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Review: Maria Konnikova’s Mastermind – How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes

Mastermind – How to Think like Sherlock Holmes
by Maria Konnikova

Sherlock Holmes is a superhero, and his superpower is his ability to use his brain. Maria Konnikova has written a book which offers us insight into this superpower and enables us to become a little bit like him. We’ve all been stuck at some point, may it be writer’s block, a huge decision we have to make and we’re not quite sure how to even consider the pros and cons of it, choosing wisely, solving a problem, you get the drift. Well, here is a book that can help us all to think about our way of thinking and teaches us why Sherlock Holmes is usually right.

Mastermind is a book that tells several stories simultaneously. It connects fiction with non-fiction, it is a character analysis not only of Sherlock Holmes, John Watson and several other canon characters, but also an analysis of the general character of us – of human beings, of our minds and behavior, of our traditions, rituals and structures, our ways of thinking and seeing the world. Maria Konnikova’s guide focuses on the way the human mind works and how we can become better thinkers and subsequently better decision makers.

The book begins with a description of how our mind works; and differentiates between a Watson- and a Holmes-way of thinking and why the smallest and most elementary details are often the most important ones. Using the characters’ mental abilities as metaphors, Maria Konnikova establishes that most of us tend to be like Watson. She uses episodes and quotes from the canon stories to stress her points. The same goes for the more effective, more structured was of thinking and decision making – The Holmes-way of thinking. Overall, it helps to know the Sherlock Holmes stories in order to establish some context, but it’s not necessary to understand the points that are being made in the book.  

The metaphor of the mind attic is a central aspect of the book and it is explored from psychological, physiological and neuro-scientific points of view. At the same time, we get to test our own way of thinking as numerous examples give us the chance to explore our immediate reaction to posed problems, how we make decisions and what influences our decision making. In a very special way the book lets you grasp Doyle’s genius of writing Watson and Holmes so differently and at the same time makes us re-think our own way of thinking. While the book is certainly about Sherlock Holmes and John Watson it also isn’t. Once you’ve put it down you will have learned a lot about yourself and noticed a few things which you always knew but never paid attention to, things that have very little to do with the master detective and his biographer and a lot with your life. In a very intelligent and gentle way, Maria Konnikova writes about our brains and our Watson-way of thinking and offers strategies to gain a bit of superpower on our own by starting to think like Sherlock Holmes.

The Penguin Paperback version of Mastermind is out on December 31 2013. Maria Konnikova also talked to us about her book on our podcast Episode 36.

Penguin have kindly offered to give away one issue of the book to a lucky winner. Comment on the review to enter the competition. The winner will be announced on January 3.

Maria teaches English Literature at Leipzig University, Germany, published a German introduction to Sherlock Holmes and is a fan of all things Holmes – but especially of the Canon stories and Sherlock BBC.  Contact her at

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