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10 Mysteries Worthy of Sherlock Holmes's Time

Posted: 12/27/2012 9:16 am

Sherlock Holmes may be the world's greatest fictional detective, but the principles behind his approach to solving crime are very real, indeed. Listen to him explain his method of thought to Watson, and chances are, you'll come away with much the same impression as the good doctor: of course! How did I not think of it myself? It all seems to simple after the fact.

It can seem simple before the fact, as well--if only we pay close attention to the principles behind Holmes's explanations. That is precisely what I try to do in my exploration of the psychology and neuroscience behind the great detective's methodology, in Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Viking, 2013). It all boils down to the two M's: mindfulness and motivation. That, and a whole lot of practice--hours upon hours upon hours of it--on the side.

But wouldn't it be worth putting in all that time and effort if at the end of it all, we'd come out with a more Holmes-like mind and mindset? Perhaps if we learn to apply his approach to thought more extensively, we'll even find ourselves equipped to deal with these 10 Holmes-worthy mysteries. He may not be here to solve them for us, but his tenets of observation may be a first step to enabling us to do it on our own.

Here are 10 modern mysteries to put your Holmesian mind to.

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  • 1. The case of the Tylenol murders

    On a late September morning in 1982, 12-year-old Mary Kellerman awoke complaining of a cold. Her parents gave her some Extra-Strength Tylenol. A few hours later, she was dead. That same morning, Adam Janus, a postal worker, took pain meds for what might have been a headache—and was dead before the end of the day. His grieving brother and sister-in-law took a few pills from the same bottle—their heads hurt, they said, from so much crying—and soon met their brother’s fate. Within two days, the death toll in the Chicago area had grown to seven. The only link in the deaths: a bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol. As it turns out, the pills had all been laced with toxic levels of potassium cyanide. Johnson & Johnson recalled the drug. And while James Lewis, a tax consultant who tried to extort $1 million from the company in exchange for stopping the killings, was soon convicted for his extortion attempt, no ties to the actual killings were ever discovered, and he was released from prison in 1995. To date, the case is unsolved.

  • 2. The adventure of the Pink Panthers

    It was around 5:15 on the evening of December 4 when three women, accompanied by a single man, were buzzed into the Paris location of Harry Winston, the famed jeweler. Only, those weren’t women. And they certainly weren’t regular customers. By 5:30, four men with heavy Slavic accents—allegedly part of a group dubbed the Pink Panthers—had fled the store with bags of emeralds, rubies, and diamonds valued at over 80 million euros. It was the second time the Harry Winston store had been robbed in just over a year – and while two years later, about $20 million worth of jewelry was recovered from a drainpipe in the northern suburbs of Paris, the thieves—and the rest of the loot—remain at large.

  • 3. The case of the Somerton Man

    Sherlock Holmes was always one for cracking the strangest of ciphers. The case of the Somerton Man, or Tamam Shud, would have been one for the books. In late November of 1948, a strolling couple noticed an oddly still man on Somerton Beach in Adelaide, Australia. He was well-dressed, but without a hat, and even though mosquitos were swarming all around, he was doing nothing to swat them away. The next morning, an early-bird swimmer confirmed what the couple had suspected might be the case: the man was dead. All of the labels had been removed from his clothing, and sewn inside the lining of his watch pocket was a piece of paper, torn from <em>The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, </em>with two words written on the back: Tamam Shud. Almost nine months later, a book with a matching tear was discovered, and in it, a code and telephone number. The code has yet to be broken, and the Somerton Man remains a nameless enigma.

  • 4. The adventure of the Monster with 21 Faces

    On the evening of March 18, 1984, Katsuhisa Ezaki, the president of Ezaki Glico, a large Japanese candy company, was kidnapped from his home by two masked gunmen. The following morning, Glico’s director received a phone demand: 1 billion yen and 220 pounds of gold bullion, in exchange for Ezaki’s safe return. Luckily for Glico, it would never get to that. On the third day of his captivity, Ezaki escaped. But this was the start, rather than the grand finale, to an increasingly bizarre string of events. On April 10, three cars in Glico’s parking lot were set on fire. The arson was followed by a delivery of hydrochloric acid and a series of notes with the cryptic signature, The Monster with 21 Faces. A massive product recall, multiple threats to a new victim, Morinaga & Company, 21 packages of poisoned candy, and one suicide later, the Monster announced his retirement. His identity remains unknown.

