The science of Sherlock Holmes: from Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, the real forensics behind the great detective's greatest cases

The science of Sherlock Holmes:  from Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, the real forensics behind the great detective’s greatest cases    

E J Wagner  

Hoboken, New Jersey, US: John Wiley & Sons  2006 | 244pp | ?16.99 (HB) | ISBN 0471648795 

Reviewed by Andrew Mitton

Throughout the world, Sherlock Holmes is considered the archetypal detective. While standing on a railway platform in Strasbourg many years ago, wearing a deerstalker, I heard a man point me out to his young son as ’le d?tective Anglais, tr?s c?l?bre’. Unfortunately I had no pipe to take from my pocket. In 2002 the RSC bestowed an extraordinary honorary fellowship upon Sherlock Holmes, as the first detective to exploit chemical science as a means of detection. 

There has been a recent spate of books exploring The science of . (Star trekHitch hiker’s guide to the galaxyDr Who  etc) and so I came to this book fearing another of the same. But this book is different. Instead of starting with the fiction and seeking to explain the science behind some of the concepts and gadgetry involved, this book is really about the Victorian beginnings of forensic science, illustrated by the Sherlock Holmes stories. Factual cases from Europe and the US are discussed throughout, showing the way in which the new scientific methods were used to investigate, and in some cases to solve, real criminal cases. These cases also show how Conan Doyle was inspired to include the latest detection techniques in his Holmes stories.  

There are separate chapters devoted to poisonings, photographic methods (including fingerprinting), gunshots, footprints, dust and fibres, handwriting and blood testing. All these emerging techniques are discussed with reference to real cases such as the poisoning of Helen Potts in New York in 1891 by a young medical student, Carlyle Harris. This case is compared with a similar poisoning by Jefferson Hope in A study in scarlet. Similarly, a discussion of the scientific evaluation of written evidence in relation to the Dreyfus case in 1894 and the poison-pen letters received in Tulle from 1917 into the 1920s (both in France) are compared with Holmes’ handwriting analysis skills in The man with the twisted lip. 

This well-researched book will be appreciated, therefore, not just by devotees of Holmes (Basil Rathbone, left, is my favourite), but by anyone interested in the Victorian beginnings of forensic science, and those who have enjoyed the more recent portrayals of science in crime detection, such as CSI and Silent witness.