The Science of Sherlock Holmes: From Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, the Real Forensics Behind the Great Detective’s Greatest Cases
By E.J. Wagner
John Wiley & Sons, 244 pages, $24.95.
Five years ago, the Royal Society of Chemistry bestowed an honorary fellowship upon Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous fictional character, Sherlock Holmes. According to the fellowship citation, Holmes was “the first detective to exploit chemical science as a means of detection.” The citation might seem flippant, but several weeks ago the Mystery Writers of America honored a book that justifies the Royal Society’s choice.
This year’s Edgar Allan Poe Award winner for best critical/biographical work is E.J. Wagner’s “The Science of Sherlock Holmes,” an engaging work that describes the real forensic science behind the great detective’s most celebrated cases. Apparently, Doyle — who had a medical practice — drew from the most recent advancements in pathology, toxicology, blood chemistry and ballistics to make his Holmes’s adventures seem realistic.
Wagner, whose late uncle Chaim Ehrenreich wrote for the Forward, describes one important instance when Jewish history intersected with a forensic breakthrough that inspired Doyle. In the 1887 novel “A Study in Scarlet,” Holmes autopsies a corpse to search for clues: “[H]is nimble fingers were flying here, there, and everywhere, feeling, pressing, unbuttoning, examining.” Thanks to television shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “The X-Files,” autopsies seem humdrum to modern-day mystery enthusiasts. But in 1887, the technique was brand new: It had been accepted as essential to the pursuit of justice just five years earlier, because of a blood libel case in a small Hungarian village.
In early spring of 1882, a 14-year-old Catholic domestic servant named Esther Solymossy disappeared while on an errand for her mistress. Since Esther’s disappearance coincided with Passover, Wagner writes, “it was not long before the ancient and terrible folk belief in Jewish ritual murder was resurrected.” A number of Jews were arrested, and violence against the Jewish community raged through the town. The situation worsened progressively until the body of a young woman was recovered from the river. Esther’s mother viewed the corpse and denied that it was her daughter, but a group of Budapest professionals performed an autopsy and proved otherwise. There was no evidence of ritual killing, so the accused Jews were freed. This case established the idea that corpses must be examined meticulously, and that science has an essential part to play in the legal system.
Jewish history also intersects with an investigative blunder that slowed the progress of forensic science. In “The Man With the Twisted Lip,” Holmes scrutinizes the handwriting on an envelope to help solve a case. For Holmes, the study of chirography is an exact science, but in real life there’s room for error. Case in point: the Dreyfus affair. In 1894, a memorandum listing French military secrets was recovered from a wastepaper basket in the German Embassy. Wager writes, “Casting about for the culprit who had written the document, a cabal of French military officers decided a convenient scapegoat would be Captain Alfred Dreyfus… because he was fluent in German… and, most importantly, was Jewish.” Dreyfus was then convicted based on the testimony of penmanship experts who said that the writing on the memorandum matched his. It took 10 years to overturn the guilty verdict, at which point the public’s trust in document examination was, in Wagner’s words, “severely shaken.”
All told, “The Science of Sherlock Holmes” is a lively read and a thorough work of nonfiction — a history of the techniques that Doyle popularized in his detective series, and that modern crime shows have made into household words.
Juliet Lapidos is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn.