On Tuesday, Dec. 17 (check local listings), PBS airs “How Sherlock Changed the World,” a two-hour examination of the ways in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s late-19th-century fictional consulting detective Sherlock Holmes has had an impact on crime investigation right down to the present day.
Doyle’s chief inspiration is believed to have been medical lecturer and forensic science pioneer Joseph Bell, whom Doyle met in 1877 when he went to work as Bell’s clerk at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary in Scotland. Bell’s method of using close observation and logic to come to conclusions impressed Doyle, himself a physician, who incorporated much of this into the character of Holmes.
For example, Holmes pioneered the use of ballistics, including bullet trajectory.
In the special, Jonathan Ferguson, curator of firearms for the Royal Armouries in the U.K., says, “Sherlock anticipates the abilities that modern forensic science has, that we can actually now convict criminals on the basis of scientific evidence. And Sherlock was there at the beginning, doing that in fiction.”
Holmes also used a forerunner of modern toxicology to detect poisons, and he analyzed shoe prints to determine a person’s build and gait.
Most memorable for many readers was how Holmes combined his minute observations of crime scenes and individuals with deductive reasoning to finally explain the crime and identify the perpetrator — who would usually be whisked off to jail by an obliging Inspector Lestrade from Scotland Yard.
While Holmes’ guiding principles still are useful in criminal investigation, unfortunately, the modern methods of criminal prosecution could very well stymie Holmes, if not get him in real trouble.
Forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee, a longtime Holmes fan who’s featured in the special, has just come off a long day of testifying in a homicide case.
“Basically,” he says, “my testimony relates to the crime scene, how this happened. I used a lot of Sherlock Holmes logic and let the evidence speak for itself.”
But Lee also had to back that logic up with a lot more than a witty and detailed explanation, which Holmes would probably never be allowed to fully give in court.
“As scientists,” says Lee, “we just look at the evidence. However, because we’re just part of the system, the police, the defense attorney, each side only wants part of the evidence. Nobody wants to know the whole story.
“So when we testify in court, we can only answer the attorney, whatever questions. We cannot volunteer. If you turn to the judge and say, ‘I want to say more,’ you cannot say more.”
Also, to take the stand as an expert witness, you’d better have your papers in order.
“Today,” he says, “[Holmes] is going to have a hard time to testify. Today, you have to first qualify. You have to have certain training. In the books, Watson was the one with medical training, and Sherlock Holmes really does not say how much training he has.
“The first thing an attorney questioning him would ask: ‘What’s your training?’ Second thing: ‘Are you qualified?’ Third thing: ‘Have you passed your certification class?’ The fourth thing: Does he belong to any professional organizations; has he published any books or papers? That’s the qualification part.
“The second part of questioning: ‘What type of scientific process do you observe? What’s your hypothesis, and did you do an experiment to prove it?’ “
Most of the time in Holmes’ world, when he rattles off his theory of the crime, people are so dazzled with his logic that they believe him. Even if it wouldn’t necessarily hold up in court, Lee believes understanding that logic is vital.
“His logic is so wonderful,” Lee says. “He peels away layer after layer after layer, and we see it makes sense. It’s a wonderful book to read to learn logic, which is why I encourage all my students to be reading that, to make your mind work.
“How to think about the crime scene, how to observe, how to preserve evidence, how to do the analysis – it’s just wonderful.”
But Lee wouldn’t want his students to emulate everything that Holmes does.
“Many things he does,” he says, “if I did that, I’d probably get arrested, because he stresses somebody, interrogates somebody, uses force, grabs someone by the collar … the type of thing that, in the 19th century, early part of 20th century, is perfectly legal. But if you did it today … .”
Even so, Holmes may have made the world a better place for justice by increasing the respect for objective scientific evidence, which now is considered generally more reliable than eyewitness testimony or confessions.
Viewers will get a chance to watch the great detective at work in 21st-century London on Jan 19, 2014, as PBS’ “Masterpiece” airs a new season of the modernized, special-effects-enhanced “Sherlock” starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson.