Friday, 6 June 2014

Sensation Defeats Science of Deduction

 “You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin. I had no idea such individuals did exist outside of stories.”
“Dupin was a very inferior fellow.”
“Have you read Gaboriau’s works? … Does Lecoq come up to your idea of a detective?”
“Lecoq was a miserable bungler, … he had only one thing to recommend him, and that was his energy. That book made me positively ill.”

This conversation takes place at 221b Baker Street in chapter one of A Study in Scarlet (1887), very soon after Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson have come together to share lodgings. Holmes’s view of his (equally) fictional colleagues is scathing.

In 1886, Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was a 27-year-old, newly married GP in Southsea, Portsmouth. He had published a few short stories in magazines and he was dreaming of greater literary fame.

“At the time I first thought of a detective – it was about 1886 – I had been reading some detective stories, and it struck me what nonsense they were, to put it mildly, because for getting the solution of the mystery the authors always depended on some coincidence. …. I read half-a-dozen or so detective stories, both in French and English, and they one and all filled me with dissatisfaction.” (“A Gaudy Death” in Tit-Bits, December 15 1900)

It is widely recognized that Conan Doyle used his medical training at Edinburgh University to his advantage here. The surgeon Joseph Bell is perhaps best known as the model for Holmes’s feats of drawing spectacular conclusions from almost invisible details of mundane life. Holmes’s first words to Watson, “How are you? … You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” (A Study in Scarlet, Chapter 1) are an illustration of his skills. Bell may have given Holmes his analytical eye for detail, toxicologist Sir Robert Christison (1797-1882) (he is my personal favourite of Victorian Edinburgh professors), who is much less known as an influence on Holmes, gave the detective a truly flamboyant flair for experimentation.

Stamford mentions to Watson that Holmes “has been beating the subjects in the dissecting rooms with a stick … to verify how far bruises may be produced after death.” (A Study in Scarlet, Chapter 1). This is exactly what Sir Robert Christison did during the Burke and Hare case in 1829 in order to determine the cause of death of the body-snatchers’ last victim. Stamford and Watson find Holmes in St. Bartholomew’s chemical laboratory, where Holmes has just created a reliable test for identifying blood stains. “the Sherlock Holmes test,” of which we hear no more. (Ibid.) Christison was also involved in experiments with blood. Stamford says of Holmes:

“Holmes is a little too scientific for my tastes – it approaches cold-bloodedness. I could imagine his giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects. To do him justice, I think that he would take it himself with the same readiness.” (Ibid.)

Again, Holmes here seems to be channelling the scientific spirit of Sir Robert Christison, whose cocaine experiments in 1875 (published in 1876) were world-famous. He took the drug himself and also sent his students, fortified with cocaine, to climb up Ben Nevis, in order to measure the stimulating and strengthening effects of the drug. Sherlock Holmes himself, of course, also uses cocaine in The Sign of Four (1890), although not in A Study in Scarlet. Much more could be said of Sherlock Holmes and drugs, but I will save that for my paper at the 6th annual conference of the Victorian Popular Fiction Association 6-8 July 2014 (link:
Sir Robert Christion's portrait at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.
(Sir Robert Christison’s sons edited The Life of Sir Robert Christison, in two volumes, 1885 – just in time to inspire the creation of Sherlock Holmes).

Shelock Holmes was going to be a new kind of a scientific detective. He would not rely on instinct or fate or luck. He would not even rely on that good old basis of police work: knowing the criminal fraternity. Conan Doyle’s detective was going to be superior, his methods scientific and his approach rational. The reader would be able to follow the detective’s reasoning, which would all be based on evidence presented in the narrative. Conan Doyle had Holmes practice, indeed develop, the Science of Deduction.

A Study in Scarlet progresses almost like a scientific formula for the detective genre. The chapter headings from the beginning run as follows: “Mr Sherlock Holmes,” “The Science of Deduction,” “The Lauriston Garden Mystery,” “What John Rance Had to Tell.” The chapter headings reflect a straight forward plot-progression: introduction of the detective hero, an explanation of his scientific method, statement of a case to which this method will be applied and then demonstration of this application starting with an interview of a witness.

I would now ask you to perform an experiment. We can call this the “Edwin Drood –test.” Read A Study in Scarlet until you get to the end of chapter Six in Part Two. Stop before chapter Seven “The Conclusion” and examine your state of mind. Then answer this simple question: do you really need to keep on reading? Would A Study in Scarlet be just as good, just as entertaining and thrilling, even if the last chapter was missing and the story was unfinished?

In the very last chapter of A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes explains his masterful, clever deductions that allowed him to figure out who the culprit is. I am tentatively forwarding the hypothesis that you do not really care how Holmes did it. The charm and power of A Study in Scarlet is not in Holmes’s science of deduction. In fact, there is nothing more boring that reading about Holmes pontificating upon the significance of cigarette ash or square-toed boot-prints. Holmes’s deductions from hats, cuffs, calloused hands and handwriting simply do not make good reading. This may be for two reasons: first, there is no action and excitement in it because the analysis often leads simply to descriptions of external circumstances of characters. Secondly, they are retrospective and explain events after the fact. They tell a narrative of something that has already taken place within the scope of the narrative. We do not make the discoveries with Holmes. He examines the murder scene in A Study in Scarlet in chapter three, but we get his reading of the scene only in the very last chapter of the book. The delay is too long and we are no longer interested.
If Conan Doyle’s aim was to create a new kind of a scientific detective who wows his audience by his science of deduction, and does not pull a solution to the mystery out of thin air like most of his predecessors in sensation fiction, he failed spectacularly. I would like to suggest that A Study in Scarlet (and also the next Holmes novel The Sign of Four) does not succeed because Holmes’s method of detection is fascinating and engaging for the reader. They succeed because they tell exciting stories of crime, romance, mystery and adventure. Holmes stories are exciting not so much because of Holmes's detective skills, but because of the circumstances where he gets to exercise those skills. In short, Conan Doyle’s detective stories are so good because they are sensational. A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four are very much sensation novels.