Sherlock Scan

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
"But Holmes! How could you possibly have figured all that out just from glancing at the lady's hand?" [1]

"I knew you came from Afghanistan. From long habit the train of thoughts ran so swiftly through my mind that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran, 'Here is a gentleman of the medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured: He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.' The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished."

A device used to introduce a detective character and his skills. The detective mentions some fact about the person he's just met, something that is not immediately obvious and he has no way of knowing ("Quitting cigarettes appears to have been good for you", "How's the wedding planning going?", "You've holiday'd in Italy recently"). The other character looks skeptical or surprised, then the detective describes his reasoning from a set of minor clues (state and style of clothes, marks on skin, tan, etc.) and consequent assumptions. May be involved in a Hannibal Lecture, especially if delivered by The Chessmaster or the Magnificent Bastard.

This is often not connected directly to the main plotline, but just to show "This is how the detective's mind works, and yes, the detective is That Good." The obvious subversion is to play this out, then the detective to admit that he'd been told the fact. Or for the other person to insist the detective is utterly wrong.

Note that this is often cited as a demonstration of a detective's deductive ability (reaching a conclusion via a connected, logical chain of observations) when in fact, this is an example of inductive reasoning (reaching a conclusion via a series of generalised observations) and is far less logically sound. (Of course, this is also the sort of evidential reasoning employed during most scientific experiments. The result of such induction is a likely solution, but not necessarily the only solution.)

A common parody of this is to have the detective note these details before drawing attention to the blindingly obvious clue.

Compare the Scarily Competent Tracker, who is like a Sherlock Scan done on footprints, and the Batman Cold Open. See also Hyper Awareness and Awesomeness By Analysis. When this kind of reasoning makes no sense but still works, it's a Bat Deduction. When the above subversion of performing one of these before noting an obvious hint occurs, it's Clue, Evidence, and a Smoking Gun.

Examples of Sherlock Scan include:

Anime and Manga

  • Occasionally done in Detective Conan, notably the first episode, where Conan comes up with a different justification.
  • Sherlock Holmes of Meitantei Holmes (released in the US as Sherlock Hound) is able to ascertain where a client came from because he recognizes the mud on her shoes and where it comes from.
  • Askeladd can read a man, can tell if a man is brave, cunning or a coward at a single glance, after living forty years of a wicked life.
  • Fuyuki of Keroro Gunsou, expert on the occult and brilliant detective, can somehow factor in an unidentified woman standing in the rain somewhere when investigating misplaced concert tickets.
  • Victorique, one of the protagonists of Gosick, is about as close to actually being Sherlock Holmes as a teenaged girl in a frilly dress can be, and as such is naturally prone to Sherlock Scanning. Perhaps more impressively, she's also capable of making these kinds of deductions based on details reported to her secondhand by her Watson, Kujo (since she rarely leaves the library in which she lives). And she's right, despite all the potential for error in such a setup.
  • Houtarou Oreki from Hyouka has a knack for the Sherlock Scan. For example, in Ep. 3, he deduced that an upperclassman was illegally smoking in a club room, and used that information to blackmail him into giving them the materials they needed.

Comic Books

  • Captain America is a Super Soldier, not a detective, but this trope is used to establish his experience. He can "sum up a soldier in an instant", and he proceeds to do this to Spider-Man, and although the details aren't all right, he gets Spidey. Spidey then tries it, and doesn't do so well. Although technically he should, given his combination of 'thinking superhumanly fast', enhanced situational awareness (spider-sense), and 'being incredibly intelligent'. One supposes Spidey just doesn't have a knack for what he should be looking for.

Cap: Late teens. The mask doesn't alter your voice that much. Probably someone who can't fit in with the regular crowd at school. [...] That mask allows you to express yourself and say the things you normally can't. You use humor as a weapon, to keep your opponents off-guard. That's a sound strategy. You live at home and you're close to your parents... you protect your identity out of respect for them. Preserve the family name. So you're a man of honor. [...]
Spidey: Anyone can make assumptions. You were probably a rich kid whose parents were shot in a dark alley, and you...
Cap: Not likely, kid.

    • And yes, it really doesn't disguise his voice that well. Whenever Spidey phones someone, they know it's him, but ask if he's coming down with a cold.
    • Given the fact that Spidey and Bats had met years before in the "Disordered Minds" crossover, the wall-crawler was probably using his aforementioned sense of humor to stop the scan and give a not-so-veiled Shout-Out.
  • Speaking of Batman, when a detective in one storyline hired to (and long since defeated by) the task of finding the killer of the Waynes told Batman that after enough years on the force he can just look at a guy's face and immediately know that he's guilty, Batman said he can identify.
  • A minor enemy of Moon Knight called The Profile specializes in this, literally to the point of it being a superpower. He is eventually defeated due to Moon Knight being an agent of a god. While the Knight himself could be analyzed, the god could not due to not being present.
  • Spoofed in Tintin in America. Tintin hires a private detective after his beloved dog Snowy goes missing. The detective examines the scene and quickly produces a detailed scenario of the dog-napping. Tintin wonders if this man is a Sherlock or a charlatan—it's unfortunately the latter as he repeatedly turns up with every kind of dog except Snowy.
  • Jamie Madrox does this to Rahne/Wolfsbane in the first issue of his Fallen Angels miniseries (the prelude to X-Factor), lampshading in the narration that this Holmes schtick should quiet her doubts about his detective skills. Subverted in the fact that he didn't deduce anything, he just had duplicates of himself follow her all day.

