E.J Wagner’s The Science of Sherlock Holmes, is a treat for lovers of Sherlock Holmes stories and the Victorian era. It’s a fascinating and manageable look at the investigative methods active in Doyle’s time. Through her work, we can see Holmes’s character as a touchstone of investigative behavior for most of us, the sleuth above every other, the forerunner of Star Trek’s Spock, coldly logical, brilliant beyond normal human capacity, an intellectual superhero, in essence. Wagner’s gift to Doyle’s readers is that she creates a picture of typical criminal investigation in those halcyon days, with Holmes representing the cutting edge of scientific analysis, even when such things pale in comparison to today’s technology and what we know—or think we know—about criminal behavior and forensic sciences. She shows us, like Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss in Sherlock, why and how much we need Sherlock Holmes.
Wagner’s encyclopedic knowledge of forensic’s history offers, too, a look at the manner in which western culture worships technical knowledge. Sometimes, that leaves us looking at Doyle’s contemporaries and wondering how they got on with things by such primitive, to us, means. Most of Wagner’s anecdotes show how Doyle’s contemporaries considered what they knew to be true and acted on it as if it were fact, much like we do. In essence, Wagner gives us a clear view of Victorians acting fairly much as we do, especially when we employ technological advances because we can, not because we should. We might know more science than they did, but we are no more intelligent about its role in our lives.
The Science of Sherlock Holmes offers wonderful factual nuggets about crime, criminals, and the practice of law enforcement in a time when police work was in its infancy. From the Bow Street Runners, the thief-takers who were the progenitors of London’s Metropolitan Police and Scotland Yard, to Vidocq, the charismatic criminal who became the founder of the French Surete, Wagner weaves fact after fact into the fabric of Doyle’s time and the exploits of his Consulting Detective. She shows us Holmes in comparison to the real people of that time who sought solutions to cases of murder and intrigue through the practical applications of scientific knowledge.
Consider her discussion of “phrenology,” the science of studying the formation of a person’s skull. We might be willing to laugh at the Victorians for believing that the lumps on a man’s noggin allow us to predict his potential for criminal behavior. Wagner is quick to show the classist assumptions behind these theories and chide Holmes for reflecting them. However, we live in an age of ‘alternative facts,’ which serve people’s desire to make true what they wish to be true for the sake of expediency. See? We are still seeking to make true what we wish to believe about people and the world. Holmes never wishes for the truth: he discovers it.
Wagner’s book, beyond the charm of the author’s wit and style, presents Holmes as that icon without which we cannot see ourselves as better. Holmes will not stoop to guesswork. Beyond being a “reasoning machine,” as Watson first gives him to us, Holmes will not allow himself to descend to petty self-interest, even if he uses phrenological theories from time to time, for Holmes is committed to revealing the true narrative of whatever problem or crime confronts him. Holmes is always willing to question how we know what we know, the epistemology of things. And thus, Holmes always stands above the failings involved in assuming the truth of things we think we know.
Wagner’s book, I think, makes a great read especially for fans of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. We recognize that, even as a high functioning sociopath, as he says about himself more than once in that series, Holmes’s unmatched intellectual efforts are always pitted against those who would prey on us with falsehoods. He may be impossible to live with, but we know that he will never abandon the search for truth, even when it is convenient to just think that what is already known is enough. Wagner’s book allows us to see why we need Holmes now as much as ever.