Amelia Peabody Emerson, Dorothy Sayers, Douglas Preston, Elizabeth Peters, Jonesy, Lincoln Child, Lord Peter Wimsey, Matthew Reilly, memory palace, mind palace, PBS, Scarecrow, Shane Schofield, Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock: "The Last Vow", Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Special Agent Pendergast, Stephen King
There it is again—in this season’s finale of Sherlock on PBS, the concept of a memory palace, the deliberate mental construction of a familiar structure where memories can be sorted, filed, or locked away in any of the various ‘rooms’ and accessed only
by a force of will (more detail here). It is an ancient technique that has imparted to several authors’ creations a skill that resembles a superpower: Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast visits his elaborately detailed memory palace in at least two books by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child: Day of the Dead and Two Graves (my review here); Gary Ambrose “Jonesy” Jones from Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher hides critical childhood memories from an alien intruder; and Matthew Reilly’s Captain Shane “Scarecrow” Schofield is able to shield his memories from a torturer in Scarecrow Returns (my review here). In Sherlock: “His Last Vow,” the technique is used to devastating effect by both consummate blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnussen and by Sherlock himself to save his own life.
In Sherlock’s case, this includes an ability to access anything that might be of help, including conversations (a skill this digital version of Sherlock shares on a more introductory level with Special Agent Pendergast). The process, brought to us in frenetic detail, happens in a flash. Among Sherlock’s insights, his split-second analysis of bullet wounds is riveting; had my college physics classes gone into such useful cause-and-effect scenarios, I might have done more than muddle through.
Like Lord Peter Wimsey’s sword-yardstick-compass cane and Amelia Peabody Emerson’s sturdy leather belt, jingling with her assorted excavation tools (a small pistol among them), the mastery of a memory palace would be a useful addition to any investigator’s bag of tricks. Please let me know in the comments if you are aware of any other fictional characters who employ this useful psychological device to get themselves out of a scrape. While the requisite sharp wit and the ability to make connections between seemingly disparate events are critical foundation skills for any sort of investigator, they do not necessarily indicate the use of a memory palace—but they’re a good place to start.
If you missed Sherlock: “His Last Vow”, you can find it here.