Thursday, February 7, 2013

James O'Brien's "The Scientific Sherlock Holmes"

Jim O'Brien is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Missouri State University. A lifelong fan of Holmes, O'Brien presented his paper "What Kind of Chemist Was Sherlock Holmes" at the 1992 national American Chemical Society meeting, which resulted in an invitation to write a chapter on Holmes the chemist in the book Chemistry and Science Fiction. O'Brien has since given over 120 lectures on Holmes and science.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking the Case with Science and Forensics, and reported the following:
How distressing! The Scientific Sherlock Holmes fails the page 99 test. On that page a figure takes up so much space that there is room for only four full sentences and a partial one. So I am proposing an update to Ford Madox Ford’s dictum. Read nine page nines and then decide about a book.

In my book page 9 compares the author of the Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to the writer who influenced him most, Edgar Allan Poe. Conan Doyle “borrowed” plots from Poe’s detective tales.

Page 19 shows the deductive Holmes at his best. He amazes the recently arrived John Hector McFarlane with these words:
“You mentioned your name as if I should recognize it, but I assure you, that beyond the obvious facts that you are a bachelor, a solicitor, a Freemason, and an asthmatic, I know nothing whatever about you.”
On page 29 we see how differently Holmes and Watson view women. Here are their descriptions of her in The Second Stain.
Watson: “the most lovely woman in London; a queenly figure.”

Holmes: “Think of her appearance Watson – her manner, her suppressed excitement, her restlessness, her tenacity in asking questions.”
Page 49 gives us a glimpse of Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older, indolent brother. The strange Mycroft is so unsociable that he is a founding member of the Diogenes Club, where no speaking is allowed.

Page 59 finds Holmes brilliantly using footprint evidence around Boscombe Pool to solve the murder.

Three famous cases of the twentieth century have been called the crime of the century. On page 69 we learn that they are the Lindbergh baby kidnapping of 1932, the Alger Hiss espionage case of 1950, and the O. J. Simpson case of 1994.

Once again on page 79 we see the influence of Poe on Conan Doyle. This time it is his use of cryptograms in The Gold Bug. Conan Doyle himself stated that “all cryptogram solving yarns trace back to” Poe’s story. Holmes deals with a similar code in The Dancing Men.

Finally, on page 89 we learn that the brilliant Holmes is ignorant of basic facts of astronomy.

If Ford Madox Ford read only page 99 of The Scientific Sherlock Holmes, he probably would not have read the whole book. But I think he would have enjoyed it if he did.
Learn more about The Scientific Sherlock Holmes at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue