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The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: How to Disguise Yourself

It's been well over a century since the first Sherlock Holmes adventure was published, and yet the master detective remains as popular as ever; witness the upcoming release of Holmes, starring Robert Downey, Jr., the Holmes-inspired television phenomenon that is House, M.D., and countless adaptations over the years. But what is it about this 19th century detective that we still find so compelling today? Why do modern-day detectives still study his methods and techniques? What can we still learn from Sherlock Holmes? I set out to answer those questions, and the result is my new book, The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: the Methods and Mysteries of the World's Greatest Detective. All week I'll be posting excerpts from it, which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Quirk Books did a great job designing it -- a cute little hardback that would look right at home on your grandfather's shelf o' classics -- and Eugene Smith's illustrations are top-notch. Hope you enjoy this little preview!

How to Disguise Yourself
"It was not merely that Holmes changed his costume. His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed. The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime." - A Scandal in Bohemia

sherlock - disguise smallSherlock Holmes was more than just a shrewd detective-among other distinctions, he remains one of history's foremost masters of disguise. His profession demanded it: Concealing his identity allowed Holmes to trail suspects without their knowledge, slip his enemies' traps time after time, and in "His Last Bow" to break a German spy ring that might have cost England dearly if not for Holmes's undercover intervention. That Dr. Watson himself failed to recognize his old friend in disguise on at least five occasions is further proof of Holmes's genius; and considering that Watson was a sharp if underrated mind in his own right, it goes without saying that Holmes's efforts went much further than simply donning a costume. To master the art of personal camouflage, every aspect of your person, from your clothes and hair to the manner in which you speak and carry yourself, must be altered beyond recognition.

"¢ Select a new identity. You will fool no one by simply donning exotic clothes willy-nilly; a disguise lacking in coherence appears to be just what it is-a disguise. Instead, think like an actor: Imagine a character most unlike yourself and let that guide your selection of clothing, the manner in which you speak, the cover story you concoct, and so on. Consider the sex, age, profession, economic status, and personality of this character, as Holmes did when he disguised himself as an aged seaman in The Sign of the Four : "Altogether he gave me the impression of a respectable master mariner who had fallen into years and poverty," reports a briefly duped Watson.

"¢ Change your clothes. In his career, Holmes wore a black robe and hat to become an talian priest in "The Final Problem," a "blue blouse" to portray a rough-edged French plumber in "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax," and a tweed suit and cloth hat to appear like "any other tourist" in The Hound of the Baskervilles, among many other costumes. But Holmes does more than simply take these clothes from the rack and drape them on his person; he adapts them to the subtleties of his roles. For instance, his aged sailor costume in The Sign of the Four consisted mainly of a pea-coat, but it wasn't just any pea-coat: Watson describes it as "old" and "buttoned up to his throat," touches that reinforce both the poverty and infirmity of the character Holmes is playing.

"¢ Change your hair. Holmes's sailor disguise employed not only a wig but fake whiskers and eyebrows as well, creating the impression of an unkempt man rarely acquainted with scissors or a razor. But false hair can be dangerous; nothing will ruin your cover more quickly than an ill-fitting wig.

sherlock disguise

"¢ Change your face. This can be achieved by artificial means-with makeup to create wrinkles or flesh-colored putty to reshape the nose-as well as naturally, through facial expressions. For maximum effect, employ both techniques simultaneously, as Holmes does in "The Final Problem": "The aged ecclesiastic had turned his face towards me," Watson writes. "For an instant the wrinkles were smoothed away, the nose drew away from the chin, the lower lip ceased to protrude and the mouth to mumble . . . and the next the whole frame collapsed again, and Holmes had gone as quickly ly as he had come." He takes a different approach in "The Dying Detective," affecting the look of a man on his deathbed by applying petroleum jelly to his forehead, daubing his eyes with irritating nightshade to turn them angry red, and encrusting beeswax around his lips.

"¢ Change your body. Desperate fools might submit to a surgeon's knife in order to change their bodies, but for a master of disguise, such measures are superfluous. Your natural stride should be lengthened or shortened, or a limp adopted. Holmes often altered his height by stooping while in disguise, a wonderful trick but no easy thing to maintain over a long period, as he pointed out after portraying a hunched bookseller in "The Empty House" -- "I am glad to stretch myself, Watson," said Holmes. "It is no joke when a tall man has to take a foot off his stature for several hours on end."

"¢ Alter your speech. An accent is easy enough to fake, but a new manner of speech is considerably more difficult. The most elaborate role of Holmes's career was that of an Irish American traitor named Altamont in "His Last Bow," whose voice alone was enough to convince the Germans on whom he was spying of his authenticity. "If you heard him talk you would not doubt [that he is Irish American]," Von Bork assures a German comrade. "Sometimes I assure you I can hardly understand him. He seems to have declared war on the King's English as well as on the English king."

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How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?
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Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

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Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
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Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]

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