Saturday, February 9, 2013


The Scientific Sherlock Holmes by James O’Brien

Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation will outlive us all.

Certainly Holmes had a great influence on some of the well-known pulp heroes -- The Shadow, Doc Savage, G-8 and Captain Philip Strange are obvious examples -- and continues to exert his personality and quirks on contemporary characters in a variety of media, such as August Derleth’s Solar Pons, Preston & Child’s Agent Pendergast, Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House, my own Shalimar Bang, and of course Robert Downey Jr’s Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, and Jonny Lee Miller’s Elementary.

I’m not a Holmes completest, but I have a set of the stories I dip into from time to time. I prefer the volumes published by Oxford University Press, for their introductions and annotations by Richard Lancelyn Green and Owen Dudley Edwards, W.W. Robson, and Christopher Roden. I also have a copy of Volume 2 of William S. Baring-Gould’s Annotated Sherlock Holmes. (Someday I’ll grab Volume 1.) And I’ve been entertained by Leslie Klinger’s new Annotated Sherlock Holmes volumes. It’s good to have a solid collection of the Holmes canon on hand when the mood strikes.
The number of publications devoted to Holmesian scholarship may outstrip that of literary scholars engaged in academic pursuits. (That’s a guess on my part, not a deduction based on any real investigations.) But just as one might suppose that no new topic on Shakespeare or his plays or poems could possibly find its way into a dissertation from one of the world’s graduate schools, new Shakespearean investigations continue to arise, improbably. In the same vein, studies on some facet of the Holmes stories continue to appear.

An interesting one that recently arrived from -- suitably enough for me -- Oxford University Press is The Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking the Case with Science and Forensics by James O’Brien.
O’Brien is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Missouri State University. The present book springs from a presentation O’Brien made at the 1992 national meeting of the American Chemical society, “What Kind of Chemist was Sherlock Holmes?”

True Holmes completists will likely have in other books or papers a lot of the information O’Brien offers. For instance, there are brief sections describing Holmes, Watson, Moriarty, and other important characters; a profile of Doyle, plus chapters that illustrate the influences of Edgar Allan Poe and Dr. Joseph Bell upon Holmes. But for the interested reader, the semi-casual scholar, or the curious pop-culture fan, it’s nice to have some of this info gathered within the covers of a single slim volume.
For example, O’Brien offers an area of forensic science applied by Holmes -- such as fingerprints, footprints, handwriting analysis, and cryptography -- and accompanying descriptions of how each is used within specific stories. O’Brien also includes examples of how those techniques have been applied in solving famous, real-world crimes, such as the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Zodiac murders, and so forth.

O’Brien also gives space to Holmes’ dabbling in mathematics, physics, biology, and other sciences, but the heart of the book is its examination of the world’s foremost consulting detective as chemist. O’Brien’s particular expertise comes into play in this section. (Poisons are such fascinating tools.) Besides exhibiting some basic mixology skills applied at cocktail time, I’m not a chemistry expert by anyone’s standards. But O’Brien’s explanations are readable and engaging, and even a layman can gather some interesting information from his discussion.
O’Brien’s examination of Holmes’ scientific methods may not suit every reader of the canon, but for those who have a deeper-than-mere-passing interest in the habits of that eventual beekeeper from Baker Street -- or simply a curiosity about how today’s fascination with CSI-style forensics may have played out at the end of the 19th Century -- this book will provide several hours of engaging reading. Recommended.

You can find O’Brien’s book on Holmes at Amazon by clicking here.
The Oxford University Press Sherlock Holmes volumes . . .

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