"What was the Sherlock Holmes principle? 'Once you have discounted the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'"
"I reject that entirely," said Dirk sharply. "The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks. How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something that works in all respects other than one, which is that it is hopelessly improbable?"
A trope mostly in comedic works where, when given multiple explanations for an event, the oddest one is most likely to be true. The inverse of Occam's Razor
. As such, it can be summarized as "When you hear hoofbeats; think zebras, not horses." The name is a take off of Occam's Razor
, combined with Arkham, which refers to the fictional Massachusetts town in the works of H.P. Lovecraft
, and also to the fictional insane asylum in Batman
comic books. Thus, the term "Arkham" is closely tied to the idea of madness or surprise.
Often used as a form of Bait and Switch
. When provided with a sufficiently improbable-sounding story, the audience, expecting Occam's Razor
, writes it off only to be surprised that the outlandish possibility was correct. This often means using the audience's Genre Savvy
against them, although a sufficiently Genre Savvy
viewer may have been expecting Arkham's Razor
See also: Infallible Babble
, Cassandra Truth
. Often overlaps with The Cuckoolander Was Right
, Accidental Truth
, or Refuge in Audacity
. May be the basis of a Brick Joke
. Compare Impossibly Mundane Explanation
, where an explanation floated by a character is dismissed for being too mundane, and Aluminum Christmas Trees
, which is an example of how this can happen in real life.
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- Thanks to a related trope, Bat Deduction, some of the Riddler's riddles work this way. For a relatively grounded example, his first-ever crime used the clue "banquet," sending Batman and the police to a charity dinner. The real, and much less conventional meaning of the clue was that the Riddler had flooded a bank vault — gotten a "bank wet" — to defeat its pressure-sensitive locking mechanism and was looting it in scuba gear.
Films — Live-Action
- In one scene in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the heroes have been imprisoned by the King of the Moon. The Queen of the Moon — who, like her husband, has a detachable head — comes to their rescue in head-form. She giggles and moans constantly as she tries to unlock the cage, and Sally asks the Baron what she's laughing about. The Baron tells the little girl, "Um, her body is with the King, and he is, uh... tickling her feet." Cut to the royal chamber where the King is in bed with the Queen's body, and he is in fact... tickling her feet!
- The first time we meet Tootles in the movie Hook, he's searching frantically for something. When Peter asks him what he's doing, he says, "I've lot my marbles!" Much later in the movie, Peter learns that Tootles used to be a Lost Boy, and that he left his marbles behind in Neverland.
- Early in the movie Girl Interrupted, the main character is told that she may have to have therapy with "Dr. Wick". "Wick's a girl." the other girls joke. "Wick's a chick." It's far from clear whether they are being literal, or simply demeaning a physician they don't like, so it comes as something as a surprise when we meet the man himself, and he turns out to be — Vanessa Redgrave.
- In the movie True Grit (1969), Mattie makes repeated reference to her lawyer "J. Noble Daggett". She pulls out his name every time she wants something done, threatening legal action against those who get in her way. After about the fifth time, Rooster and LeBoeuf express scepticism as to whether this "Lawyer Daggett" even exists, and the audience might be inclined to agree with them. But at the end of the film a little man in glasses walks into Rooster's room, and introduces himself as lawyer Daggett himself!
- In The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, the titular protagonist inverts Sherlock Holmes' famous quote, saying "When you have eliminated all which is improbable, then whatever remains, however impossible, must be the truth." This is the person who owns an I Ching calculator that returns any answer higher than four as "a suffusion of yellow", practices zen driving (rather than just drive where you want to, find another driver that seems to know where they are going, and follow them), and claims that the perpetrator of a particularly grisly closed room murder got out by travelling to another dimension. He is entirely correct about the last one.
- Like the A Pup Named Scooby-Doo example in Western Animation, the real culprit of most of The Boxcar Children's later installments is invariably whichever suspect is not actually suspected by the title heroes.
- In Harry Potter, it's frequently suggested, half-jokingly, that the position of Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher must be cursed. The reader isn't invited to take this very seriously — until Book 6 when Dumbledore reveals that it actually was cursed by Voldemort.
- The backstory to the novel Easy Avenue is that Mrs. O'Driscoll's husband went "missing" in the war. All the characters understand that "missing" means "dead", but Mrs. O'Driscoll sometimes indulges in fantasies about him surviving and living it up on some tropical island. This sounds wildly improbable until the very end of the book when the characters are having a picnic and Mr. O'Driscoll suddenly turns up!
- In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Arthur muses that the universe must be run by madmen. In a later book we find out that one isolated madman makes all the important decisions in the universe.
- In one of the Discworld books, a bottle is found that claims to have been manufactured by saffron-wearing monks in high mountains and imported by brother Lobsang Dibbler, and think it's just standard false advertising. At the end of the book, we find the monks loading up a yak with the bottles for Ankh-Morpork, wondering what the hell Lobsang does with them.
- In an episode of How I Met Your Mother the gang is arguing about who was the most "badass" as a kid. All of their tales of youthful rebellion are eventually proven false, except for Team Mom (and literal mom) and kindergarten teacher Lily, who painted a picture of herself as basically an Expy of Omar. Naturally, at the end of the episode this is proven true.
- Double-subverted in Community when the study group cannot work out what happened to Annie's missing pen. Unwilling to believe any of the group stole it, they agree to believe Troy's manufactured story that a ghost took it. In fact, it was Troy's escaped pet monkey, Annie's Boobs.
