Sherlock Holmes, Scientific Detective

The Grolier Club, a private society for bibliophiles on the Upper East Side, with its marble foyer and dark wood-panelled gallery, would be a fine stage for a nineteenth-century fictional murder, perhaps done in the library with a candlestick, most certainly involving a will. On January 12th, an exhibit called “Sherlock Holmes in 221 Objects” opened there. It features a proper Baker Street-number of items from the collection of Glen S. Miranker, a former executive at Apple, who has been buying all manner of things Holmesian since 1977. There are a number of Arthur Conan Doyle’s letters; an “idea book” in which he jotted notes for possible future stories; and a never-before-displayed speech, written by hand, in which Conan Doyle talks about why he killed off Holmes. There are also handwritten manuscript pages and a pirated copy of “The Sign of the Four,” which Conan Doyle apparently signed, despite loathing the pirating practice.

Two Holmes novels receive special attention in the show: “A Study in Scarlet” (1887) and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1902). The former is the novel that introduced the scientific detective Holmes to the world. The latter is the one that came nearly a decade after Conan Doyle’s apparent killing off of Holmes. When “The Hound of the Baskervilles” came out, readers waited outside the offices of The Strand Magazine, where the novel appeared serially, and reportedly offered bribes for advance copies. But the Holmes we meet in the 1887 novel is notably different from the Holmes of the 1902 novel. And the Holmes who is famously knocked off in the short story “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” from 1893, is distinct from the Holmes who returns from apparent death in the short story “The Adventure of the Empty House,” which is set primarily in 1894 but was published in 1903. He’s a different kind of scientist, one who seems to live in a world that has a more problematic relationship with scientific advances.

The young Conan Doyle loved reading detective stories. Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin stories and Émile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq stories (which, sadly, are now mostly forgotten) were among his favorites—and both are mentioned dismissively by Holmes in “A Study in Scarlet.” Reflecting on his creation of Holmes, Conan Doyle once said, “I began to think of turning scientific methods, as it were, onto the work of detection. . . . I thought to myself, If a scientific man . . . was to come into the detective business, he wouldn’t do these things by chance. He’d get the thing by building it up scientifically. So . . . you can well imagine that I had, as it were, a new idea of the detective—and one which it interested me to work out.” If you look at how Holmes evolves across time, you can watch this working out in narrative form. You get a moving image, as if on one of those old phenakistoscopes, of the scientist in both the popular imagination of nineteenth-century England and in the particular imagination of Conan Doyle.

What characterizes Holmes in his earliest appearances? “A Study in Scarlet” begins with Watson, who, having returned from war service in Afghanistan, finds himself in London with “neither kith nor kin,” living on “eleven shillings and sixpence a day.” He is looking to rent a room. A friend mentions that he knows someone looking for a roommate: “A fellow who is working at the chemical laboratory up at the hospital.” The friend admits that he finds the potential roommate “a little too scientific for my tastes—it approaches to cold-bloodedness.” Conan Doyle then uses an anecdote from his own medical training, when he ingested a mild poison, as a trait for his new invention: “I could imagine his giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of the spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects.” The potential roommate has also been seen beating corpses in the dissection room—so as to study how long after death bruises can be produced.

Watson meets the potential roommate (Sherlock Holmes, of course) in a lab crowded with test tubes, bottles, and Bunsen burners. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” Holmes says, in one of his first lines of dialogue. Holmes’s powers of deduction make this scientific man seem magical. Also menacing. He is celebrating having developed a test that can detect even the faintest traces of blood. He asks Watson if he would be O.K. living with the smell of strong tobacco, chemicals and experiments, and a roommate who sometimes goes days without speaking. Remarkably, Watson cheerfully agrees.

He’s not a roommate most of us would choose.

Conan Doyle was born in 1859 to a loving mother and a difficult, alcoholic father. For parts of his childhood, he lived in squalor, but he was later supported by wealthy uncles who paid for his schooling. As a young man, he was particularly enamored of science, and found his secondary schooling stilted and backward. He went to the University of Edinburgh and trained as a physician. In his autobiography, he recalled fondly the years “when Huxley, Tyndall, Darwin, Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill were our chief philosophers, and even the man in the street felt the strong sweeping current of their thought, while to the young student, eager and impressionable, it was overwhelming.” He even wrote some science fiction.

When Conan Doyle came up with Sherlock Holmes, he modelled him in large part on Joseph Bell, a medical-school professor Doyle studied under, worked for, and greatly admired. Like Holmes, Bell used careful observation to make deductions about his patients and stressed how much could be known even before a patient spoke. “Cobbler, I see,” he would say, taking note of the worn spot on a patient’s trousers which corresponded with the lapstone a cobbler uses to stretch and hammer leather. In another example, which Doyle and other students witnessed, a patient came in to see Bell for treatment for early-stage elephantiasis. Bell deduced that the man had served in the Army, had been discharged not long before, had been a noncommissioned officer, and had been stationed in Barbados—all of which the man confirmed. After the patient left, Bell explained that the man hadn’t removed his hat—a sign of a military man who had not yet transitioned into civilian habits—that his air of authority indicated that he was an N.C.O., and that elephantiasis was not a disease you could catch in England.

