You see, but you do not observe," Sherlock Holmes chides his enduring friend Dr. John H. Watson in the short story, "A Scandal in Bohemia."

Dr. Watson has climbed the staircase to Holmes's lodgings at 221-B Baker St. hundreds of times but cannot tell fiction's most famous detective how many steps there are. "Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point," Holmes says, noting crisply that there are 17 steps.

Why should anyone care how many steps there are?

It's elementary, dear reader. Holmes insists that if Watson is to see the world as it really is, he must be attentive to such details.

That is the most important lesson in the entire Sherlock Holmes "canon" of 56 stories and four novels, said the Rev. Stephen Kendrick, 45, parish minister of the Universalist Church of West Hartford.

"These stories are, at last, not just about apprehending criminals, but about apprehending reality," the clergyman and Holmes aficionado said.

Holmes is not only literature's greatest detective, Kendrick said, but he is also a "spiritual guide, a Zen master of observation who provides religious insight for the modern, skeptical reader."

Kendrick, who studies detective stories with the concentration of a Talmudic scholar, lays out his evidence in a newly published book, "Holy Clues: The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes" (Pantheon Books).

Religious seekers can learn from Sherlock Holmes and the best of other fictional detectives how to see the obvious evidence of the truth of God in the world, Kendrick maintains.

"We are so used to thinking of religious revelation coming into the world by thunder and lightning, miracles and blinding visions that we too easily forget that spiritual truth is right here, right before us. It is just too obvious for us to notice," Kendrick writes.

For Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes's creator, such revelations often came through contact with spirits of the dead, who for Doyle were as much part of the natural world as living beings, Kendrick said. Besides being a physician, Doyle for much of his life was a noted advocate of spiritualism--a popular religion of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that taught that spirits of dead friends and family members offer guidance to the living.

Holmes has long been established as a cultural icon in the English-speaking world. Doyle's tales, first published between 1887 and 1927, have never gone out of print.

The great sleuth has entered the media age as the most portrayed character ever, played by 75 actors in 211 movies. A Holmes series a few years ago on the PBS show "Mystery!" proved to be a winning fund-raising draw. There are countless Web sites devoted to Holmes on the Internet.

Now, the detective who appears outwardly as an emotionally cold, skeptical materialist is being presented as a spiritual guru. What is doubly curious is Doyle's ardent interest in all things spiritual and Holmes's impatience with other-worldly musings.

The detective's dismissal of the supernatural in favor of more down-to-earth explanations for eerie happenings is illustrated in "The Hound of the Baskervilles." It is arguably the best detective novel written, in the opinion of Kendrick and many others.

Pressed by Watson on whether he was inclined "to the supernatural explanation" for strange doings on the dreary moors, Holmes retorts, "The devil's agents may be flesh and blood, may they not?"

But, like his hero Holmes, Kendrick believes that "not all is as it appears on the surface." He said the detective's pose of cold logic covers his compassion, quest for justice and secret passion for mercy.

And Holmes's "fierce logical determinism" ultimately is consistent with Doyle's spiritualism, Kendrick said. Doyle believed in the "evolution of universal scientific religion" and that the presence of spirits could be scientifically proved through seances and spiritual mediums. Thus, to Doyle, the spirits were part of the natural world, not outside it.

The author, Kendrick maintains, has "cunningly laid these lessons all through the stories in a charming and insightful way."

Kendrick points to a "seldom-noted moment" in "The Naval Treaty" when Holmes uncharacteristically engages in philosophical rumination.

Leaning against a windowsill, the detective languidly smells a rose and comments, "What a lovely thing a rose is!"

He goes on: "There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion. It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers."

Kendrick argues: "We are looking at a quality of soul, of moral greatness, that only the great spiritual teachers possess. By the close of the stories, Holmes has grown so that he becomes less of a detective than a confessor figure, a witness to wounded spirits."

The clergyman said that Holmes's crime-solving principles are equally useful for exploring "the greatest detective story ever told"--life.

For the spiritual seeker, Kendrick said, the Holmesian gospel holds that nothing is irrelevant. We must notice what we see. Spirituality can be found in the ordinary, and science and spirituality are not contradictory. A far-off God is an invitation to search for and open ourselves to the divine. "The Book of Life" contains not just judgment and justice but mercy and forgiveness.

Kendrick, who just returned from England where he researched the London of Holmes's time, said he was inspired to write the book after his congregation responded enthusiastically to a sermon he gave on Holmes as "a kind of Zen master of observation and sage of the mysteries of life." The idea struck him one Saturday night when he "was drained of inspiration for a sermon."

Detective stories have fascinated Kendrick since he was a child. He sees a close relation between religion and the detective tale, which confronts "the worst and darkest instincts of the human heart--principally murder and betrayal."

He notes that God himself was the first detective when he called Cain to account for killing his brother Abel.

Kendrick, who was minister of a Unitarian congregation in Columbia, Md., between 1981 and 1989, graduated from Princeton University and has a master of divinity degree from Harvard University. He also has a master's in creative writing from Hollins College.

Now he has written his first novel, and it is--surprise--a murder mystery. And--surprise again--it is a murder mystery featuring Holmes and Watson.

Called "The Night Watch: Sherlock Holmes and the Great Game," it is set in a London church, where the archbishop of Canterbury has secretly called together representatives of the major world religions. The host minister turns up dead. Holmes has only a night to solve the crime, but not to worry. On hand is another legendary figure of detection, G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown.

To be continued next summer, when Kendrick expects his new book to be published.

Staff writer Bill Broadway contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the famous detective Sherlock Homes and a noted advocate of spiritualism, posed at his psychic museum in South Africa in 1928. Doyle believed that spirits were a part of the natural world.