Fan Works

  • In the crossover fanfiction The Detective and the Diplomat, Holmes pulls a Sherlock Scan on Commander Vimes—but far from being impressed and awed, Vimes just resents him with the burning intensity of a thousand desert suns for the rest of the story. After that, Holmes' entire first day in Ankh-Morpork is a comedy of missed deductions; he pegs Carrot as the son of a farmer, Angua as a dog-lover (basically true, but...), Nobby as a Watch mascot, and Detritus as part of the statuary—this last nearly gets him killed. Holmes gets along a lot better with Ponder—once they iron out a compromise on the "no such thing as magic" issue.
  • In A Cure for Love Near deduces the following about Kira from just talking with Light on the phone:

Near: Kira, if it was Kira, sounded like a Japanese male in his late teens to early twenties... Slim build. He was probably wearing a suit since he was definitely wearing a tie. Irritable.

Duck: The writing callous on his right hand is particularly pronounced despite the fact that he uses a laptop in both his investigations and his notes. In his wallet he carries several blank index cards that have nothing written upon them, similar blank pieces of paper are sown into his clothing and kept on his person at all times. In order to kill Kira needs to have seen both the face and the name of a person, the name would lead one to believe that writing may be important to Kira's powers. Four years ago the police stopped almost all productivity in searching for Kira, as if they had found Kira but for whatever reason were unable to kill him yet the task force also upped security in the various hotels they were staying at during this time, as if they had a material object which they wished to protect, yet I know that Light has a certain item in his room that he has taken great care to protect. This item must be small and unnoticeable in normal circumstances or else Raye would have noticed it and would attempt to remove it at the risk of Kira's wrath. Not to mention that Light was everywhere he needed to be in order to be Kira, no one else fits this criteria. Light Yagami must be Kira.

  • Teen Superspy Hermione Granger is able to do this when she's twelve in the Harry Potter Alternate Universe Fic Hermione Granger and the Boy Who Lived. At Headmaster Appledore's request, she performs an at-a-glance analysis of the first "Chamber of Salazar" warning message early in her second year. When a year later she performs one on Remus Lupin while on the Harworts (sic) Express, then explains it all, he declares, "Good Lord, I’m going to be teaching Sherlock Holmes."


  • In the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie, this is done at one point while Holmes is waiting for Watson to arrive at a restaurant, though it is shown that Holmes can't necessarily help when he does it, and shown as not necessarily a good thing. His deductions are accurate for the most part, although it is shown that they can be tainted a little too much by his own personal bias.
    • Sherlock also weaponized it, using it to meticulously plan out how he will thoroughly beat the crap out of someone, done in Bullet Time as he plans, and then realtime when he follows through.
    • In the sequel, Moriarty shows this and the ability to keep up with Sherlock's own deductions.
      • There is also a scene in the sequel where Sherlock and Mycroft banter by making astute observations about each other. Watson interrupts them by making a deduction of his own.
  • Subversion: Ace Ventura, at the beginning of the second film, makes some assumptions about his client based on some details such as a white substance on his shoe and an abrasion on his palm. He is accurate on all but one of his guesses; at the end of the film, he returns to the erroneous guess and explains what that detail should have showed him.
  • Sunset Boulevard: Joseph Gillis says that Rudy can tell the state of a person's financial problems by the quality of their shoes.
  • In Casino Royale, Bond pulls this off on meeting Vesper Lynd. Unusually, Lynd does it back.
  • In the Steve Martin Pink Panther, Inspector Clouseau attempts this as someone enters a room, and gets it completely wrong. It actually has some significance, since the guy he tries it on is the murderer.
    • Parodied in the sequel, where Clouseau and Inspector Pepperidge try to out-sherlockscan each other.
  • Hellboy: Done by Abe Sapien to Agent Myers during the former's introduction to the audience. Of course, the twist is that Abe is psychic and can gather information about objects simply by touching or being near them.
  • The Great Mouse Detective, being an Affectionate Parody of Sherlock Holmes, also does this. Basil is able, for example, to deduce that Dawson is not only a doctor, but that he also just came from military service in Afghanistan, all from merely glancing at the way he mended a rip on his coat.
    • A similar scene is done in Young Sherlock Holmes, when a school-aged Watson transfers to a new boarding school and meets Holmes for the first time. Holmes deduces Watson's name, home county, father's occupation, and Watson's love of writing and pastries. He only gets Watson's name wrong (he guesses James instead of John) because he only saw "J. Watson" on Watson's luggage and decided to go with a common name starting with J (John would have been his second guess).
      • This is actually a reference to the fact that Doyle himself got Watson's first name wrong in some of the later stories, using James.
  • Parodied in the 1975 Gene Wilder film The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother, in which the main character makes a deduction about who is about to walk through his door based on the sound of their footsteps on the stairs outside the door. He's completely wrong, and someone else entirely walks in.
  • Xander Cage (played by Vin Diesel) in XXX pulls one of these in a cafe, effortlessly pointing out all the plainclothes agents by noticing all the things that are wrong with the situation (like a waitress in high-heeled shoes).
    • Vin Diesel seems to enjoy these roles. Riddick starts off Pitch Black with a five minute Sherlock monologue, correctly deducing the types of passengers onboard the ship and (almost) the route that the ship is taking. He gets something similar in Chronicles of Riddick, but then reveals that it was his plan.
  • Both homaged and spoofed in the Bulldog Drummond satire Bullshot (1983). The hero comes up with incredible deductions from small clues, yet always fails to notice when the Master of Disguise villain is right under his nose.
  • Played straight and lampshaded in Loaded Weapon 1. When the detectives are talking to Dr. Leecher, he does a brief Sherlock Scan on Colt and appears to do it to Luger too... until he admits he saw a family photo in Luger's wallet.
  • Jason Bourne, in The Bourne Series, has this as part of his abilities, demonstrated in a diner when he was talking with the female lead.

