Sherlock Holmes and God

Interview With Mario Palmaro, Co-author of «Supernatural, Dear Watson»

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ROME, MAY 2, 2003 ( Mystery, reason, crime, the innocent and the guilty … are these concepts of the Gospel or the vocabulary of a Sherlock Holmes novel?

In fact, the two are brought together in a new book that has appeared in Italy entitled, «Supernatural, Dear Watson. Sherlock Holmes and the Case of God» (Ancora). Here, co-author Mario Palmaro talks about this curious combination of God and fiction’s famous detective.

Palmaro and co-author Alessandro Gnocchi have chosen five of Holmes’ stories and analyzed them in the light of the Gospel. Palmaro is a professor at the University of Treviso and at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum in Rome.

Q: As a philosopher of law and specialist in bioethics, why do you spend time studying the topic of Sherlock Holmes and God?

Palmaro: In my studies as philosopher of law I have had the opportunity to reflect in particular on the problem of the punishment, sanction and responsibility of someone who commits a crime.

It is always a fascinating topic. Holmes’ investigations always start from the crime, and the thrust of the investigation is to discover the guilty one, to analyze the criminal’s personality, and to study his «reasons.»

Conan Doyle almost always succeeds in combining the need to punish the guilty with the fact that the latter is always a human being.

I think it is a very «Catholic» idea, very genuine and real: In literary fiction, the criminal fascinates us and at the same time disturbs us, because in conscience any one of us must admit that we might be tempted, in particular circumstances, to commit a crime.

Yes, criminology is an ideal setting to reflect on original sin.

Q: Does the book attempt to demonstrate that faith is a mystery like those resolved by Sherlock Holmes?

Palmaro: Yes, there is an analogy. Going beyond this discourse, my idea is that the success of Holmes’ stories, in addition to the ludic and adventurous dimension that excites the reader, is due to a more profound reason: the anthropological topic of the search for truth.

As John Paul II wrote in the encyclical «Fides et Ratio,» man is the one who seeks truth. Each one of us pursues it, the same way that Holmes follows the solution of each case that he investigates. And he does so by using his power of reasoning to the fullest.

He himself has to admit in certain cases that he must abandon himself to something that is beyond him. Therefore, it is not faith against reason, but reason that leads man to the threshold of the mystery.

But the real coup in the great story of life is that, in Jesus of Nazareth, God was moved to come to find man and to allow himself to be found.

This is the meaning of true revelation, which makes the Christian event incomparable to other religious phenomena of any age.

Q: Do you think that the Gospel is like a detective novel?

Palmaro: It could be described in these terms. There are some canonical elements that allow the connection. Let us think of the trial before Pilate, which unfolded with the complete observance of the admirable guarantees established by Roman law, and which ended with the greatest injustice of all times given the undue pressures exercised by the Sanhedrin on Pilate, who understood Jesus’ innocence, but condemned him out of political opportunism.

However, as I said earlier, what is lovely about this detective «novel» is that the innocent one, after an atrocious death, is restored to us alive. He eats with his disciples, allows himself to be touched, and promises to be with them until the end of time. Conan Doyle could not have invented such a beautiful and truthful story.

Q: What links have you found between the stories mentioned and the Gospel passages proposed at the beginning of each narrative?

Palmaro: I will choose one of them. In the story «The Naval Treaty,» Holmes, symbol of cold reason and logic to the point of paroxysm, suddenly interrupts his investigations and focuses his attention on a beautiful red rose that appears in his room. Looking at it, he exclaims: «Flowers are our greatest guarantee of the goodness of Providence.» The other things are of no use to live, but this is an «added» element, a «plus.»

At this point, I immediately thought of Jesus, when in Luke’s Gospel he exhorts men to admire the magnificence of the lilies of the fields, which neither spin nor weave but surpass Solomon’s glory. There is no logical reason why Conan Doyle allows Holmes this digression on flowers and God’s generosity.

Evidently, however, the author needs to describe what he has written, because there is an anxiety in his heart, as every man has in his innermost being. My hope is that every one might discover this «hunger for God.»

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