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The Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking the Case with Science and Forensics

by by James O'Brien

Publishers Weekly O'Brien, emeritus distinguished professor of chemistry at Missouri State University, delves deep into the science behind Sherlock Holmes in this brief and engaging volume. The book is clearly aimed at Holmes aficionados-each of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 60 stories featuring the detective are referenced via accepted Holmesian shorthand (e.g., "ABBE" for "The Abbey Grange")-yet the author treats his subject and his associates (Doctor Watson, the long-suffering Mrs. Hudson, and Holmes's bete noir, Professor Moriarty) with obvious affection, and it's catching-his journey into Sherlockian science is both endearing and informative. O'Brien discusses Holmes's investigative acumen according to categories of evidence (e.g., finger- and footprints, hand- and typewritten documents) and provides interesting real-life examples of crimes solved with similar techniques, such as the New York Zodiac killings and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. O'Brien, a loyal fellow test-tuber, devotes significant energy to defending Holmes against criticisms that he was a sorry chemist, and while the asides are interesting, the intensely detailed science behind the apologia might turn off casual readers. Nevertheless, the scientific rigor with which both scribe and subject approach their tasks is abundantly evident. Illus. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Sherlock Holmes is one of the most recognized fictional characters in history, still appearing today in a number of media. Even casual readers of the Holmes "canon" have surely noticed the emphasis on science, as either the primary focus or at least in brief mention. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author, was trained as a physician, which accounts for Holmes's prowess as a deductive scientist. O'Brien (emer., Missouri State), a recognized Holmes expert, begins with a biography of Conan Doyle, followed by "biographies" of Holmes; his companion, Dr. Watson; and their archenemy, Moriarty. Succeeding chapters cover the breadth of sciences employed by Holmes, including math, anatomy, botany, physics, optics, astronomy, geology, meteorology, and especially chemistry (the specialty of this book's author). The chapter on Holmes's forensic methods includes discussions of Bertillon measurements, fingerprints, footprints, handwriting, and cryptology--many of which crime fighters use today. The 60 Holmes stories are cited throughout with a terse but effective four-letter code. One need not be a scientist or a previous Holmes fan to enjoy this book. It is well suited to general courses like "Chemistry for Poets" or courses on forensics or history of chemistry, or academic book clubs. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduates, two-year technical program students, and general readers. R. E. Buntrock formerly, University of Maine

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.

Book list Combining two popular topics, the uses of science in criminal investigations and literature's most famed detective, O'Brien surveys and appraises the scientific ability of Sherlock Holmes. As he inventories such Holmes-story crime-scene clues as footprints, ciphers, and poisons, O'Brien informs his readers of controversies among Holmes fans concerning their hero's powers of scientific deduction. Sf author Isaac Asimov, for example, criticized Holmes as a bad chemist, which O'Brien, a chemistry professor by occupation, largely refutes, though with concessions to Asimov on particular points. Overall, O'Brien praises Holmes, or rather his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, as in scientific step with his times, at least until Doyle seemingly killed off Holmes and his archenemy, Dr. Moriarty, in The Final Problem, in 1893. Although Doyle deployed science when he revived Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901), O'Brien holds that scientific sophistication degraded in the later stories, which O'Brien links to a lessening in their literary quality, compared to that of the earlier ones. Nevertheless, the scientific intricacies of O'Brien's analyses should pique the timeless interest in the cases of Sherlock Holmes.--Taylor, Gilbert Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright American Library Association. Used with permission.