"I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars in the parking lot. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs two hundred fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself in a fight. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the gray pickup truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking."

  • In Poolhall Junkies, Johnny deduces that Mike is a pool player by the crease in his pants, citing that it's at the height of a pool table so is likely caused by either pool or bad dry cleaning, and sensing that Mike is rich, Johnny doesn't suspect he gets bad dry cleaning. He then admits to noticing blue chalk.
  • This is how Flynn Carsen gets his job in The Librarian—he scans his boss, determining that she was recently divorced from the depth of the ring-line on her finger and noting that she had three cats by being able to tell their hairs apart on her jacket. He occasionally does this to other characters as well.
  • In Jackie Chan's Shanghai Knights, our heroes meet police constable Artie Doyle, who claims to have developed this method of deduction. At the end of the movie, he decides to leave the service and apply it to writing novels instead. Did we mention his full name is Arthur Conan Doyle?
  • Played straight in (surprisingly) Big Momma's House 2, where Martin Lawrence's character has to dress up as Big Momma again, this time to be employed by the Fullers (whose patriarch is a prime suspect in a case) as a housekeeper. From a glance at the teenage daughter's room, he figures out that she was chatting online to dubious guys and not doing her homework like she just told her mom.
  • Spoofed in Murder By Death, where several of the world's greatest detectives are invited together. Two of them get into a Scanning contest, but one quickly loses and accidentally reveals in front of the man's wife that he's cheating on her.
  • Crosses into Chekhov's Skill in How to Train Your Dragon. The resident nerd, Fishlegs, has studied dragon stats so well that he can pull a scan on the Green Death, a monstrous dragon that serves as the film's primary antagonist.
  • In Wild Wild West, Jim West immediately recognizes that Artemis Gordon is not the real President Grant (he was basically practicing his decoy costume). When Gordon asks what the tipoff was, West points out his class ring—it identifies him as a Harvard graduate, and the President attended West Point.
  • In Murder on the Orient Express Poirot is somehow able to tell who the cook is because he "has, perhaps, a nose for fine dining". Perhaps it should be counted simply as a Hand Wave instead?
  • In Without a Clue, Dr. Watson has this ability, because he's the real detective and "Holmes" is just an actor he hired to perpetuate the illusion that the detective he has been writing about in the third person is real. However, when he tries to give a scan of a prospective client to prove himself capable of tackling the case alone, he's met with the response that it's no time for games. When "Holmes" appears and is given the same details to reveal, or indeed when he even says something quite inane, he's hailed as a genius every time. He also tries to learn the method himself, but the best he can ever do is "deduce" that someone reads the Times.
  • Hannibal Lecter's guesses about Clarice's background and personality the first time he meets her in Silence of the Lambs fits this trope, though he is a psychiatrist rather than detective.


