The Scientific Detective

“Data! Data! Data!. . . I can’t make bricks without clay.”

-Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” (Doyle 258)

Holmes and Watson doin' some science

Watson observes as Holmes completes an experiment

As citizens of industrialized countries flocked to large cities during the nineteenth century, crime became a big problem. Urbanized London, which lacked state-sponsored police forces until the mid-nineteenth century, saw a dramatic increase in criminal activity. Sociologists and anthropologists, new experts on human behavior, sought to interpret these crimes through behavioral and biological algorithms (Panek 37). This new interest in scientific inquiry was not just confined to professionals; many members of the educated public accessed scientific literature as well (Cole 57). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s background in the medical field and interest in scientific developments translated directly into his Holmes stories. Doyle purposefully kept up with scientific developments in creating Holmes, a virtuosic detective in an age of scientific achievement.

Not only does Holmes exhibit a scientific mind through his use of deduction, but he follows a tradition of scientific and objective thought prevalent throughout detective fiction. Doyle gleaned inspiration for the character Sherlock Holmes from Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the first true detective story as opposed to a crime story. The difference between the two lies in the treatment of the detective and the criminal. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sensational publications had focused on criminals and the crimes they committed; these stories were crime stories.  However, in an era of popular attention on detection, Poe and Doyle’s fiction featured a new emphasis on the detectives themselves (Panek 52).

Because Poe wrote the first detective story, he established precedent for the format of stories to come. Doyle copied Poe in several ways, especially in the presentation of the protagonist detective. Poe’s detective, Dupin, was a perceptive, intellectual recluse with a penchant for reasoning – in other words, extremely similar to Sherlock Holmes. Dupin also invested himself in criminology, using contemporary scientific jargon common to the forensic world; for example, he pioneered the phrase “circumstantial evidence” in fiction (Panek 48).

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle continued this trend of linking contemporary science and the detective. Sherlock Holmes is an extraordinarily perceptive figure who draws conclusions based on empirical fact, representing the method behind scientific observation. In more obvious ways, however, Doyle gives Holmes opinions on important scientific figures such as Alphonse Bertillon, a French anthropologist responsible for the criminal identification system known as anthropometry (Cole 32), and also imbues Holmes with the intellectual capacity to use techniques such as fingerprinting and handwriting analysis before Scotland Yard does (O’Brien 55).

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