Wednesday, October 13, 2021

"I Believe That the Writings of Conan Doyle Have Done More Than Any Other One Thing To Stimulate Active Interest in the Scientific and Analytical Investigation of Crime"

CONAN DOYLE didn't invent the modern fictional detective; that honor goes to Edgar Allan Poe. Doyle took Poe's template, however, and expanded it into new literary dimensions that Poe didn't explore due to other pressing matters or simply a lack of interest. Like it or not (and for some reason some people don't), Sherlock Holmes's adventures introduced to the public at large new methods of detective work that have since become standard. As Sir Sydney Smith, a medico-legal expert, notes: "An author may feel satisfaction when his fiction is accepted as true to life. Conan Doyle had the rare, perhaps unique, distinction of seeing life become true to his fiction."
Ahead of his time.
For some criminalists, however, Holmes is pure fantasy tending to impair police work:
  "It is to be regretted that the methods of investigating crimes have not kept pace with the methods of their execution. As a rule, government authorities are still dwelling in the fantastic atmosphere of the super-detective of the Sherlock Holmes type who is supposed to know everything even before it happened, and whose principal investigative asset seems to be that rather mysterious faculty of 'intuition' which, like an X-ray, penetrates under the thief's skin. Bernard De Quiros calls this the empirical phase of investigation, as distinguished from and opposed to the scientific method.
  "However erroneous the belief in the 'super-detective panacea' may be, it has captured the imagination of the dilettantes of criminology and has helped to entrench inefficacy in the field of criminal research."
  — Boris Brasol (1926), "Foundations of Criminology" (HERE).
Others, though, have been willing to cut the Sage of Baker Street some slack:
  "Admirers of Sherlock Holmes know by this time that their hero was not infallible; they ought to know that methods of crime-detection have advanced in fifty years; but Holmes is at least as modern as 1904, and even the studious background and other values of this book do not convince us that Sherlock Holmes's methods (or even his techniques) were inferior to those of his contemporary . . ."
  — Jay Finley Christ (1946), review (HERE) of Theodor Reik's The Unknown Murderer (1945).

As you can see, professional criminologists have experienced an adience-avoidance relationship with Conan Doyle's master detective. On the one hand, they find Holmes's primitive forensics methods dismissible simply because, after all, they are primitive, while at the same time lauding Doyle for laying a foundation for the popular acceptance of their chosen field. Below we have several criminologists displaying the latter, more tolerant view of Sherlock's achievements:

"The Manly Art of Observation and Deduction."
By John C. Hogan and Mortimer D. Schwartz.
First appearance: Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Spring 1964.
Article (9 pages).
Online at the Northwestern University School of Law Scholarly Commons (HERE).
     "If I show you too much of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all."

Our authors review quite a few instances of the mental processes by which Sherlock Holmes arrives at his brilliant solutions, concluding with an admonition to all criminalists:
  "Let the investigator first learn to master thoroughly two of the three qualities which Mr. Holmes said are necessary for the ideal detective the power of observation and that of deduction before undertaking the more advanced mental and moral aspects of the art which present the greatest difficulties and which require proficiency in the third quality-namely, not to be wanting in knowledge!"
~ ~ ~
"Sherlock Holmes: Father of Scientific Crime and Detection."
First appearance: Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1970).
Article (8 pages).
Online at the Northwestern University School of Law Scholarly Commons (HERE).
(Note: WARNING! SPOILERS for "The Adventure of the Norwood Builder.")
     "Aside from some admitted personal bias, I feel a strong case can be made that the famous sleuth had a decided stimulating influence on the develop-ment of modern scientific crime detection."

Not many authors can be said to have been ahead of their time:
  "A review of the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels will quickly reveal the wide spectrum of scientific methods and interests utilized by Holmes in his many cases. Almost every one of the forensic sciences as we know them today is touched upon in some manner or the other. While the application of the many forensic sciences is standard procedure today, they were not so in Holmes' day."

Typos: "rather then"; "it's [for its]".

References and resources:
- The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes is online (HERE).
- Theodor Reik was a colleague of Sigmund Freud, with all that entails:
  "Reik's first major book was The Compulsion to Confess (1925), in which he argued that neurotic symptoms such as blushing and stuttering can be seen as unconscious confessions that express the patient's repressed impulses while also punishing the patient for communicating these impulses. Reik further explored this theme in The Unknown Murderer (1932), in which he examined the process of psychologically profiling unknown criminals. He argued out that because of unconscious guilt, criminals often leave clues that can lead to their identification and arrest" (Wikipedia HERE).
- Boris Brasol's name will forever be linked to a despicable document; born in Imperial Russia, Brasol settled in the United States after the Revolution:
  "Brasol pursued a successful career as a literary critic and criminologist and published several books in each of these fields" (Wikipedia HERE).
- Other mentioned individuals: [Harry] Ashton-Wolfe (HERE), Henry Morton Robinson (HERE), Sir Sydney Smith (HERE), Alphonse Bertillon (HERE), Edmond Locard (HERE), Hans Gross (HERE), Paul Uhlenhuth (HERE), [Sir William] Herschel (HERE), [Henry] Faulds (HERE), [Johann Evangelist] Purkinje (HERE), [Francis] Galton (HERE), [Juan] Vucetich (HERE), and [Étienne Ossian] Henry (HERE).
- Agatha Christie isn't exactly renowned for her treatment of criminalistics in her stories, but a new book demonstrates that such an appraisal very likely underestimates her knowledge of forensics; see a review of that book (HERE).
- For more about Edgar Poe's contributions to detective fiction, see (HERE) and (HERE).


  1. Auguste Dupin was the first fictional detective to believe that crimes could be solved by reason, but Holmes was pretty much the first to actively look for physical clues. The details of his methods were not important - Holmes (and Conan Doyle) at least understood that physical clues mattered. That was pretty much revolutionary thinking.

    Obviously the scientific investigation of crime was something that was going to develop anyway but I think it's fair to say that Conan Doyle provided a lot of the initial impetus.

    1. Agreed. "Science marches on!" was pretty much the standard in the 19th and 20th centuries, and fiction writers happily went along for the ride. As for the 21st century. . .?