Doyle had been sending out stories before he created Holmes, but “they came back to me as straight and true as homing pigeons,” he said. Why was his scientific detective so wildly beloved? The literary scholar Franco Moretti, in his book “Signs Taken for Wonders,” points out that the Holmes stories were celebrated during a time of great social change in England. Moretti notes that the villains in detective fiction tend most often to be “one of two major sociological types: the noble and the upstart”—figures that want to speed up or reverse change. In this light, Holmes is a stabilizer. Moretti also argues that the crimes that protagonists like Holmes investigate are singular—a rare, interesting murder case, for example—and solvable, and in this way reassuring, like a cure.

But what of the detective being not merely ingenious, but scientific? In the time of the earlier Holmes stories, the Kodak Brownie camera was making photography available to the masses; X rays were seeing through the body; light bulbs were countering the night; snowflakes were being photographed for the first time; the Antarctic was being explored; Francis Galton was advocating eugenics. Science was a wonder; science was a terror. This ambivalence tilts one way, then another. By the time of the later Holmes stories, England had experienced the mechanical nightmares of the First World War.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” was the first Holmes story that Conan Doyle had published in years, but it is set before “The Final Problem.” Conan Doyle revived the stories before he fully committed to reviving the detective.

Holmes has evolved quite a bit from his first appearance. He remains exceptional at deducing a person’s attributes from small hints like a watch charm and untidy attire. But his scientific side is less present. In “A Study in Scarlet,” he had used an ill dog to confirm his conjecture that only one of two pills found at a murder scene was poisonous—the dog’s convulsive death is described in detail. In later stories, Holmes speaks of things he knows but cannot prove, sets up optical illusions like a magician, and reveals that he is a master in a Japanese martial art he calls Baritsu. He’s more of a Harry Houdini than a scientist.

Meanwhile, Holmes’s enemy, Moriarty, is presented as a sort of Holmes gone wrong. Moriarty, though he seems eternal, appears for the first time in “The Final Problem.” The reader learns that this nemesis is, like Holmes, “extremely tall and thin . . . ascetic looking, retaining something of the professor in his features.” Moriarty had a brilliant career in mathematics, but left it behind because he had “hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind.” Holmes explains to Watson that, in order to imagine what Moriarty would do next, he need only imagine what he, Holmes, would do next. Moriarty is a mirror, but also a foil—Conan Doyle is shifting Holmes toward what he sees as the side of the good. And Holmes remarks to Watson that he wants to get out of the detective business, if he can secure the capture and conviction of Moriarty and his gang. “Of late I have been tempted to look into the problems furnished by nature rather than those more superficial ones for which our artificial state of society is responsible.”

Conan Doyle had long been interested in spiritualism—a movement that believed in the ability to communicate with spirits, who had wisdom to impart—but, in the early years of Holmes, his interest was gently scientific. He remarked of spirits, for example, that he could no more say that they didn’t exist than he could say that lions didn’t exist in Africa simply because he’d been to Africa and hadn’t met any. But, as the years passed, his devotion to spiritualism became so strong that he would hold to it even when the mediums were debunked and spirit photography was revealed as a trick. He published his last Holmes story in 1927, and he remained devoted to spiritualism. He wrote nonfiction books, such as “The Coming of the Fairies,” “The Edge of the Unknown,” and the two-volume “The History of Spiritualism.” His second wife, Jean, was a medium, and the couple was often in communication with a spirit named Pheneas, who gave them, among other things, travel advice.

In 1922, Conan Doyle embarked on an American lecture tour, defending spiritualism from its attackers. Houdini also made public appearances related to spiritualism—debunking séances and all other aspects of the movement. Despite their differences, Houdini and Conan Doyle were friends for a time. Conan Doyle tried to convince Houdini of the reality of spiritualism; Jean led a séance that Houdini attended, in which Jean channelled Houdini’s dead mother, drawing a cross followed by pages of her testimony written in English. Houdini, who was very close to his mother, was unconvinced. He didn’t think that his mother, who did not speak English and was Jewish, would put crosses at the top of her testimony.

Houdini’s attempt to bring Conan Doyle back more fully into the realm of science also failed. He wanted to show, by his earthbound tricks, that he could reproduce the various famous effects of spiritualists, one of them being automatic writing. He asked Conan Doyle to go outside and write a message on paper. Conan Doyle wrote “mene mene tekel upharsin.” Those words, which are from the Book of Daniel in the Bible, are what a ghostly hand writes on a plaster wall as the king and all his friends eat and drink from looted vessels; the “writing on the wall” in that moment is the prophecy of the king’s downfall. Houdini “magically” made the words Conan Doyle had written on paper appear. He said that it was just a magic trick he’d been working on; Conan Doyle didn’t believe him. He was now certain that Houdini had a connection to the spiritual world.

Holmes never wanders as far from science as Conan Doyle did. In “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” he is dismissive of the lore about a supernatural hound serially killing members of a local family. And the Holmes stories, with all the variable Holmeses within them, have proved an effective balm ever since—a medicinal concoction made by scientific methods of observation. Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote to Conan Doyle:

I hope you will allow me to offer you my compliments on your very ingenious and very interesting adventures of Sherlock Holmes. That is the class of literature I like when I have the toothache. As a matter of fact, it was a pleurisy I was enjoying when I took the volume up; and it will interest you as a medical man to know that the cure was for the moment effectual. . . . Only the one thing troubles me: can this be my old friend Joe Bell?”

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