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I’ve just finished reading The Science of Sherlock Holmes, an engaging little book that has the subtitle: from Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, the real forensics behind the Great Detective’s greatest cases. I’m a sucker for CSI, so when I saw that title in the library, I simply couldn’t resist.

(At this point I should add that being a sucker for CSI extended only to the original program – & my interest waned when Grissom (William Andersen) left the series… And, despite my enjoyment of the series, I do feel that it’s quite possibly done a real disservice to science. Those investigators get their DNA results in hours, rather than days or weeks, & they tend to see things in black & white, rather than shades of grey. And that’s not because they work at night! Anyway, if jurors – say – get their information about forensic science from programs like this, then they could have quite unrealistic expectations of real forensic scientists when they are providing evidence for trials or acting as expert witnesses.)

I quite enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a kid, although I haven’t read them recently. The plot-lines were ingenious & Holmes was a wonderful hero, complex & clever. & with an analytical, scientific mind. In this book, author E.J.Wagner takes a number of criminal cases over the last couple of hundred years & gives the reader the scientific back-story, interweaving this with quotes & examples from the Holmes stories to show not only how the eponymous detective applied scientific reasoning to his work, but also how he made the most of modern scientific discoveries in working out whodunnit. This includes such innovations as early scientific tests for blood, which would allow investigators to determine first of all whether they were dealing with blood at all (& not some other rusty stain on an item of clothing), then if it was human blood, & then – with the advent first of blood typing & then of DNA, just which human it might belong to.

Then there’s the history of identifying individuals – by tattoos (which Cesare Lombroso firmly believed to be ‘a sign of atavism, criminality, & insensitivity to pain’), fingerprints & photography. And the fine art of disguise, of which Holmes was apparently a master. And so on. I have to say, I enjoyed the book for its history as well as the science it contained. And the author’s occasional flashes of dry humour just added to the enjoyment.

E.J. Wagner (2006) The Science of Sherlock Holmes. John Wiley & Sons Inc.