Posts Tagged ‘Sherlock Holmes’

The Science of Sherlock Holmes audio

May 11, 2011

Happy to tell you that a new audio version of The Science of Sherlock Holmes is available.
The original had a few technical glitches now repaired. will replace the old version free of charge if you contact them.
Sample of audio is here;
(That’s me narrating 🙂 )

The French Connection of Sherlock Holmes

February 25, 2011

by E. J. Wagner

This article first appeared in Canadian Holmes, The Journal of the Bootmakers of Toronto (for subscription information see their web site) – Volume 33 Number 2, Winter 2010/2011 – the illustrations here were included with the article in that issue and are reproduced here with the permission of the publisher.

E. J. Wagner is an American crime historian, lecturer and the author of the Edgar®-winning The Science of Sherlock Holmes.

In 1910, the criminal courts of Lyon were housed in the old Palais de Justice, which has a cornerstone laid in 1835. It was an enormous and impressive building, boasting an elegant entrance and a sweeping exterior staircase that ran the down to the SaĂ´ne river.

A much less salubrious door in the rear of the building led to cramped jail cells, rank with the smell of mold and despair. Next to the cells lay cluttered rooms bursting with massive police files, which included exacting dossiers on anyone who had ever suffered the misfortune of attracting the attention of the French police.

Just off the file room, a creaking staircase twisted up three stories to the pair of attic rooms newly assigned to the experimental cause of forensic investigation. These were equipped with a microscope, a spectroscope, a collection of basic chemicals, and a Bunsen burner. Presiding over the Lilliputian space was a slim man whose aquiline nose and hooded eyes lent him the keen expression of a benign hawk.

His name was Edmond Locard. Within two years his small attic rooms would become world famous as the formidable Police Laboratory of Lyon, and he would earn the sobriquet of “The Sherlock Holmes of France.”

Born in 1877, Locard was a child of ten when The Great Detective made his initial appearance in A Study in Scarlet, and the two scientific investigators, one fictional and one very real, developed and matured simultaneously, Holmes often providing the source of the Frenchman’s inspiration. (Holmes, of course, had French forbears, and perhaps this made Locard find him particularly congenial.)

As eclectic in his interests as Holmes was, but more traditional in his pursuits of them, Locard acquired formal degrees in both medicine and law. He served an apprenticeship with the great forensic specialist Lacassagne, worked with the criminologist Bertillon in Paris, and traveled the world studying police investigation before he undertook the directorship of the tiny Lyon laboratory. Passionate and knowledgeable about music and theater, he wrote criticism of both for Lyon newspapers. A generous man, he repeatedly gave full credit to his fictional mentor.

In his 1929 paper on “The Analysis of Dust Traces,” Locard wrote:

I hold that a police expert, or an examining magistrate, would not find it a waste of his time to read Doyle’s novels. For, in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the detective is repeatedly asked to diagnose the origin of a speck of mud, which is nothing but moist dust. The presence of a spot on a shoe or pair of trousers immediately made known to Holmes the particular quarter of London from which his visitor had come, or the road he had traveled in the suburbs. A spot of clay and chalk originated in Horsham; a peculiar reddish bit of mud could be found nowhere but at the entrance to the post office in Wigmore Street.

And urging his readers to seriously study Holmes, Locard added:

One might profitably re-read . . . the stories entitled: A Study in Scarlet, The Five Orange Pips, and The Sign of Four. Elsewhere Holmes insists upon the interest and fascination to be found in collecting tobacco ashes . . . (The Boscombe Valley Mystery.) On the latter point one should again read The Sign of the Four, and also The Resident Patient.

Sharing Holmes’ regard for the importance of dust, Locard examined specimens gathered from unusual sources—including human ears, eyebrows and nostrils.

In one experiment, he was able to accurately discern the occupations of 92 of 100 individuals merely by careful analysis of dust gathered from their eyebrows—flour in the baker’s, soot in the chimney sweep’s, iron filings in the locksmith’s. (There is no record of what, if anything, was discovered in the eyebrows of an accountant.)

