5.22.2011

A Study in Sherlock: What We Owe Sherlock Holmes


Since his appearance in 1887 Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes has appeared in the four original novels and 56 short stories and since then has spawned a world record for the most actors to play a character with some 75 people playing the detective; hundreds of film, radio, and stage adaptations; hundreds of new novels and short stories (pastiches); a Hollywood blockbuster; even a museum.
The original stories have been translated into every known human language and the deer stalker cap and pipe are a globally recognized "brand". The great detective has had an influence we often forget.
Doyle based Holmes on a real person, Doctor Joseph Bell, who was known for being able to conclude someone's ailment just by looking at them and asking a few questions. Also serving as an inspiration was Doctor Henry Littlejohn of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh who served as police surgeon.
We in the criminal justice and forensic fields owe a lot to Doyle's creation. Holmes' method of induction (which Doyle mistakenly calls deduction) is largely the basis for solving crimes. Many of the stories begin with a display of Holmes' inductive talents: by studying a person's hands and bearing he could tell their job, their shoes and pants legs gave away their route to 221 B Baker Street. In A Scandal in Bohemia Holmes deduces that Watson has a new and clumsy maid and has recently been in the rain. He does so by noting the cuts and scuffs on the shoes from removing stubborn mud, the clumsy job of it and the cuts indicate a person not mindful of their work, and a London doctor is hardly the type to clean their own shoes. So, Watson had been out in the bad weather, gotten muddy, and his new or poorly trained maid did a bad job on his shoes.
His logic here follows the modus ponens argument form. In modus ponens takes the form: if P then Q. P, therefore Q. If today is Sunday I don't have to go to work. Today is Sunday. So I don't have to go to work. Whenever P is true, then Q must also be true.
In forensics Holmes insisted on a pristine, uncontaminated crime scene and evidence (this at a time when many doctors were still learning to wash their hands). He studied the trace evidence left behind from the familiar like fingerprints, fibers, hair, tool marks, and footprints to more odd things like cigar ash. He used toxicology, hematology, decomposition, and other new sciences in his cases. He compares typewriters' keys in order to foil a fraudulent document case, gunpowder residue to find a killer, and time and again shows a skill in psychology. In interviewing witnesses and suspects he deploys a "just the facts" style but is not above using verbal jousts and tricks to get people to slip up. Holmes uses disguises and patience to conduct surveillance to find the people or information he needs and has a extensive network of informants among the city's homeless orphans, newsboys, and others-a system still used today.
Some critics will point to Holmes' use of phrenology as indication of faulty method on Doyle's part as well as the author's love of the occult and unusual. However, it must be said that phrenology was widely accepted in that time and I posit that it may be the precursor to our own facial recognition technology.
Holmes is also an excellent cryptanalyst, someone who studies codes and ciphers. In The Dancing Men he uses frequency analysis to decrypt notes left behind by the culprit.
Those of you whose only exposure to Sherlock Holmes is the movie with Robert Downey, Jr. would do well to read the original stories (link to free versions of them is post below). The stories serve as examples of friendship, of determination and grit, but more than that they are examples of the triumph of reason, science, and logic over brutishness and irrationality that lay at the heart of crime.
Free books (in the public domain): http://www.manybooks.net/authors/doyleart.html
And here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1661
The Sherlock Holmes web portal http://www.sherlockian.net/
The Sherlock Holmes Society http://www.sherlock-holmes.org.uk/
The Sherlock Holmes Museum http://www.sherlock-holmes.co.uk/
An interesting article on Doyle's heirs: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/19/books/19sherlock.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&pagewanted=all

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1 comment:

  1. Interesting article, but I have to disagree with the comment "We in the criminal justice and forensic fields owe a lot to Doyle's creation. Holmes' method of induction (which Doyle mistakenly calls deduction) is largely the basis for solving crimes."

    Crimes today are solved by deduction, not induction. If you've watched a trial (in court, not on tv), you'll notice the attorney interviews a witness by starting with a very simple question...perhaps "Does Mr. Jones own a blue shirt?" Once this fact has been established, the attorney builds to more complex statements, like "Does this blue shirt with the blood stains on it belong to Mr. Jones?" This is deduction.

    Similarly, forensic science takes a biological sample and extracts a DNA profile. THat profile may be statistically similar to a suspect's profile, (and here is where the forensic scientist's work ends and the prosecutor picks up), which leads to the deduction that the suspect left this biological sample, presumably at the scene of the crime.

    Induction, on the other hand, applies general reasoning to specific circumstances. While an investigator may apply induction in following leads, a forensic scientist can NOT apply this reasoning to their work.

    That said, I love Sherlock Holmes and always enjoy reading about him!

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All comments and feedback appreciated!

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