- Interestingly used as part of how the Weirdness Censor is justified on early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the police (who know the truth about the town's vampire problem) have little trouble convincing most people that the vampires are just PCP addicts. As Oz points out when he's told the real story, the vampire explanation actually makes more sense.
- Often played non-comedically in House. In medical jargon, an unexpected diagnosis is referred to a "zebra". Justified, in this case, because dealing with the zebra cases is the entire reason for House's department existing. They only get the weird cases that the regular doctors can't figure out, similar to how Sherlock Holmes probably didn't deal with many conventional crimes that Scotland Yard was able to deal with on their own.
- Monk has effectively made cases against people who were in outer space or even in a coma at the time of the murder. It's pretty much guaranteed that, as he only works the insane cases that no-one else can figure out, the murderer will always be the least likely suspect with an air-tight alibi.
- Similarly, one episode of Psych has a body found in the ocean with what looks like large teethmarks. While the police posit ideas like a shark, or an unusual knife, "psychic" detective Shawn immediately says a dinosaur did it. No prize for guessing who was right. When he explains his logic after the Cold Opening, it actually makes sense. The fact that it's completely ridiculous is what throws people off, and the chain of events that led to said injuries and death is convoluted and bizarre, but his initial deduction was spot-on and perfectly reasonable.
- The Scrubs episode "My Balancing Act": When JD (who recently watched a relevant TV program) suggests a patient may be infected with a flesh-eating bacteria rather than a simple case of cellulitis, Cox immediately rejects this, explains the concept of Occam's Razor ("Think horses, not zebras"). JD, however, turns out to be right. Apart from that instance the trope is usually averted.
- In a fourth-season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Anya talks hypothetically (and comically) about the possibility of a world made entirely of shrimp. Four years later, on Angel, Illyria reveals that she has visited just such a world.
- In the Musical Episode, Giles's first theory as to what is causing the outbreak of deadly singing and dancing is "a dancing demon", which he immediately dismisses. Of course, he's right.
- The end of Monty Python's Flying Circus' "Kilimanjaro Expedition" sketch.
- Arrested Development ran on this trope. Usually in form of simple statements that end up being correct in an utterly bizarre way.
- The pilot has a character seeing a group of gays protesting a yacht club and comments "I have that same top." Turns out it was actually her top and her husband had mistaken the party she was as a pirate-themed party due to an offhand comment, then accidentally got onto a bus with a group of gay protesters (whom he thought were dressed similar to pirates) and ended up protesting the party he was supposed to be attending.
- Toyed with with doctor who was always incorrectly literal. Telling the family "He's all right" when in fact he was saying He's "all right" because a seal bit off and ate his left hand.
- Red vs. Blue plays with this. At one point the Reds try to figure out why Lopez disappeared, then later the Warthog went nuts and started trying to kill Sarge. Donut actually hits on the rather bizarre correct answer: Church got killed, then his ghost possessed Lopez to use for a body, then the Blues accidentally triggered the Hog's remote control while looking for Lopez's "fix stuff" function. But the other Reds think Sarge's brainwashing beam idea is more likely, and they'd rejected that one out of hand for the Mundane Solution that the Blues reprogrammed Lopez.
- Kid Icarus: Uprising plays with this in the next to last stage. When fighting what appears to be Magnus and Dark Lord Gaol, Pit and Palutena suspect that Dyntos, god of the forge, had made fake copies of them, like he'd done with almost every other boss in the game. It turns out that he just invited the real ones over.
- This shows up a couple of times in Questionable Content.
- In one strip, Marten and his girlfriend Dora take a long lunch, and return with Marten wearing some of Dora's clothes. Their friends immediately assume that they had done something naughty, but Marten claimed that they had been ambushed by Shaolin Monks and spilled spaghetti sauce on his clothes and needed to change at Dora's. Everyone laughs it off, but a few strips later he is proven correct when a battered monk arrives at the coffeeshop and recognizes Marten.
- Also occurs in the explanation for Steve's infrequent appearances for a long stretch of the comic. The two possible explanations were "he got drunk and dicked around for a while" or "he became a secret agent and blew up an island," and it was implied that not even he knew for sure which was true. Until later, when he ran across The Baroness from his story.
- In The Order of the Stick, The Paladin named O-Chul is interrogated by Team Evil to learn about what sort of defenses protect one of the remaining MacGuffins. O-Chul tells them that it's hidden behind several cunning illusions within a deep maze. Unfortunately, Redcloak sees through his bluff (O-Chul says that Charisma was his Dump Stat), and continues to interrogate him, convinced that he's still hiding the truth instead of just completely unaware of the answer. Later on, though, when The Order reaches the area where the MacGuffin is hidden, most of what O-Chul said is true.
- Used in almost every episode of A Pup Named Scooby-Doo. During The Summation, every suspect is listed... and the one character who isn't listed for whatever reason (too unlikely, had an alibi, or just plain the writers didn't feel like including them) is invariably the culprit.
- Peanuts: After rehearsing for a Christmas pageant, Sally talks about waiting for Harold Angel to sing. Charlie Brown thinks this is just the standard Mondegreen for "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" until a kid named Harold Angel shows up looking for Sally.
- In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode "Bubble Buddy", SpongeBob makes a bubble mannequin and acts as if he were alive. The other get tired of SpongeBob's antics and try to pop the bubble. But just as they are about to, Bubble Buddy suddenly comes to life and stops them, confirming that he was alive all along.