Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Science of Sherlock Holmes by E. J. Wagner

Partly work-related and partly for fun, I'm on a bit of a mystery kick. We're watching Series Two of the British murder-and-gardening-in-one show, Rosemary and Thyme, and I'd finished Maisie Dobbs, and so I picked up The Science of Sherlock Holmes to give me a bit of nonfiction. I am a big Holmes fan, although not crazy (as sometimes happens with Holmes fans). I thoroughly enjoy Laurie R. King's Mary Russell, too, in spite of myself. And I've always found forensics fascinating.

This is a very quick, very easy read. Wagner goes about things in an organized fashion, looking at one or two aspects of forensics (trace evidence, autopsy, ballistics, etc.) per chapter, and taking us through the history of forensics as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would have known it. We meet some of the grandfathers of forensics (legal medicine, or medical jurisprudence, as it was called) and are taken, sometimes at length, through real-life cases where forensic science was first applied and making a difference. Sprinkled liberally throughout are quotes from various Holmes stories that highlight how important science is to criminal investigation. It's not so scientific that only experts could understand it; I think anyone with an interest in science, medicine, crime or Sherlock Holmes would be able to understand the vast bulk of this book.

The references to things Sherlockian are very endearing, although occasionally quotes or stories are reused in multiple chapters which makes me wonder why -- there are lots of stories to choose from. My favourite short, "Silver Blaze," gets a mention a couple of times, which pleased me to no end. Occasionally a point would be a little belaboured, as in how sloppy investigators can be when investigating crimes, or how bad science can lead to terrible judicial mistakes.

I was growing a bit weary of the last chapter, in which Wagner talks about bad science and how "expert" testimony can be disastrous (another favourite point) but then I recalled the massive amounts of damage so-called pathologist Dr. Charles Smith managed to do with bad science and expert testimony here in Canada. His expert testimony imprisoned multiple innocent people for the murders (which have since turned out to be, in some cases, accidental deaths) of children, destroying lives. And the judicial system let him get away with it; this is another point that Wagner makes, although that one only in passing. So maybe it's a point that needs to be made more than once.

It is a little chilling how easily people will believe in the infallibility of science. Science itself is great -- but sometimes the people who practice it are not. Sometimes they make genuine mistakes. Sometimes they are lazy. Sometimes they don't have all the information and spring to conclusions. Sometimes they are deliberately dishonest. Sometimes they're just misguided. To be honest, before I read this book, I still believed that hair and nails grow after death -- a myth, apparently, disproved quite a long time ago. Now, it's not my business to know that sort of thing, but I suspect that if someone had asked me whether or not it was true I might have said yes, thus perpetuating myth when science has proved otherwise.

When more is at stake than some kid going home and saying "guess what I learned today!", as is the case in a criminal investigation and court case, it is so important to get it right. These are people's lives here. Wagner mentions several cases where the wrong people are convicted -- or when the right people are not convicted, and end up taking more lives before they're finally caught. All based on science, or lack thereof.

At any rate, it's a fascinating read, and I recommend it as an introduction to the history of forensic science for the casual reader. This book just really scrapes the surface, but serves as an excellent, interesting, engaging, and fun entry.

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