  • 5. The mystery of the Aleppo Codex

    The oldest and most complete known text of the Hebrew Bible is stored in a secret vault in the Israel Museum. The security around it is airtight, the privileged eyes to see it, few and far between. Except, there is one problem: the Aleppo Codex is missing some 200 pages—and that hasn’t always been the case. Were the pages stolen in transit from Aleppo to Jerusalem? Lost in a riot in Aleppo? Sold to an unnamed wealthy buyer? The theories are numerous, the answers, elusive. Even the Mossad, Israel’s famed intelligence service, has emerged empty-handed from its search. Where is Holmes when you need him?

  • 6. The disappearance of Suzanne Jovin

    On December 4, 1998, Suzanne Jovin, a popular senior at Yale University, was murdered two miles from campus. The phrase “brutally murdered” is quite the overused cliché—but in this case, there are few other ways to describe her killing. Jovin had been stabbed 17 times in the back and neck and left to die in a crumpled heap on the sidewalk. So violent was the attack that the verdict was that Jovin likely knew her killer—especially as the neighborhood where her murder took place was otherwise quiet and safe. There were no witnesses, no evidence, no weapon. In 2006, the case was officially handed off to the Cold Case Unit. In 2007, a team of four retired detectives was appointed to take a second look. To date, no progress has been made.

  • 7. The adventure of the Fool’s Gold

    In the early morning hours of November 26, 1983, six armed men broke into Heathrow’s Brink’s-Mat Warehouse. They had been planning a heist of £3 million—an admirable haul. What they found instead was gold bullion—almost £26 million-worth, to be precise. The result: the largest bank robbery in British history. To date, most of the gold remains unrecovered – unless you listen to those who say that anyone who purchased UK-made gold jewelry after 1983 is wearing the laundered proceeds of Brink’s-Mat.

  • 8. The Adventure of the St. Patrick’s Day heist

    On the night of St. Patrick’s Day, two police officers entered Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. They were responding to a call, they said, and so, the security guard let them in. Minutes later, both guards on duty that evening were handcuffed, brought to the museum’s basement, tied to pipes, and immobilized. By the time their morning relief came, 13 paintings, valued at approximately $300 million, had been cut from their frames: several Rembrandts; Degas; a Manet; a Vermeer. The policemen had been thieves in disguise. The guard had broken protocol to allow them entrance in the first place. The entire crime took 81 minutes. None of the art has ever been recovered and, despite an apparent break in 2008, 22 years after the heist not a single person has been charged. 13 frames hang empty, as a reminder of the loss.

  • 9. The mystery of the great hijacking of 1971

    His name wasn’t actually D. B.—or Dan, for that matter—Cooper, but chances are, we’ll never know him as anything else. On November 24, 1971, he boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 305, bringing with him a suitcase with a bomb. He proceeded to hijack the plane and demand $200,000 in ransom, along with several parachutes. The demands were met. As the plane flew from Seattle to Mexico, Cooper jumped into the night, along with his loot. None of the five planes following the hijacked Boeing saw him jump, and neither he nor the money have ever been found. It remains the only unsolved airplane hijacking in U.S. history.

  • 10. The Baker Street Burglary

    London. September, 1971. Sherlock Holmes’s own street becomes witness to one of the largest bank robberies in UK history, when thieves tunnel into the vault of Lloyds Bank and make off with over £3 million. And here’s the rub: when an amateur radio enthusiast, Robert Rowlands, picks up the thieves’ walkie-talkie communications and tips off the police prior to the robbery, the reaction is lackadaisical. And the other rub: three days after the heist, the media goes silent. The government issues a D notice—an order that prevents the press from reporting further—and the rest, as they say, is silence. Except for one more element in the case. Inside the vault, a message is found: “Let Sherlock Holmes try to solve this.” Does the great Moriarty remain at large?