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CSI: Sherlock Holmes?

How the fictional detective meshed with the forensic science of his times.

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Most people have heard of the world's greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes. But many may not know that Holmes, a fictional character, engaged in activities that were quite real.

How so? The detective's creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, had an intense interest in the budding field of forensics. Doyle was inspired by Dr. Joseph Bell, a forensics expert, to study all aspects of an individual, and use science and deductive reasoning as intellectual tools. This in turn helped shape Holmes's character, and made the sleuth appear more lifelike than any fictional character before him.

Yet, this revelation about Holmes only scratches the surface. E.J. Wagner, a well-known crime historian and lecturer, has taken it one step further.

In her fascinating book, The Science of Sherlock Holmes, Wagner juxtaposes some of Holmes's famous cases with a number of real mysteries, and finds some surprising similarities. She sets Holmes's work in the context of the forensics of his time and proves that the detective's scientific mind was more than a mere work of fiction.

Wagner notes that Holmes "demanded acute observation, accurate data, and careful method." Holmes followed the purest code of logic and ethics to crack a case. His reasoning and knowledge were extremely high. He was a master of disguise, had an eye for detail, and, as the author noted, "practiced detection with the adroit help of Conan Doyle."

Interestingly, there were people in Holmes's time very much like the fictional detective. Wagner points to Eugène François Vidocq, in whose amazing life it was "difficult to separate fact from fiction." A former criminal turned detective, Vidocq was a master of disguise - like Holmes - and had a keen sense of observation. He collected data on the criminals he investigated and could successfully change his physical features and appearance. He trained former criminals to work for him, created the world's first private detective agency, and helped improve fingerprinting techniques and crime scenes analysis.

There was also Henry Goddard, an "intelligent, well organized, and intuitive" British detective. Goddard was involved in many cases, including the burglary and attempted murder of Mrs. Maxwell at her Southampton home. He discovered some unusual inconsistencies, including the shape of bullets supposedly fired from a gun discovered at the crime scene. In the end, as Wagner wrote, the detective "remains forever inscribed in forensic history as the man who proved that the butler did it."

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