One hundred years ago forensic science was still a generalist’s field—and Locard, like Holmes, vigorously researched and wrote extensively about fingerprints, trace evidence, document examination, tobacco, seeds, insects, and other detritus found at crime scenes. His passion for experimentation led him to burn his own fingertips to determine if fingerprints can be permanently removed this way.  He painfully discovered they could not.

He was responsible for the incarceration of countless unpleasant persons—forgers, murderers, sexually repressed purveyors of poison pen letters, and enterprising thieves, including a burgling monkey with a penchant for jewelry.

Like Mr. Holmes, Locard was intensely interested in cryptology, and in September of 1914, much to the relief of the French Command he helped to break the German cipher, preventing an early French defeat.

In Locard’s seven volume study of forensic science, Traité de Criminalistique, he made the statement which has influenced generations of forensic investigators: “Il est impossible au malfaiteur d’agir avec l’intensité que suppose l’action criminelle sans laisser des traces de son passage” (It is impossible for a criminal to act considering the intensity of the crime, without leaving a trace).

This is often referred to as “Locard’s Exchange Principle” and sometimes given as “Every Contact Leaves Trace.” This abbreviated version, while true enough, neglects the emotional sensitivity of Locard’s observation—the idea that the criminal will be undone by his own tension and excitement.

One fine example of this is a celebrated train murder of 1864 in London, in which Franz Müller, having killed a fellow passenger, departed the scene carrying the victim’s hat, which he had mistakenly exchanged for his own easily identifiable one, left behind with the body.

A recent example is provided by the terrorist who, in May 2010, left a car loaded with explosives in New York City’s very busy Times Square. Evidently the “emotion of the moment” caused him to forget all his keys in the vehicle, leaving him unable to access either his getaway car, parked eight blocks away, or his domicile. As he also left his hazard lights on, the attention of the authorities was prompt. Locard, no doubt, would have smiled.

(How the tyro terrorist managed the feat of locating not one, but two free parking places in mid-Manhattan, remains a puzzlement.)

Edmond Locard died in 1966, but his work remains relevant and vital today, and tied forever to insights and adventures of Mr. Holmes. In May 2009, Dr. Locard was posthumously awarded a decoration in honor of his contributions to science.  It was given by the Société Sherlock Holmes de France.

Editor’s Note: E.J. Wagner’s website can be found at
Her web log is

“The Science of Sherlock Holmes” audio

October 6, 2010

The audio version of “Science of Sherlock Holmes” was just released by Audible. com and may be sampled here; ( that’s me narrating)

Dartmoor Ghosts and Sherlock Holmes’ Dissecting Room

September 26, 2010

September 29 2010, I’ll be at Mt Anthony Country Club in Bennington Vermont at 7 PM to tell adult haunting tales from Dartmoor and from Sherlock Holmes Dissecting Room.

It’s free, cash bar, book signing to follow (my very own The Science of Sherlock Holmes).  If you have a copy, bring it and I’ll sign it – if not, there will be a few copies  available for sale

The talk is sponsored by the Bennington Chamber of Commerce as  part of the Season of Mystery series.

BBC Radio Ulster interview

June 2, 2010

I was interviewed by BBC Radio Ulster’s “resident sleuth” David Booth via link to the BBC Manhattan studio.  Hear the interview, which was broadcast on 22 May 2010 to mark Arthur Conan Doyle’s 151st birthday.

Science of Sherlock Holmes and BBC

May 29, 2010

I did an interview for BBC about my book, The Science of  Sherlock Holmes, which was arranged the very same day it was taped. Although BBC promised to tell me time of broadcast, they didn’t, and I just found it via a Twitter post. The link is below.

