The Myth of the ‘Scientific’ Detective: A Dissenting View of Science in the Holmes Stories
Early in the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, an admiring Watson, a few hours after observing his friend and roommate examine a crime scene, exclaims, “You have brought detection as near an exact science as it ever will be brought in this world.”
Sanctioned by Watson’s hyperbolical praise and supported by Holmes’s astonishing deductions, the iconic image of Holmes as the personification of the scientific consulting detective who applies irrefutable logic and the methods of science to solving crimes endures virtually uncontested as one of the most familiar myths of popular culture. In his Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Adventures and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Iain Pears encapsulates the orthodox view: “What Conan Doyle created,” says Pears, “was the perfect positivist, the embodiment of the Victorian faith in rationality and science, convinced that the right combination of reason and method could overcome all obstacles.” Pierre Nordon, in his 1964 biography of Conan Doyle, claimed that Holmes’s power is the power of science: “As the creation of a doctor who had been soaked in the rationalist thought of the period,” says Nordon, “the Holmesian cycle offers us for the first time the spectacle of a hero triumphing again and again by means of logic and scientific method. And the hero’s prowess is as marvelous as the power of science, which many people hoped would lead to a material and spiritual improvement of the human condition, and Conan Doyle first among them.” Nordon’s identification of Holmes’s methods with the methods of science is as strong as it was in 1964. “A character like Holmes,” says Christopher Clausen, “could grow to full stature only in a time when . . . science was viewed by its enthusiasts as a new force in the public mind . . . The overt techniques of science, the careful collection and rational analysis of information, were realised in Sherlock Holmes.” Jon Thompson proclaims Holmes “the quintessential empiricist.” J. K Van Dover agrees, asserting that Conan Doyle “embodied in Sherlock Holmes the argument that the detection of crime is the scientific method.”
Two recent books, both favorably reviewed, are devoted to the science in the Holmes stories: James O’Brien’s The Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking the Case with Science and Forensics, and E. J. Wagner’s The Science of Sherlock Holmes: From Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, the Real Forensics Behind the Great Detective’s Great Cases. O’Brien argues that a strong component of Sherlock Holmes’s “appeal and success is his knowledge of science and frequent use of the scientific method,” adding that Holmes’s “knowledge of science . . . lends credibility to his impressive powers of reasoning. Indeed, among the best-loved stories . . . those that rely not just on deductive reasoning but also employ elements of science are regarded most highly.” For Wagner, “the Holmes stories record a series of adventures in a Victorian world that becomes a laboratory for applying science to criminal investigation.” On the website Forensicoutreach.com, you will find an article on “5 Ways Sherlock Holmes Inspired Forensic Investigation.” Nonsense. Forensic science would have taken exactly the same course if Sherlock Holmes had never been created. Perhaps the most famous, and likely the most influential, expression of this orthodoxy comes from Catherine Belsey in her book Critical Practice:
The project of the Sherlock Holmes stories is to dispel magic and mystery, to make everything explicit, accountable, subject to scientific analysis. . . . Holmes and Watson are both men of science. Holmes . . . is a scientific conjuror who insists on disclosing how the trick is done. The stories begin in enigma, mystery, the impossible, and conclude with an explanation which makes it clear that logical deduction and scientific method render all mysteries accountable to reason. . . . The stories are a plea for science not only conventionally associated with detection (footprints, trace of hair or cloth, cigarette ends), where they have been deservedly influential on forensic practice, but in all areas. They reflect the widespread optimism characteristic of their period concerning the comprehensive power of positivist science (Italics added).
Contrary to this orthodoxy, the actual role of science in the stories is as thin as the Great Detective. All the real science actually used by Holmes could be recorded on one of the index cards in Holmes’s criminal archives. While I can’t in a short article survey the entire canon to controvert this orthodoxy, what I will attempt to do is persuade you to return to the stories themselves and ask just how much science Holmes actually uses. If you do, I am confident that you will be inclined to question whether the widely accepted view of Holmes as the avatar of science, logic, and reason can stand up to a careful reading of the stories themselves.
