By Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956).
The American Mercury (January 1936).
. . . despite the statistics of solved crimes released proudly each year, Scotland Yard remains very much as Sherlock Holmes knew it—a slow-minded, dull, almost stupid organization, plodding methodically along the trail of petty crooks. Meanwhile, the French service [the Sûreté] has advanced from strength to strength, to become today the most intelligent and efficient body of detectives in history. . . .
. . . Now Scotland Yard's lack of intelligence and scientific method is not altogether its own fault. Most detective forces reflect the character of the criminals with which they grapple, and the average English crook has no more originality than a robot, and very little more intelligence. . . .
. . . England claims that crime statistics prove her detective service to be the best in the world. But this is not true; the figures merely show that the English criminals are a stupid lot. . . .When it comes to murder in Dear Old Blighty
. . . the British police obtain really brilliant results, yet here again they are greatly helped by the characteristics of the British criminal. Murder is an amateur crime in England; there are no gangster killings as in America and no rapid-fire knife wielders as in France. . . .As for the Sûreté, Pratt notes an
. . . emphasis on cleverness, on ingenuity [which] gives the French service both its romantic, almost fictional character, and its predilection for the use of scientific methods. . . .
. . . Naturally the French police, like the British, reflect the national criminal characteristics. If the British crook is a simple-minded slugger who almost never thinks, the Frenchman is an active, fluid fellow who often gets into trouble because of intricacies of his own devices. . . .
. . . It is this search for the new, the ingenious, and the sensational that eventually led the French police into the business of scientific detection. . . .For instance, it was a Frenchman, Edmond Locard, who
. . . developed a new and deadly addition to the scientific detective's armory—the study, through microphotography, of the pore-pattern within the fingerprints, the pore-pattern being as individual as the print itself and having the advantage of requiring far less surface to yield a readable and specific record. . . .In one case in particular:
. . . The finding of that bit of wax was not a fortuitous piece of luck for the French detectives, any more than is the discovery of numerous witnesses for the British [England being a tight little island with a homogeneous population suspicious of anyone out of the ordinary]. The Sûreté agents are trained to gather every particle of material evidence, no matter how insignificant . . . .For that reason
. . . Faced with a burglary, the French detective does not collect the evidence of witnesses or keep watch on pawnshops as does his English colleague. . . .In Britain, on the other hand
. . . The English police, in their preoccupation with witnesses, tend to neglect [useful clues]. . . . [Good lab technicians] are seldom called in unless for an obvious laboratory case, such as a poisoning, or a case where the solution hinges on ballistic examination. The witness is master of the field. . . .French detective trainees
. . . are put through a course of training which begins in a refresing and rather startling manner with the reading of Gaboriau's works and the Sherlock Holmes stories. Edgar Allan Poe, by the way, is not rated very high. "His methods would be useful if detectives were only mindreaders," comments a French writer acidly. But the aphorisms of the great Sherlock have become proverbs in the French service . . . And the Sûreté has imitated Holmes' methods in more than one particular. You remember he once told Dr. Watson he had written a monograph on identifying tobacco by its ashes? Well, there is such a monograph now, produced by one of the French laboratory detectives . . . .So in the final analysis is the French system superior? Because of cultural differences, it's really a case of apples and oranges:
. . . This does not mean, of course, that the French service is perfect. The British system of dependence on witnesses is at its best in ferreting out just the type of crimes the French find most difficult to handle—those affairs in which material clues are entirely wanting. . . .Resources:
- Fletcher Pratt wrote in many areas, history and science fiction among them; see the Wikipedia article HERE.
- Wikipedia also has articles about Sherlock HERE, Lupin HERE, and Locard HERE.
- ONTOS dealt with Gaboriau previously HERE.
Category: Detective fiction vs. real life