The producer also promised me a tape so I could post in on my site-if it ever arrives, I shall do so.  In the meantime, here’s is the short-lived link…

Subject: BBC iPlayer Console – What’s Next: 22/05/2010
Program titled “What’s Next” hosted by Natasha Sayee and Newton Emerson.

starting at 6 minutes and 10 seconds into the program, lasting 4 minutes and 40 seconds
originally broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster on Saturday 22 May 2010
will be available on-line for only two more days.

Anthrax, Dr. Ivins, and the Missing Autopsy

March 29, 2010

On July 27, 2008, Dr. Bruce Ivins, the subject of intense investigation by the FBI in the anthrax poison case of 2001, was found unconscious in his Maryland home.  Removed by ambulance to the hospital, he died there on July 29.  Based on hospital blood tests and police reports, it was concluded that death was caused by an overdose of Tylenol® PM, and that the manner of death was suicide. No autopsy was performed, and the body was promptly cremated. Investigators insisted that evidence showed Dr. Ivins was the anthrax killer, that he acted alone, and that suicide implied guilt.

The lack of autopsy shows a curious lack of curiosity on the part of authorities. Autopsies are performed not only to establish the mechanism and manner of death, but to explore the health, condition and circumstances of the deceased prior to the terminal event.

Given Dr. Ivins’ history of bizarre behavior, the considered opinions of a forensic pathologist, a neuro-pathologist, and a forensic psychologist would have been appropriate. Was Tylenol® the only drug in the blood? Were disease processes present that might have accounted for his bizarre behavior?  If this were truly a case of suicide, was the pressure of scrutiny—rather than guilt—the trigger? Was this a matter of ignoring Sherlock Holmes famous directive “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. …”

On February 19, 2010, the US Department of Justice released a report which, it claimed, proved that Dr. Bruce Ivins, acting alone, committed the anthrax poisonings . The 92 page document (available at ends emphatically: “Based on the evidence set forth above, the investigation into the anthrax letter attacks of 2001 has been concluded.”

But the DOJ report is not evidence. It is a collection of statements and observations made by largely unidentified individuals, whose credibility is not established. Damning interpretations are placed on each of Dr. Ivins’ eccentric actions. Alternative possibilities are simply not considered.

The absence of an autopsy report was not mentioned. The lack of forensic attention in a case of such historic importance inevitably raises reasonable doubt as to the FBI’s conclusion.  Autopsies are routinely done even when the manner of death appears evident. Hospital investigations, orchestrated by personnel with no forensic training have a history of dangerous mistakes. The next post on this blog will delve into cases solved by autopsy.

E. J. Wagner – as always – pursuing verity

Pursuing Verity


Sherlock Holmes, The Fifth Servant, and the Ghetto of Prague

February 17, 2010

The Fifth Servant coverThe Fifth Servant, an extraordinary  new book by Kenneth Wishnia, takes us on a journey through the  murderous, twisted streets of 16th century Prague, in the company of a sardonic scholar named Benyamin Ben-Akiva.   As Charlotte  Gordon wrote  in the Jewish Journal:

“Think Sherlock Holmes with a dash of Woody Allen. Philip Roth and Stephen King. Mystery plus comedy. Detective novel meets Yiddish folk tale. Then add a little history and you have Kenneth Wishnia’s “The Fifth Servant” .. a smart funny page turner that I hated to see end. …Talmudic scholars, it turns out, are perfect detectives.  They’ve been trained to rely on reason and close observation, just like a certain denizen of Baker Street.”  (See the entire review at

Naturally, as a Sherlockian, I was intrigued by the book.  An interview with Kenneth Wishnia follows.  My questions, below, are in bold.  His answers are in plain type.

“The man who left the girl’s body was about 6 feet tall, and strong enough to lift ninety pounds with one arm,” announces Ben-Akiva as he examines the crime scene. Shades of Sherlock Holmes!  Are the Holmes stories a conscious influence?

I’m pretty sure the Holmes stories are a conscious influence on just about every crime writer since 1887.  But in my case, absolutely.  I read all the stories in the canon by 8th grade.