It is not just literary scholars, Sherlockians, and the legions of Holmes fans around the world who have perpetuated the myth of Holmes the scientific detective. Scientists, or those who claim to be scientists, such as criminologists, have also been eager to elevate a fictional character to the status of an avatar of the scientist and indeed of science itself as the highest form of knowledge human beings have achieved. As an example, I would point to the article entitled “Sherlock Holmes: Father of Scientific Crime Detection,” published in The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science and written by Stanton Berg, a criminologist who is a fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Science and a member of the International Association of Identification, originally the International Association for Criminal Identification, which is the largest forensic organization in the world. “I feel,” says the author, “that a strong case can be made that the famous sleuth had a decided stimulating influence on the development of modern scientific crime detection.” In a section of the article entitled “Evidence in the Stories,” Berg cites the scene in the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, in which Holmes is introduced to Watson—and to the reader. At this meeting, Holmes enthusiastically announces that he has, in his words, “found a re-agent which is precipitated by haemoglobin, and by nothing else. . . . Why, man, it is the most practical medico-legal discovery for years. Don’t you see that it gives us an infallible test for blood stains. . . . Had this test been invented, there are hundreds of men now walking the earth who would long ago have paid the penalty of their crimes.” Although at the time considerable research was being done in the field of blood serology, Conan Doyle as a doctor would certainly have been aware that a reliable test for blood was not available when he wrote the story. Thus Holmes’s discovery was, in 1887, science fiction. It was not until the end of the century that a 100 percent-reliable test for bloodstains was discovered, spectroscopic analysis, and eventually became available to crime-scene investigators. It was only in 1901, that a German researcher developed a reliable method of distinguishing between animal and human blood.
What I want to draw your attention to is that identifying human bloodstains plays no role in Holmes’s investigation of the crimes in the story, nor does it in any of the subsequent fifty-nine Holmes stories published over the next four decades. Of course, I acknowledge that Holmes, as a result of examining the crime scene, constructs a portrait of the murderer, Jefferson Hope, that turns out to be accurate. After his examination of the room in which the murder took place, he announces to the Scotland Yard detectives and to Watson: “. . . the murderer was a man. He was more than six feet high, was in the prime of life, had small feet for his height, wore coarse, square-toed boots and smoked a Trichinopoly cigar. In all probability the murderer had a florid face, and the fingernails of his right hand were remarkably long.” Holmes’s investigation of this crime scene and others in later stories is regularly cited by those who believe that the stories offer abundant evidence of Holmes’s reliance on the methods of science to solve otherwise mystifying crimes. However, none of these details, including the blood stains, plays a role in the identification of the murderer, Jefferson Hope. Their function is not scientific but rhetorical: to astonish the police, Watson, and the reader. These details construct an image of Holmes as someone who appears to use scientific methods to solve crimes. That image is reinforced later when Holmes tells Watson that he has written a monograph on tobacco ash. “I flatter myself that I can distinguish at a glance the ash of any known brand either of cigar or of tobacco,” adding “it is just in such details that the skilled detective differs from Gregson and Lestrade” (the two Scotland Yard detectives on the case). No doubt Holmes can identify dozens, maybe scores, of tobacco ash. But this specialized knowledge plays no role whatsoever in his identification of the murderer, just as it doesn’t in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.”
The only details at the crime scene that are relevant to Holmes’s investigation are the tracks of the four-wheeled cab in the street outside the building where the murder took place, but this detail does not identify the criminal. Rather it leads Holmes to suspect that the murderer and his victim likely arrived together in a hansom cab. Holmes learns the identity, including the name, of the murderer not from his analysis of the crime scene, but rather from the Cleveland police, who later inform him that the murder victim was being stalked in America by a man named Jefferson Hope, and so Holmes reasonably concludes that Hope has pursued the victim to London and had likely been stalking him there. To arrive at this conclusion, Holmes does not rely on the methods of science; rather he speculates that the murderer would probably use a carriage to carry out his surveillance before the murder took place and that working as a cabman would be the most likely way for Hope to get access to a hansom cab. Assuming his guess to be correct, Holmes recruits the Baker Street Irregulars to canvass all the cab companies in London to find out if they have anyone named Jefferson Hope working as a cabbie. And thus Hope is easily tracked down and identified since he has not changed his name. To do all this requires no expertise in science, and forensic science, in the sense of testing bloodstains at the crime scene or identifying tobacco ash and linking it to someone who smokes that brand, plays no role whatsoever in Holmes’s success in capturing Hope (or any other criminal).