  • Trope Namer: Sherlock Holmes does this. All. The fricking. Time. This trope became the abused rattle to Doyle's sugar high kindergartener. According to Holmes himself in The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier, it's his personal marketing schtick which is great for impressing potential clients as to his skills. Arthur Conan Doyle himself subverted this in a short story (How Watson Learned the Trick) where Watson attempts one of these, and all the details he used had a completely different explanation. Doyle picks it apart a little in Holmes' own words as well. While his powers of observation and deduction seemed superhuman to onlookers—especially the ever-astonished Watson—he explains more than once that he can't deduce squat if there's no evidence, and that often there's a good deal of evidence that's simply too vague for him to deduce anything... not until he learns more, anyway. A glance at someone may glean three or four obscure facts, but he still remains ignorant of everything else without proper investigation.
  • Mycroft Holmes can also do this, and as one might expect, he is better at it, correcting or expanding some of Sherlock's points. For example where Sherlock said a man had a child based on the fact he has clearly just bought toys Mycroft says children as no child is of the correct age to be given both a rattle and a picture book.
    • This was given a Shout-Out in Archie Comics, of all things, when Jughead determines that a nearby man has two children—using the same rattle and picture book trick—and that the man is in the military, based on his polished shoes and haircut. Reggie points out that he could be buying the books for someone else's kids, or likes coloring himself. And he could just be a shoe-polish freak. Cut to the man talking about his military service and two kids. Jughead pulls this several times throughout the segment. Then it's subverted at the end, after Reggie makes the mistake of betting Juggie lunch that he can't tell the professions of the next three people who enter. The three people are a clown, painter (with overalls and ladder), and a cop.
  • Fittingly enough, in Mark Frost's The List of 7, a young Arthur Conan Doyle himself gets into a friendly scanning contest with Jack Sparks, an agent of the crown who rescues Doyle from a group of conspirators called The Dark Brotherhood and recruits him to help prevent a plot to assassinate Queen Victoria(and would later inspire Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes).
  • In a Doctor Who Expanded Universe novel (based on the Literary Agent Hypothesis), Holmes tries this on the Seventh Doctor. He finds he cannot make sense of the clues.
  • In the Jeremy Brett adaptation of The Devil's Foot, Holmes plays with this schtick a bit. He meets a country pastor and does his usual observation and deduction of the man which is of course amazingly accurate, including the subject of his last sermon. When the impressed pastor asks he could possibly have known, Holmes explains what he observed. As for the sermon, he playfully revealed that he had read a copy of the local church's last Sunday service program beforehand.
    • In the Jeremy Brett series in general, one of the key ways that the producers attempted to perform a Character Rerailment on Dr. Watson and demonstrate that he wasn't the dunce that popular belief had Flanderized him into was to give Holmes the breathtakingly sudden moments of Sherlock Scan insight—however, it would then be Watson who would explain the clues to the astonished recipient, suggesting that he was intelligent enough to gradually take on board Holmes' methods but wasn't quite as insightful about them.
    • Subverted/Inverted in another one of Brett's attempts to counteract the Flanderization of Watson. Watson is given the opportunity to perform a Sherlock Scan on Holmes himself, to explain Holmes' apparent bad mood and unexpected presence. Sherlock responds with a list of plausible alternate explanations for the clues that Watson picked up on; but finally, grudgingly admits that Watson was, in fact, right all along.
  • In Laurie King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Holmes' female apprentice demonstrates her credibility to Inspector Lestrade by doing this to one of his officers. She and Holmes do it to each other when they first meet. She's at a disadvantage, though, because she's read all Dr. Watson's books—which leaves her with nothing to deduce.
  • Holmes appears in a Jeffery Deaver short story in the collection More Twisted. He examines the clothing worn by a well-known mobster in a jeweller's office to which he had tracked the culprit of a burglary. His Sherlock Scan proves the mobster to have been the thief, and said mobster is arrested. This is actually a massive subversion, though, as the whole thing was set up by the jewellery shop's owner -- actually a career Cat Burglar -- to frame the mobster. He finishes the story incredibly smug because he got one over on the famous Mr Holmes.
  • Colin Dexter, the author of the acclaimed Inspector Morse detective series, rewrote Conan Doyle's story A Case of Identity and gave it a different ending: all Holmes's deductions follow from the evidence, but Watson has some extra information and provides the real answer. One would suspect that Dexter thought the ending of the original story was a bit far-fetched.
  • In The Return of Sherlock Holmes (and the nearly identical Sherlock Holmes Returns), the titular character, brought to the modern age via Steampunk cryogenics, routinely attempts to use this ability, but constantly arrives to the wrong conclusion due to lack of modern references.
    • Rendered as a Patter Song, "It's So Simple," in the musical Baker Street.
    • In Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, Holmes uses this method as a fighting tool; he's able to take note of the weaknesses of his opponents and strategize his attack around how to most effectively exploit them.
      • He also does it to Mary Morstan (at her eager request). His observations are bang-on, down to the tan-line on her finger speaking of a prior betrothal, but when he rather cattily speculates that she broke off the engagement to find better prospects (i.e., Watson), she tosses her drink in his face. Turns out, the guy died before they could marry. Earlier in the scene, when Holmes is alone at the table, it's implied that he suffers from hyper-awareness, and can't turn the Sherlock Scan off.
  • In the Discworld series, Vimes complains about those a lot.

[Vimes] distrusted the kind of person who'd take one look at another man and say in a lordly voice to his companion, "Ah, my dear sir, I can tell you nothing except that he is a left-handed stonemason who has spent some years in the merchant navy and has recently fell on hard times," and then unroll a lot of supercilious commentary about calluses and stance and the state of a man's boots, when exactly the same comments could apply to a man who was wearing his old clothes because he'd been doing a spot of home bricklaying for a new barbecue pit, and had been tattooed once when he was drunk and seventeen and in fact got seasick on a wet pavement. What arrogance! What an insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience!

    • Nonetheless he occasionally does it himself, and he only notes that said evidence is out of place, withholding judgment until he knows more—for example, in Feet of Clay he finds a smear of white clay on the floor, which he notes is odd because Ankh-Morpork is on black loam.
    • He does a subversion in Jingo when he takes a look at a single clove and gives an impossibly precise description of the man who last touched it. Of course, he knows who it is because there's only one man in Ankh-Morpork who chews on cloves.

Vimes: Detectoring is like gambling: The secret is to know the winner in advance.

  • Very near the beginning of Artemis Fowl, Teen Genius Artemis does one of these to their waiter—whom, he effortlessly deduces, is their informant.
  • Parodied in the Flashman novella Flashman and the Tiger where Flashman is observed disguised as a bum in an alley by a pair who are obviously Holmes and Watson. While Holmes makes fairly astute conclusions, they are completely wrong, demonstrating the limits of this technique.
  • Voltaire's Zadig has the main character doing this, making this trope Older Than Radio. And also its subversion, since the sultan thinks Zadig is pulling his royal leg, that probably he robbed his horse and puts him in jail.
    • Zadig inspired Poe's Dupin, who inspired Holmes, inspiring all the subsequent detectives. So we have a genealogy tree.
  • Averted in The Wisdom of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton. In The Absence of Mr Glass, some characters involve a brilliant criminologist in a domestic case, where he concludes with a sinister and dramatic interpretation of some facts. Dramatic and totally false. The apparent killer is only a magician, so that the cards, the knives, the swords and the mysteriously large top hat have a very simple explanation. At the end of the tale, everyone (also the criminologist) is laughing.
  • In Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence short story collection Partners In Crime, which pastiches various detective stories and their tropes, Tommy Beresford makes a couple of attempts at this. In "The Affair of the Pink Pearl" he says to the client "You must find travelling by bus very tiring at this time of day", only to be told she came by taxi, and picked up a discarded bus ticket for a neighbour who collects them. In "The Case of the Missing Lady" he is able to "deduce" that the client has spent some time in the Arctic or Antarctic, by virtue of his distinctive tan. In fact, he was listening in when the man gave his name in the outer office, and recognised him as a famous polar explorer. (He also deduces that the man arrived in a taxi, adding to Tuppence afterwards "after all, it's the only reliable way of getting to this place.")
  • Jim Qwilleran in Lillian Jackson Braun's Cat Who... mysteries does this on occasion, most notably in The Cat Who Moved a Mountain; after hearing a single sentence from Dolly Lessmore on the telephone, he conceives a notion of her as "rather short and stocky, with a towering hair-do, a taste for bright colors, a three-pack-a-day habit, and a pocketful of breath mints." Upon seeing the sign in her office that reads "THANKS FOR NOT SMOKING"—the only deviation from this conception—he asks her when she stopped smoking and floors her.
  • Subverted in Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald", in which the detective recognises that the murder victim is a member of the German royal family... by details such as the number of his limbs and the green shade of his blood. Played straight, however, in the rest of the story. This is a Holmes pastiche, after all.
  • Horatio Lyle lists a string of observations which would lead to the conclusion that the man he's speaking to is Lord Lincoln. However, he comes up with these after concluding that the man is Lord Lincoln, to avoid the true-but-unimpressive explanation of "inspired guesswork."
  • Subverted in Dr. Hyde, Detective, and the White Pillars Murder. A Sherlock pastiche performs the usual impossibly accurate predictions about the new client—and then refuses to explain how he arrived at them. The Watson pastiche later realizes that the deductions really were impossible; the Sherlock had met the client before and was actually the killer in the murder he was charged with investigating.
  • In Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, the protagonist William of Baskerville is able to guess the name of the horse the monks he meets are looking for. And its features. And the fact that they're looking for the horse in the first place, since they didn't tell him. And he's correct...well, sort of. He's right that they're looking for a horse, and he's right about the name, but:

William: I am not sure [the horse] has those features, but no doubt the monks firmly believe that he does.

    • (They were simply the features the relevant authority said a handsome horse should have. The same applied to the horse's name.)
  • Grand Admiral Thrawn, the titular character of The Thrawn Trilogy, is able to look at a piece of artwork and gauge not only a lot about species' physical makeup (number of fingers, joints in the arm, etc.), but about their culture—and he can formulate strategies and tactics that take advantage of flaws in their psyches based on those. Very occasionally he drops hints about how he figured some of these things out. He can also make very good guesses about someone based on their tastes in art or how they regard it.
    • His Dragon, Pelleaon, speculates that this may be done just to impress people, and he does his actual tactical analysis privately. Either way, it's still impressive.
  • The Bene Gesserit of Dune are capable of doing this due to their extensive training in minute observation (occasionally enhanced through psychoactive drugs) and, in the case of the higher ranking ones, assisted by access to their ancestral memory (which will often include other Bene Gesserit). They are also capable of variations, such as being able to observe architecture and determine the intentions behind its design. Those who are unfamiliar with the Bene Gesserit techniques often assume their abilities derive from magic or trickery (a notion the Bene Gesserit do little to assuage). Their observational techniques are also less effective when employed against another who has been trained in them and knows how to conceal or mislead the observed factors.
  • The title character in Young Dr. Kildare by Max Brand does this. Though he usually sticks to medical diagnosis from observation, at one point Dr. Kildare is called upon to treat a suicide attempt survivor. He's able to deduce from his examination and a few words she mutters her age, social standing, wealth level, education, the fact that she's been in France recently and that she is not, in fact, insane (though actually proving that last one takes most of the rest of the book.) After that, Dr. Gillespie points out what everyone else in the room noticed at first glance—the woman is physically attractive.
  • This ability is genetically engineered into the envoys, UN super soldiers in the sci-fi novels of Richard Morgan, who might find themselves downloaded into a war zone on a completely different planet whose culture, politics and rules of survival are unknown—thus the ability to note minor facts and quickly extrapolate from them is a basic necessity. Although a mercenary and criminal, it's no surprise that the protagonist Takeshi Kovacs is often called upon to solve various mysteries because of these skills.
  • In Unto the Breach, Jay does this to Katya when he's first introduced to her. He doesn't, however, reveal how he deduced the assessment, which the reader only knows to be true from previous info given about her.
  • Nero Wolfe does this in his very first case, Fer de Lance, deducing things about a prospective (but still unseen) client just from the way his manservant answered the door.
  • In The Dresden Files, the titular wizard detective Harry Dresden pulls these off, though they tend to be more subtle than most examples. For example, he's able to determine that a particular faerie queen was not responsible for a particular murder by simply analyzing her behavior and comparing it to details of the murder. At one point in Turn Coat, however, the scan is used to disturbing effect by Thomas, a White Court vampire, who has Harry do a few scans of some nearby human bystanders to see what he sees when he looks at them. Harry does so, providing detailed information on each group of people, at which point Thomas just points each group and says "Food." one after the other, to demonstrate how different they are.
  • Used briefly in the Dark Tower novel, The Drawing of the Three. Upon being released from Airport Security for suspected drug smuggling, Eddy Dean knows that they will have people observing him and manages to spot one. Roland, riding along in his mind, takes one "glance" and spots another five, despite the fact that Roland comes from a completely different world. Later, we learn that part of Roland's training was to pick up on tiny details as as quickly as possible, although he mainly uses it to kill people.
  • Done by Oscar Wilde constantly in Gyles Brandreth's murder mystery series. It makes sense, though, since the point of the stories is that Oscar is a kind of real life Sherlock Holmes, which is why people go to him to solve mysteries. Bonus points for traveling with Arthur Conan Doyle during most of his investigations, and, while Conan Doyle does provide plenty of insight on the cases, he does not possess Sherlock Scan abilities himself.
  • In Poul Anderson's "Queen of Air And Darkness", the detective opens his first meeting with his client with this, though drawing on the details of what she had told him when making the appointment. Later, he explains that he actively drew on the psychological archetype of a detective with such tricks.

Live-Action TV

  • House MD—then again, House is pretty much "Cranky(-er) Sherlock Holmes in a hospital, with drug addiction switched from cocaine to prescription Vicodin and name changes (Holmes-> House; Dr. Watson-> Dr. Wilson)".
    • House is also more prone to being wrong, usually letting his misanthropy cause him to misinterpret clues.
    • The mystery writer in the episode "Unwritten" pulls this on Chase, figuring out his recent divorce among other things.
  • The modus operandi of The Mentalist's Patrick Jane, which he used to use to pretend to be psychic.
  • In one Law and Order episode, a woman is able to tell twins apart—then reveals that it's because she is a nurse, and was able to tell things about their health (the one who was actually suspected was a drinker).
  • In a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Data solves three Holodeck mysteries in seconds while imitating a Sherlock Scan, but in reality he is simply recalling Sherlock Holmes plotlines that he has read. This prompts Geordi to ask the Holodeck to create a new Sherlockian mystery that will challenge Data, with disastrous results.
    • Though it does turn out that Data is quite good at this even with original mysteries to the point that he works his way out of Moriarty's Platonic Cave trap in Ship In a Bottle. Though it's probably more amazing that the Holodeck was sophisticated enough that neither Data nor Picard noticed anything amiss until Data saw Geordi favoring the wrong hand.
    • Data does this again in "Cause and Effect." The single clue he has time to send his future self to avoid catastrophe is the number 3 implanted in his subconscious—which the future Data is able to surmise (correctly) means that they should listen to Riker because he has three rank pip/pins on his uniform. As Data does as well—and Data is the other one making suggestions—he's making a pretty big leap of deduction based on a single number.
      • One of Data's is a hollow circle instead of a solid one, which could be counted as half-a-pip. Still a leap, but Data could also decide "yes, past-me would think like that".
  • Parodied and Subverted in one old Sesame Street sketch, where Kermit discusses how to follow clues by trying to figure out what three guys are doing by the objects they have. He easily discerns that a kid with a hoe, overalls, and carrots has planted a vegetable garden, and also easily discerns that a guy with a hammer, saw, wood and a birdhouse is a carpenter who has built the birdhouse. However, the third guy is a monster with a suitcase and umbrella. When Kermit guesses that it's raining and he's going on a trip, he's way off; the monster plans to eat the umbrella. (So what's in the suitcase? Ketchup.)
  • Shawn Spencer of Psych does this, but since he's feigning psychic powers he usually doesn't tell the subject how he knew.
  • Monk does this, but since he's incredibly socially inept, he doesn't always know which details not to bring up. Just a tip: If you know that a woman is lying about her age, don't call her out on it. Or if you know that the judge at the probate hearing is sleeping with his secretary. Or that a widow is having sex if her daughter is also standing there.)
    • Parodied when a rival detective, played by Jason Alexander, is able to tell more details than Monk can as soon as he walks into a scene. Averted as this detective's mother overheard the criminals bragging about what they'd done while they were on hold (since she was a quality control operator) and told him what she'd heard. He was faking the whole thing.
  • In Pushing Daisies, the series' resident Private Detective doesn't generally do this, but two other characters can Sherlock Scan by smell.
  • Parodied on Scrubs when JD deduces that Turk is naked over a watchie-talkie (a watch with a built in walkie-talkie) because his voice is always higher when he's naked. This immediately prompts Dr. Cox to remark on how disturbing it is that he knows that.
    • Again on Scrubs: in one episode, JD considers himself stronger in diagnosing than Elliot and tries to coach her on how to put clues together in this manner by using a nearby example on display. The example being an odd, precise stack of sugar packets on the floor, which JD deduced was a ploy by The Todd to get a nurse in search for sugar for her coffee to bend down and reveal her thong.
    • Played straight on yet another episode. Turk (a surgeon) and Dr. Molly Clock (a psychiatric doctor) challenge each other on instant diagnosis of a succession of people walking into the hospital. We never really know if either of them are right, but Dr. Clock's diagnosis of alcoholism for a man who walks in wearing a beer hat is probably on the money (and, to her credit, she concedes that that one was a gimme).
      • And let's not forget that Clock became a psychiatrist because of her innate ability to immediately discern the one thing a person most hates about themselves.
  • Spoofed in the X Files episode "Humbug". A little person, in a town full of circus performers, gets offended when Mulder asks if he's done any circus work. He performs a Sherlock Scan on Mulder, to make a point about stereotyping, but he accidently stereotypes Mulder as an FBI agent.
  • Special Agent Dale Cooper of Twin Peaks fame. He can deduce upon first meeting that one character is in love with and/or dating another, and figured out a home movie had been shot by a biker by seeing the reflection of the motorcycle in Laura Palmer's eye.
  • Bobby Goren of Law and Order: Criminal Intent is quite well-known for this, although this makes sense as he is based on Sherlock Holmes.
  • Castle: Richard Castle regularly uses this on suspects, sometimes to gloat, sometimes to lure a confession, and sometimes to Break Them by Talking since he doesn't carry a weapon. Against serial killer 3xk, this is almost, but not quite, a Hannibal Lecture; while Castle is tied up and at the killer's mercy, he is not being interrogated.
    • Averted several times when Castle's theories turn out to be plausible but wrong.
    • He even pulls this on Beckett in the pilot, as a sort of attempted Let's Get Dangerous moment to prove that he can actually help. It's played with in that Castle realizes as he's doing it that he's hurting her and digging up painful memories, and so apologetically stops, without taking any satisfaction in being correct.
  • Criminal Minds: There's a scene where Hotch is on the witness stand being grilled by the defense attorney, who scornfully derides forensic profiling in order to discredit the profiler's testimony, concluding that Hotch "couldn't even tell what colour socks I'm wearing with any degree of accuracy." Hotch, using a combination of profiling and this technique, then goes on to reveal not only what colour his socks are (charcoal grey, incidentally), but completely deconstructs the attorney and reveals that he's a gambling addict who's in deep debt. However, this was completely irrelevant to the challenge that the profilers weren't as good as usually presented (which included several real-life failures of the technique) or the challenge that they were faking it using techniques a carnival psychic would (this is a common trick for phony psychics). It did, however, both completely undercut the lawyer's argument that Hotch couldn't accurately profile him and place him in the position of either dropping that line of questioning or being forced to publicly admit to everyone in the court that he was a gambling addict.
    • In another episode, Gideon tells a college student that the student's girlfriend (who isn't even present at the time) thinks he is about to break up with her, based on a necklace the guy is wearing. Later, it turns out that the girlfriend had very good reason to think so, as the student tells Gideon he has left her for another guy.
    • In "Lo-Fi", Prentiss does a (we assume) very accurate analysis of a detective based on subtle clues, although she had been working with him for a little while before she came out with it.
  • Parodied in an episode of Jonathan Creek, in which a police inspector comes across two bodies who have been decapitated in a motorcycle accident:

Inspector Fell: The heads are on the wrong bodies.
Orderly: [Impressed] How do you know?
Inspector Fell: [Scornfully] You've got a black guy and a white guy. You tell me.

    • Considering that the titular hero of this series frequently uses observation of minutia as a modus operandi, this only comes up infrequently with him.
  • NCIS. Ziva David appears to do this to Tony DiNozzo on their first meeting; subverted in that it turns out later she's done profiles on the NCIS team.
  • Will Zimmerman of Sanctuary is able to do this continually. It's hinted that the ability is intensified by his training in psychology, but the show seems to go back and forth about if its base is an abnormal trait or not.
    • Watson (whom Sherlock Holmes was supposedly based on) hints that he also has this ability, and it was the abnormal awakening which allows it.
  • A sketch on The Two Ronnies has one of them explaining to the other how he can tell that a 5 pound note is counterfeit. The first two clues are to do with the placement of the lettering and the colouration. Then he turns it over and says "Besides, it says 'Bank of Toyland', on the back."
  • Get Smart, Again! has a similiar scene where Max deduces the identity of the man who escaped over the fence leaving his pants behind. He rattles off three or four obscure clues before pointing out Major Waterhouse's name on the label.
  • In Lie to Me, Cal Lightman will do this pretty much every episode, though usually to the ends of letting whoever he's questioning know that he'll know if they're not telling the truth, and is almost always right.
  • Sherlock, unsurprisingly, does this no less than three times in three different ways in the starting episode to show just how Crazy Awesome the titular detective is. Though in a bit of a departure from the usual trope, he's not always quite right—when he first meets Watson, he deduces that Watson has a brother called Harry who is an alcoholic who has recently left his wife and with whom Watson doesn't get along. He's right about the troubled sibling relationship, the alcohol, and the break-up... but Harry is Watson's sister.
    • It doubly subverts it in the second episode. Holmes comments to a banker (who was well aware of his habit of Sherlock Scanning) that he'd been around the world twice in the last month. When the Banker asks how he knew it, Holmes says the secretary mentioned it. Watson later says that wasn't true, and Holmes explained he'd deduced it from looking at his watch and seeing the changes of date, but thought it funnier to mess with the old friend's head.
    • Parodied in "The Great Game" when Sherlock, having pronounced Molly's new boyfriend Jim gay, follows a long list of subtle, ambiguous clues about Jim's personal grooming habits with the fact that he has just given Sherlock his phone number. And after all that, he still misses the fact that Jim's last name is Moriarty.
    • Parodied (again) and subverted in "A Scandal in Belgravia", when Irene Adler flummoxes Sherlock by giving him nothing to scan.
  • In Murder, She Wrote Jessica Fletcher uses this method when she begins teaching a criminology course to convince a skeptical cop that she has something to teach him.
  • Due South has this as almost being a mountie-superpower.
    • At least for Frasiers Sr. and Jr. and Buck Frobisher. It's more of an arctic superpower that lead people to become Mounties.
  • In the first episode of the fifth series of Doctor Who, the Doctor does one of these on a park full of people with camera phones. Which makes sense, since the fifth series and Sherlock have the same head writer.
    • He went very Sherlock in the 2010 Christmas Special, A Christmas Carol.
    • And in The Beast Below, the Doctor's able to work out the intimate details of an entire society this way.
  • In Community episode Environmental Science Jeff uses one to deduce Chang's wife left him (Chang wore the same shirt twice in a week, taught the Spanish word for "wife" meant "liar" in class, and has a post-it note saying "enjoy it while it lasts" on his office's framed photo of him and his wife). Jeff explains he used to read juries like this as an attorney, to figure out the best angles to use in court.
  • Hustle. Albert, the most experienced con artist on the team, does this to a potential mark on several occasions. Explained in full detail in "Gold Mine" when Albert gives Danny a lesson in the art of the 'cold read'.
  • Used to introduce Dani in Necessary Roughness. Based on her husband taking a shower, misaligned pillows, and the corners of the guest room bed linens, she determined he was having an affair. The pictures on his phone were just icing on the cake.


