New release book review: THE SCIENTIFIC SHERLOCK HOLMES


by James O’Brien
Publication date: officially January 2013 but available now on amazon
Category: nonfiction

Summary (from the publisher):

One of the most popular and widely known characters in all of fiction, Sherlock Holmes has an enduring appeal based largely on his uncanny ability to make the most remarkable deductions from the most mundane facts. The very first words that Sherlock Holmes ever says to Dr. Watson are, “How are you? You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” Watson responds, “How on earth did you know that?” And so a crime-solving legend is born.

In The Scientific Sherlock Holmes, James O’Brien provides an in-depth look at Holmes’s use of science in his investigations. Indeed, one reason for Holmes’s appeal is his frequent use of the scientific method and the vast scientific knowledge which he drew upon to solve mysteries. For instance, in heart of the book, the author reveals that Holmes was a pioneer of forensic science, making use of fingerprinting well before Scotland Yard itself had adopted the method. One of the more appealing aspects of the book is how the author includes real-world background on topics such as handwriting analysis, describing how it was used to capture the New York Zodiac killer and to clinch the case against the Lindbergh baby kidnapper.

Sherlock Holmes was knowledgeable about several sciences, most notably chemistry. Therefore the book takes a close look at Holmes the chemist and discusses, for example, chemical poisons such as carbon monoxide, chloroform, and Prussic acid (the historical name for hydrogen cyanide). The author also debunks Isaac Asimov’s famous assertion that Holmes was a blundering chemist. In addition, the book discusses mathematics, physics, biology, astronomy, meteorology, and geology, always in the context of Holmes’s exploits.

ScienceThrillers Review:

The Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking the Case with Science and Forensics by university professor James O’Brien is a systematic discussion of the science and mathematics used by that most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. O’Brien addresses both the real-life knowledge and ideas of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes’ creator, and the expertise of the character as shown by his actions or by the comments of Dr. Watson. The expertise and academic interests of both author and character change over time.

The Scientific Sherlock Holmes is more of a book about Sherlock Holmes than it is a book about science. Written in a readable but formal academic style, this book will appeal primarily to the hard-core Sherlock Holmes fan, a person who knows the story canon inside and out. Nevertheless, as a person who has read only a couple of Holmes tales in my life, I found the discussions of Holmes’ exploits fascinating and am now motivated to read more of them.

O’Brien divides the book first into sections focusing on main characters (Holmes, Watson, the archenemy Moriarty, Holmes’ brother, Watson’s wife, etc.). Then he gets to the heart of what this reader was looking for: the science of Sherlock Holmes. These chapters are organized by academic field, with sections devoted to forensics (fingerprints, footprints, handwriting analysis), chemistry (phosphorus and the Hound of the Baskervilles, amalgams and acids), use of microscopes and magnifying lenses, mathematics (Euclidean geometry, probability, mental math calculations), astronomy, and more. The author includes anecdotes from the Holmes stories and puts the science in the context of real-world cases in which such techniques were used.  O’Brien also makes reference to essays written by Isaac Asimov criticizing Doyle’s/Holmes’ errors in chemistry; by and large, O’Brien is a big Holmes fan and apologist, looking for ways to explain how Holmes was right even when he appears to be wrong. (Reminded me of Star Trek fans who try to explain science fiction phenomena as fact.)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a medical school graduate and ahead of his time in some of these scientific techniques and ideas. For one thing, he makes Holmes a drug addict (cocaine and opium) and shows disapproval for this at a time when some believed these drugs to be beneficial. As Doyle aged he became less a student of science and more obsessed with spiritualism. This alteration in the author’s world-view is reflected in the stories, as later Holmes stories contain less science.

Summary: An enjoyable work of literary analysis focused on the science and math of Sherlock Holmes. Primary audience is Sherlock Holmes fans with an interest in science, but anyone acquainted with the Holmes series and an interest in forensics may find this an intriguing book to page through.

FCC disclaimer: An advance reader copy of this book was given to me for review. As always, I made no guarantee that I would read the book or post a positive review.

This entry was posted in Books, Full reviews, New releases and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.