Books: The Science of Sherlock Holmes

I have long enjoyed reading books that examine fiction to see how realistic its depictions are. For instance, The Physics of Star Trek discusses whether the Enterprise could really travel at “warp speed” and whether beaming technology could ever be possible. Life Signs – the Biology of Star Trek takes the same kind of look at the alien species that Captain Kirk and his crew encounter.

I think most people know that the “science” of Star Trek is often no more real than the magic of Harry Potter, just dressed up in the more respectable terminology of science. Star Trek is clearly set in the future, and the voyages of the Enterprise and its crews are obviously the product of a fertile imagination.

But people are less likely to be able to distinguish between fact and fiction in books and movies set in the past. Historical fiction is generally well researched and contains a great deal of historically accurate facts. I have sometimes believed something to be fact based on reading such novels, and only later discovered that it was the author’s invention.

The tendency to believe that what is depicted in a historical movie is probably even stronger, because we instinctively believe what we see. As few people seem to enjoy studying history, many people’s impressions of historical events is likely to be based more on what they see in movies than some hazy memories of history studied in school. Past Imperfect is a great book on this subject, comparing well-known historical movies with the actual history behind them.

Naturally, when I saw The Science of Sherlock Holmes available at qpb.com (where I get most of my non-fiction books), I had to get it. I have only read a handful of Sherlock Holmes stories, but enough, I thought, to enjoy a book showing whether Holmes’ investigative techniques were sound or how he arrived at his conclusions.

The book was, in fact, good reading, but not quite what I had expected. The book does not really examine any of Holmes’ cases in any detail – not does it attempt to. Rather, E. J. Wagner was asked to write “a book that would use the Great Detective’s adventures as a jumping-off point to discuss forensic science during the Victorian Age.” The references to cases solved by Holmes are scanty, and frankly I think I would have enjoyed the book just as much without them.

Holmes does provide a good hook for the reader, however. Would I even have considered reading a book with a title such as “Forensic Science during the Victorian Age”? Science advanced so far and so fast during the twentieth century that in comparison the “science” of the nineteenth century can seem very primitive. (The last chapter of the book explores some of the myths that were still widely believed by people as well-educated and logically-minded as Holmes.)

What the book does provide is what was known and practiced at the time in various aspects of criminal investigation, such as examining bloodstains, guns and bullets, fingerprints, and other physical evidence to be found at the scene of the crime. In some regards I was surprised, such as what was learned from insect remains found in a corpse, or the use of a spectroscope to examine bloodstains.

I think it’s hard for many of us today, where science is so specialized and requires an array of expensive technology to carry out experiments, to realize how much an ordinary person could contribute to the study of science in Holmes’ day. We are accustomed to looking to experts in just about every field, because we know it would take years of study to even begin to approach their level of expertise.

In the Victorian Age, very little of that body of knowledge had been built up. But it wasn’t because people weren’t curious or didn’t try to apply scientific knowledge to solving difficult problems. They were in the middle of a period of great advances in science – it just took time for the knowledge to disseminate, and for better instruments to be developed that could give more precise results. 

As this review in The Christian Science Monitor points out, much of what the book shows is how poorly real-life cases were often handled, in comparison with what was known of forensic science by at least a few detectives. Holmes knew how important it was to examine the crime scene carefully before letting anyone move things or “taint” the evidence with their own footprints and fingerprints. Real-life law enforcement was usually done by men with no training in that regard.

Tests were being developed that could distinguish between blood and other substances that made reddish-brown stains, but not everyone knew of such tests, or knew how to perform them properly. Having a test but not interpreting the results properly can be worse than having no test at all, because people assume that the results of a scientific test are incontrovertible facts.

I think even today many people have little idea how science really works. Because so much of it is high tech today, scientific instruments are a sort of “black box” that most people know they can’t fully understand. They tend to either implicitly trust the answers given by the scientific experts, or conversely to distrust them and accuse them of trying to hoodwink ordinary people.

The Science of Sherlock Holmes is a good look at low tech science, seeing how observations and tests that most of us would be capable of performing could solve difficult criminal cases.

One Response to Books: The Science of Sherlock Holmes

  1. Margaret says:

    Okay, I went on Amazon and bought a paperback copy before I even read the rest of your blog. Next you need to read some more of Sherlock’s adventures. (I recommend The Hound of the Baskervilles.)

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