Meet David Nunes Carvalho, the Jewish Investigator Who Rivaled Sherlock Holmes

Brilliant Sleuth Followed a Trail Made of Ink

Elementary, My Dear Carvalho: The Jewish investigator contributed to the ultimate exoneration of Franco-Jewish military officer Alfred Dreyfus.
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Elementary, My Dear Carvalho: The Jewish investigator contributed to the ultimate exoneration of Franco-Jewish military officer Alfred Dreyfus.

By Harold Heft

Published April 01, 2013, issue of April 05, 2013.
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While David’s book showcases his erudition, it is Claire’s book, “Crime in Ink,” that reveals how that expertise was applied. Each chapter reads like an episode of a contemporary detective series, as she examines her father’s role in investigations of some of the most sensational criminal cases around the turn of the century.

The book begins with the story of his involvement in the case of William Marsh Rice, a millionaire who had died in his Madison Avenue apartment in September 1900. Following Rice’s death, a series of large checks, as well as a will, bequeathed the fortune to his lawyer.

David was asked to verify the legitimacy of Rice’s signature on the will and checks; he convinced the jury that the signatures had been forged because they were too good. “It isn’t possible for any human being — let along a feeble old man — to write his signature exactly in the same way twice.… I was able to show that each of those four signatures was patterned like the others.” Based on this testimony, Rice’s lawyer and valet were imprisoned, and his fortune was used to establish Rice University in Houston.

Although Claire was 41 when the book was published, she tells each anecdote by recalling the childhood dialogues with her father in which she followed his different cases and asked him innocent, probing questions. Like Sherlock Holmes himself, each of her recollections seems to involve her father being engaged in leisurely intellectual pursuits until he is interrupted by officials of the law requiring his assistance in cracking a case.

One exception is the anecdote of the Dreyfus Affair, which begins with father and daughter traveling one day in 1896 into Manhattan to buy a hat, and stopping into a French restaurant where David happened to see a page of the French newspaper Le Matin that reproduced the document that was used to convict Dreyfus.

“If my father never had seen that newspaper,” she writes, “I believe it is quite likely that Captain Dreyfus might have ended his days in the penal colony to which he had been condemned as a traitor to France.”


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