Taking as its starting point the classic tales of Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective, The Science of Sherlock Holmes is an entertaining stroll through the history of criminology, illuminating many of the Holmes and Watson tales with the light of the growing knowledge of medicine and forensic science (although this latter term implies somewhat more certainty than forensic tools provide in reality), which underwent considerable change and improvement in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century. Much of our belief in what forensics can uncover about a crime is, for better or worse, influenced by popular stories (and endless drivel on television). The Sherlock Holmes stories are one of the first instances of a character using reasoning and “ratiocination,” as Holmes names his process in one early story, to deduce unknown facts from known and observed facts. For all intents and purposes, Holmes is where popular criminal science begins.
Without being unduly morbid, Wagner focuses on the various areas of criminal behaviour in brief, easily read chapters, covering such topics as handwriting, forgery, early biometrics and fingerprinting, poisons, disguise, and much more, all set against the backdrop of Conan Doyle’s familiar world of late Victorian London. Wagner ranges further afield, however, with discussions of crime across Europe and America, briefly spotlighting famous cases from the past to the near-present.
What we learn, as it happens, is that while “the Great Detective” (and his creator) was often well ahead of his time, there are instances where Holmes either overstated the efficacy of his methods, or cast them wrongly in the light of existing knowledge. Holmes’ use of phrenology, for example, was current by the standards of late Victorian England, but it is now reliably considered to be rubbish. However, as the stories are almost all older than one hundred years, this should hardly be unexpected. Science has moved on, and Wagner skillfully deconstructs the myth and the reality.
The Science of Sherlock Holmes is well worth reading for fans of the Holmes tales who would like additional historical context for their reading, budding criminologists, or for students of the lore and history of crime and detection. Highly recommended.
Originally reviewed 16 September 2011.
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