  • Parodied in a sketch from That Mitchell and Webb Sound: Sherlock attempts to teach Watson to do this, giving him ludicrously easy deductions to make ("here is a man wearing a beret and a string of onions around his neck. He is reading Le Monde and riding a bicycle, and the tune he is whistling to himself would appear to be "La Marseillaise". Now, Watson, where do you think he is from?") which he fails at ("Shoreditch?").
  • In The Last Laugh Murders, an episode of the Nero Wolfe radio series (not an adaptation of any of the books), Archie challenges Wolfe to perform this on a random person passing by their front door, and Wolf grudgingly obliges. Subverted in that the person immediately declares him wrong in every respect. Archie is very amused and Wolfe is furious. Double-subverted in that Wolfe was actually completely correct, and the person in question was lying and pretending to be someone else. Wolfe immediately starts investigating just to soothe his bruised ego.

Tabletop Games

  • In Mage: The Awakening, there is a group of mages called "the Eleventh Question" who are able to do this (among other things, including being able to take evidence, make a guess at what it means, and then magically confirm if they are correct). They are generally considered among the fandom to be awesome.
    • In the original Mage: The Ascension, a simple application of the lowest levels of Mind and Entropy magic would allow a primitive version of this, and switching to a higher level of Entropy would also allow confirmation, generally through an act of random chance. 'The killer was 6 foot tall, weighed 160 pounds and was.. *flips coin* left-handed'
  • In Exalted, Solars with the charm "Evidence-Discerning Method" can do something like this. It allows a character to gather up to twenty minutes worth of evidence (and the conclusions drawn therein) to be condensed into an action that takes five or six seconds.

Video Games

"Zvarri! The truth has once again been elegantly revealed to me!"

  • Occurs in an early radio conversation with The Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, where she is able to tell that Naked Snake has lost weight by his voice. As one may expect, The Boss is both an Ace and almost absurdly Badass.
  • Karst, from the second Golden Sun game. She claims that she can gauge a man's strength at a single glance—then proceeds to say that Felix wouldn't be able to kill Saturos and Mernardi even if he doubled his strength
    • This is, however, laughed at when one plays through on easy—and is therefore a higher level than is necessary to defeat Karst and Agatio. Genre Blindness mayhaps?
    • In normal circumstances though (that means no level-grinding...), she's right—at that point in the game, you're probably under half the level Isaac's party will have when you meet them.
  • Mordin does this when you first meet him in Mass Effect 2.

"Equipment suggests military origin. Not Alliance standard. Spectres not human. Terra Firma too unstable. Only one option. Cerberus sent you."

    • While he seems like he's off on one point, he technically isn't - Shepard is the only human Spectre, and as far as anyone knew was dead at the time (and in fact may not have had Spectre status reinstated at the time).
    • He also does this soon afterwards, when faced with the Normandy's AI. While these are the most obvious instances of this, he does it several other times, most of them optional.
  • Parodied in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door by the penguin-like detective Pennington. Despite the red clothes, the short stature and the red hat with a clear M upon it...he STILL mistakes Mario for Luigi.
  • Senator Troche believes that Ezio has done this when he mentions the Senator's whoring on their first meeting in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. The truth is much simpler - Ezio owns the Senator's favorite brothel, which is run by his sister.

Web Comics

Western Animation

  • Darkwing Duck tries to do this to impress the police or the victim, but he almost always arrives at the completely wrong conclusion. He usually replies with a "I knew that!" or "I was just testing your honesty."
  • Mocked on South Park, when Stan tries to explain how John Edwards ("The Biggest Douche in the Universe") uses cold reading to fake the ability to talk to the dead. Stan explains how he's doing it as he's doing it but, being South Park, the adults think he's psychic anyway.
  • In an episode of Batman the Brave And The Bold, Batman met Sherlock Holmes, who deduced just about everything about Batman's identity/history, just from a quick once over. He even knew the occupations of Bruce's parents.

Real Life

  • The character of Sherlock Holmes was partly based on Dr. Joseph Bell, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh who was often able to deduce a patient's occupation and recent activities in this way. The example most prominently cited for Doyle's inspiration was when Bell was able to deduce a patient was a left-handed stonemason, based on the wear on the thighs of his breeches and the calluses on his hand. It's even said that Bell lent his hand in the search for Jack the Ripper.
    • Lent his hand, nothing. It's said that Bell sent a letter to Scotland Yard identifying the killer; no (public) action was ever taken, but no further killings happened after the letter was sent.
  • Detectives often utilize this idea to get suspects to think that the police know more than they actually do.
  • This is also the core of the cold reading techniques used by some "psychics." Being able to pick up on small details in appearance, wording, and mannerisms gives them an, apparently supernatural, ability to know things about people.
    • Orson Welles, a trained magician, was very skilled at this, and he discusses here the technique behind it and the danger of a cold reader beginning to believe he truly has psychic powers.
  • James Brussel used this to help catch the Mad Bomber of New York in 1956. Based solely on his handwriting, he was able to correctly determine that the Mad Bomber was a 40-to-50-year-old Slavic man living on his own who would be wearing a buttoned double-breasted suit. Whoah.
    • He also missed the fact that Metesky was unemployed, sent the NYPD on a Wild Goose chase through White Plains and claimed that Metesky was an “expert in civil or military ordnance”, the closest he came was a stint in a machine shop. Regarding the age, Metesky was over 50 when caught.
    • It is notable that in real life, as shown with James Brussel and cold reading, a selection bias with this trope. People are more likely to remember hits than misses and therefore the person that is making the observations is generally more likely to be considered correct even if they miss important things.
  1. "Elementary: her wedding band hasn't been polished in years, and the other ring is a common type of 10th anniversary gift."