So what are all the references to science doing in this story and in dozens of others? Their purpose, beginning with Holmes’s scientific “discovery” in the first story, is, I suggest, to confer on him the aura of science; in his actual investigation of the two murders in A Study in Scarlet, science plays an insignificant role, just as it does the rest of the stories. I would even go so far as to say that the role of science in the stories is trivial. The science in them has little to do with providing Holmes with an infallible method for detecting crimes. Rather the multiple references to science are part of Conan Doyle’s method as a fiction writer for creating the Holmes persona. Conan Doyle’s characterization of Holmes includes his dress (the deerstalker cap and the Inverness cape), his violin playing, and the frequent attendance at musical concerts and trips to art galleries, such as the visit to an exhibition of modern Belgian paintings in The Hound of the Baskervilles. As we have seen, in A Study in Scarlet Holmes is introduced to us in a laboratory exulting over a chemical discovery. Conan Doyle’s coding Holmes as a man of science relies on the fact that most readers will transfer this character trait—an interest in experimental science—to the methods Holmes actually uses to solve mysteries, especially if Holmes himself talks a lot about his self-described “science of deduction and analysis” (the title of two chapters in the first two stories) and if he is repeatedly associated with conventional images of the experimental scientist, such as carrying out chemical experiments in the flat at 221B Baker Street, then readers will accept the idea that Holmes uses science to solve crimes. These experiments, however, have absolutely nothing to do with the case being investigated in that particular story.
Consider, for example, “The Naval Treaty,” which is about the theft of a secret treaty between England and Italy. In it we are introduced to Holmes seated at his side table clad in his dressing gown and working hard over a chemical investigation. A large curved retort was boiling furiously in the bluish flame of a Bunsen burner, and the distilled drops were condensing into a two-litre measure. . . . He dipped into this bottle or that, drawing out a few drops of each with his glass pipette, and finally brought a test tube containing a solution over to the table. In his right hand he had a slip of litmus paper.
Holmes excitedly says to Watson, “You have come at a crisis . . . If this [litmus] paper remains blue, all is well. If it turns red, it means a man’s life.” He dipped it into the test tube and it flushed at once into a dull, dirty crimson. All this is part of a stage set brilliantly created by Conan Doyle. The experiment, however, has absolutely nothing to do with the case of the stolen naval treaty. Neither chemistry, nor any aspect of science, will contribute to recovering the purloined treaty, any more than it does in Dupin’s retrieval of the purloined letter in Poe’s story of that name. In “The Copper Beeches,” after the client, Violet Hunter, leaves, Holmes turns to “one of those all night chemical researches” that Watson frequently witnesses. This vignette of Holmes as the assiduous and inquisitive experimental chemist is Conan Doyle’s way of creating for his readers the illusion that science is of paramount importance in solving Holmes’s cases. “The Dancing Men” similarly opens with a description of Holmes hunched “over a chemical vessel in which he was brewing a particularly malodorous product.” However, experimental science plays no role in that story either. The BBC News World Edition reported (16 October 2002) that The Royal Society of Chemistry was conferring on Holmes a posthumous honorary fellowship. For what? It’s like the Nantucket Historical Whaling Society posthumously awarding Captain Ahab an honorary membership.
Nevertheless, readers have unquestioningly assumed that the interest Holmes frequently shows in science and in chemistry is somehow evidence of the application of science to the cases he investigates. However, I would not go as far as detective story writer Julian Symons, who in his history of crime fiction, Bloody Murder, claims that “Holmes is a deerstalker, a magnifying glass and a capacity for reasoning, not a human being.” Nevertheless, Symons is certainly right in seeing the “capacity for reasoning” as one of the numerous traits, on a par with the deerstalker cap, that constitutes Holmes as a character, rather than as evidence of his application in the stories of a scientific methodology that exists outside the stories and that Holmes triumphantly puts into practice.
Closely related to the myth of Holmes the scientist who applies the rigorous methods of experimental science to solving crimes is the myth of Holmes the brilliant logician who makes infallible deductions that lead inevitably to the solution of the mystery. So closely related are they that they tend to get conflated in many discussions of the stories. The terms science, logic, and reason are often used interchangeably. In fact, there is no more logic in the stories than there is science. Like Holmes the brilliant scientist, the familiar image of Holmes the infallible logician is simply another technique that Conan Doyle brilliantly uses to create the character of his flawed detective. A recurring pattern in the Holmes stories is to introduce Holmes as a model of the application of science and logic to a problem only to reveal the limitations of the methodology he advocates. Consider the story “The Five Orange Pips” as an example of how the aura of science hovering around Holmes is apt to mislead the reader to accept the myth of Holmes as a man of science who applies logic to solve mysteries. Early in the story Holmes is presented, or, more accurately, Holmes presents himself, as a perfect reasoning machine, doing for the science of detection what Baron Cuvier, the French naturalist and zoologist, did for the science of paleontology:
“The ideal reasoner,” Holmes tells Watson, “. . . would, when he has once been shown a single fact in all its bearings, deduce from it not only all the chain of events which led up to it, but also all the results which would follow from it. As Cuvier could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents, should be able accurately to state all the other ones, both before and after. We have not [in this case] grasped the results which the reason alone can attain to. Problems may be solved in the study which have baffled all those who have sought a solution by the aid of their senses.”
Although Holmes appears to apply Cuvier’s method in the story, his claims for what “the reason alone can attain to” are not borne out by the events of the story. However, appearances, as every fan of detective fiction knows, can be deceptive. One of the unanswered mysteries in the story is the puzzling behavior of the detective himself. It is not just the “strange, wild events” of the story, as Watson calls them, that elude satisfactory explanation. Holmes’s conduct and behavior are equally inexplicable. Why, one wonders, does Holmes send his client, John Openshaw, out alone onto the streets of London when he knows for certain that he is in imminent peril for his life at the hands of murderers whom Holmes also knows are in London and who certainly know that their intended victim is also there? What is puzzling about Holmes’s behavior is not just that it is reckless and irresponsible, leading to the death of his client, but that he violates the very scientific methodology that he expounds in the passage invoking Cuvier as the model of an ideal reasoner. “The ideal reasoner . . . would, when he had once been shown a single fact in all its bearings, deduce from it not only all the chain of events which led up to it but also the results which would follow from it.” Thus, given what Holmes already knows about the previous similar murders of John Openshaw’s uncle and father, both murdered by avenging members of the Ku Klux Klan, he should, by his own professed logic, be able to predict the inevitable next link in what he calls “the chain of events,” which obviously is the murder of his client John. “I do not think,” he tells him, “that there can be a doubt that you are threatened by a real and imminent danger.” After hearing John’s narrative of his family history, Holmes asserts, “The first consideration is to remove the pressing danger which threatens you. The second is to clear up the mystery and to punish the guilty parties.” However, Holmes inexplicably reverses this logical—and moral—priority and devotes all his time and mental exertion to the second consideration, leaving his poor client to his own devises. While Holmes is safely ensconced at 221B Baker Street playing his violin, his client is predictably murdered on the streets of London. The methodology of Baron Cuvier may inspire Holmes’s theorizing about detective work, but his conduct in this story shows no signs of putting it into practice. “Logic is rare,” Holmes tells Watson in The Sign of the Four. And it is certainly rare in “The Five Orange Pips.”
It may appear that in questioning the role of science and logical reasoning in the Holmes stories I am calling attention to a fault in them. Nothing could be further from the truth. The strength of the Holmes stories, in my view, is not Holmes’s solution to puzzles, but Conan Doyle’s exposure of the limitations of Holmes’s science of deduction and analysis. The stories are not a celebration of power of science and logic, and certainly not a contribution to the new science of criminology, but a critique of the Victorians’ exaggerated faith in the power of science. This aspect of the stories, the foundation of their artistic success, has been overlooked by Conan Doyle scholars and by Sherlock Holmes fans for whom the Great Detective is an object of admiration, if not idolatry. My explanation for this astonishing misreading is that critics and fans alike have come to the stories with the prior assumption that they are pure ratiocinative detective stories and that a defining characteristic of that form is its primary focus on a detective who solves mysteries with logic, reason, and science. It rarely occurs to them to adopt a critical attitude to the detective—his very faults are endearing. However, if we can free ourselves from our prior assumptions about what we have come to expect to find in the Holmes stories, we may be able to view them in a new light and perhaps even agree with Conan Doyle that while Holmes’s science of detection and analysis can answer many questions, there remain many that it cannot answer. And it is those questions that Conan Doyle the artist leaves his readers to ponder.
Nils Clausson is Professor Emeritus at the University of Regina (Saskatchewan, Canada). Before retiring he taught a course on the history of detective fiction and recently revived the course for the Lifelong Learning Centre at the University of Regina. He has published articles on Conan Doyle in both scholarly journals, such as Journal of Popular Culture and Narrative Theory, and in Holmes magazines such as Canadian Holmes and The Sherlock Holmes Journal. In 2008 he convened an international Conan Doyle symposium at the University of Regina and recently published Arthur Conan Doyle’s Art of Fiction: A Revaluation (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2018).
Future blogs will address various aspects of the Holmes stories and crime fiction, including a response to the question: “Well, if Holmes does not use science, reason, and logic to solve his cases, how does he do it?”