting dupes would never have been lured to his Baker Street doorstep. Watching these clever manipulations yield results momentarily restored faith in the press as an engine for the common good, while also romanticizing a medium in decline. With newspapers imperiled, a modern-day Holmes would be reduced to tracing the Twitter feeds of London looters, or dispatched to confront not a stylized criminal like the Hoxton Creeper, but instead the Craigslist Killer.

Holmes’ world, however, is one of heightened reality, one free from the trappings of humdrum casework. Stuck without a chin-scratcher to solve, Holmes retreats into a cocaine bottle, leaving Watson and the landlady to pick up after him and get on with the busywork of chronicling his genius. For someone still knee-deep in archival work, it was hard not to be resentful of his perch. I longed to be behind my own desk, clear of others’ clutter, back at work. Like the wayward Binx Bolling in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, I’d put my own search on hold, reaching not for the stars, but for another roll of packing tape. “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life,” Percy wrote.

However, it’s Holmes who, despite his flippancy, offers the most useful advice about mind over matter. In A Study in Scarlet, he reminds Watson that the brain is like an empty attic, and to be careful to stock it with only essential furnishings, not “lumber of every sort,” for fear of crowding out useful knowledge. “The skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic,” Holmes cautions. “He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order.”

No matter how deeply I tried to apply this method, my brain-attic still needed rehab. I continued to pick from the pile, marveling at the furnishings from my family’s past. Soon, though, the real treasures were gone and I entered the strangest phase of the dig, which involved clearing out castaways from my own childhood. At a time when I was focusing on being a man for my son, I was stuck sifting through droves of baseball cards and comic books with no eBay value. Worst of all were art projects from grade school. I’d find myself asking my brother again if he thought dioramas were recyclable.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. My father’s death was sudden and he was far too young. And now my brother and I, with four young kids between us, were reliving our own childhoods far too soon. But the experience also presented an opportunity to rebuild from the ground up. If I was free of my childhood trappings, I could focus more on the artwork my own son made, not mine crackling in a box.

My father, a longtime chronicler of our family and an obsessive note-taker, left us with clues that continue to haunt and inspire us, long after the first storage box was sliced into for a fresh look. Like faithful detectives, we wanted to learn more about a life before we arrived on the scene, no matter how startling our findings. One day I came across one such piece of evidence after tapping into a groundswell of notebooks at the bottom of a seemingly random box. Many of my father’s notebooks were blank, and we always searched through them to retrieve the stray note that might be hiding on a single page in front or back. Mixed in with this stash of blanks and castoffs was a little pad emblazoned with a slogan Sherlock Holmes himself would be proud of: “The Memory System That Never Forgets.” I flipped through it, just in case: It was the notebook he kept to document my mother’s contractions the day I was born.