The main connection between my detective and the figure of Sherlock Holmes is that the Jews of Prague, who are hopelessly outnumbered, can’t possibly fight their way out of this problem: they have to think their way out of it.  And while there is some physical action in the novel (as indeed there is in the Holmes canon), my character’s primary approach to resolving the crisis is a triumph of ingenuity and deduction over superior numbers and firepower.

Students of the Talmud are encouraged  to make deductions based on what is present in the text, but also what is absent: “Inferences may be drawn not only from what is explicitly said . . . somewhat like  the famous dog who “did nothing in the nighttime.”

We all know that Sherlock Holmes’s mother was French (and presumably the source of the great detective’s occasional displays of emotion and romanticism).  Maybe she was part Jewish, as well?

When you began writing this book, did you know the identity of the murderer or did this gradually evolve in your mind?

I enjoy making discoveries along the way (some of the best passages are produced in this manner), but I always seem to know whodunit before I even start writing the first sentence.  And with a plot this complicated, I had to know where most of the threads were going way ahead of time.

The book draws on an unusually large number of sources—did you need a number of languages to research?

I read some articles in French and (with my Dad’s help) Yiddish, but I could have gotten away with English only in terms of research.  Being able to read a bit of Hebrew is extremely useful when you’re trying to read the Bible against the grain of 2,000 years of superimposed Christian interpretation.  But Modern Israeli Hebrew is pronounced differently, so when my characters quote the Bible in Hebrew, I needed to consult a linguistic expert on 16th century Ashkenazic pronunciation to advise me on how to transliterate the phrases accurately.  Maybe 2 percent of my readers would have spotted this, but I knew I still had to do it.

Has Jewish history, folklore and superstition been a long-time interest of yours?

Sure.  Ever since I married a devout Catholic 24 years ago. A few months before our wedding, I decided that I should learn something about my wife’s culture by reading the New Testament.  What followed was something like a reverse-Revelation: I realized that I already knew every significant moment in the Gospels.  In fact, I knew parts of the New Testament better than the Old Testament, simply because I grew up in the US, a society where the overarching culture is unmistakably Christian. I grew up in a secular household where the primary emblems of Jewish culture were bagels and Woody Allen movies—not a bad start. . . . So I bought a Hebrew Bible and started reading it while accompanying my wife to Mass.

The hero of The Fifth Servant has a very empathetic and romantic view of women. Do you share it? Why?

I’m pretty empathetic by nature, and I’ve written five novels from a woman’s  point of view (the Edgar- and Anthony-nominated Filomena Buscarsela series). It certainly helped that my Mom was one of the founders of the Women’s Studies program at SUNY Stony Brook.  So we were all brought up doing “women’s work” around the house, which may not sound like much, but two generations later, I have young men in my classes whose moms or girlfriends still do their laundry for them.

As for the romantic view of women, well, I am a guy, after all. . . . The main character, like so many fictional investigators, is an outsider in the world of the novel, and one of his principal desires is to belong to the world that surrounds him: he wants a deeper connection with his wife, and he wants to be accepted by the larger community.  This comes from deep within myself, but it is also part of the Jewish tradition: the Hebrew Bible views sex within the bounds of marriage as a joyful thing, and the Kabbalistic tradition considers it a mystical phenomenon with cosmic repercussions.  So it’s a fusion of my own feelings and traditional Jewish thought.

“Every act leaves a trace” you have  Rabbi Loew say, in The Fifth Servant. This is , of course, a form of  Locard’s principle,  a basic part of forensic science, and is usually stated as   “Every contact leaves a trace.”  Is there really a root for this in early Jewish tradition?

Indeed there is, though it is part of a mystical tradition rather than forensic science (I invented the link between the two).  Enough people out there are familiar with Rabbi Loew’s writings, so I had to stick fairly close to his beliefs and his manner of expressing himself.

Speaking of waterboarding, which you do in your book—which I know has a long and unpleasant history—what specifically was your source for this?

Oy vey iz mir.  Several sources, including R. Po-Chia Hsia’s The Myth of Ritual Murder, and the Museum of Torture in Prague, where I learned that the stocks, the strapada, and water torture were all considered “light” forms of punishment because they do not leave permanent physical damage (where have we heard THAT before?).  Unlike, say, the Brustzerreiser: a set of spiked iron clamps that were heated over the fire and then used to tear an accused witch’s breasts to pieces.  Of course, when those are your standards, I guess water torture is pretty “light” by comparison.

What struck me the most when reading the transcripts from blood libel torture sessions (the Germans kept very good records) was how utterly routine such torture was.  In fact, when I was planning the torture scene, the image in my head was two working stiffs casually going about their business while chatting about last night’s Yankee game.  Of course, I couldn’t use that, but I tried for the 16th century equivalent, while going out of my way NOT to describe ANY specific act of torture.  The horror is all in the reader’s mind.

Was your publisher/editor cool with your mention of the Prick from Prague?

No one said a word, so I guess a couple of jokes buried in the Acknowledgments were just fine with them.

Anything you would like to add?

On the subject of torture, as early as the 1520s, a German evangelical reformer named  Andreas Osiander wrote that “when a Jew is being tortured, it doesn’t matter whether he speaks the truth or not because his tormentors would not stop until they have heard what they want to hear.”  Sadly, very little has changed since then.

The “Other Sherlock Holmes” – A Review

February 1, 2010

The other “Sherlock Holmes” film has escaped from The Asylum, the company which admits to having perpetrated it.

This DVD production features amazingly rigid actors pretending to be Holmes and Watson, and assorted monsters, including a dinosaur whose gait calls to mind a reject from a line dancing class.

The script is witless, the suspense missing, the score canned (you’ve surely heard it before).  The film clearly had a budget smaller than a paramecium, and was shot in a fourteen day assault on Wales, a country which deserves a great deal better.

Full disclosure – I was asked to review this, and I didn’t pay for the DVD.

I watched it with my tech support husband Bill and our Resident Labrador Retriever, Dr. Watson.

Bill has forgiven me.

“The Sherlock Holmes Effect” Revisited

January 28, 2010

“The Sherlock Holmes Effect,” the panel discussion that I moderated at the Mid-Manhattan Library on January 26, was very well attended by an enthusiastic and attentive audience.

Our panel was somewhat different from the original plan, as illness and other difficulties forced last minute changes, but Charles Salzberg, Lyndsay Faye, and Marco Conelli were present and eloquent.

E. J., Lindsay Faye, and Marco Conelli - photo courtesy of Marco Conelli

Among the intriguing disclosures: Lyndsay Faye, author of Dust and Shadows, An Account of the Ripper Killings By Dr. John H. Watson, told us that she did not know whom she would identify as the Ripper until her book was sixty percent written—thus providing her as well as her readers with suspense.

Charles Salzberg, author of Swann’s Last Song, said he too was often surprised by his characters as he wrote, and noted that editors often had strong views about the endings of mysteries, and that writers were often forced to pay attention.

Marco Conelli, who writes the Young Adult series about “Matthew Livingston” and has another career as a NYPD detective, described  how, as an undercover cop, he had used make-up and disguise to infiltrate criminal organizations, just as Sherlock Holmes did.

E. J. and Marco Conelli - photo courtesy of Marco Conelli

In my turn I explained, how in researching historic crimes for my book, The Science of Sherlock Holmes, I sometimes found flaws in ancient primary documents that raised  disturbing questions about the validity  of old verdicts. It is dreadfully upsetting to realize the wrong man was hanged, two hundred years too late to change things.

On a lighter note, about half the audience had seen the new Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Jr.  The verdict on the film’s artistic success was mixed, but there was agreement that it encouraged a new generation to delve into the Canon. And to read books!

The program, part of a series sponsored jointly by the Mystery Writers of America New York Chapter and the New York Public Library, set a record for attendance.  Proving once again that Sherlock Holmes and his world are much  beloved.

EJ Wagner