The classical detective stories were originated from the work of the American writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), in which the readers are implicitly invited to solve the mysteries and identify the murderer before the final denouement. But this kind of fiction became exceptionally successful thanks to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose name became forever linked with the immortal figures of Sherlock Holmes and his intimate friend Dr. Watson. The Sherlock Holmes stories were gathered together under the title Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, in 1892 (1). They put special emphasis on his extraordinary mental faculties rarely to be met with.
When was Sherlock Holmes born?
Until 1876, when the eminent Italian scientist Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909) published Criminal Man (2), scientific Criminology did not yet exist. We don’t know whether Sir Arthur Conan Doyle knew Cesare Lombroso, but it is certain that he had heard or read both Edgar Allan Poe and the French writer Émile Gaboriau (1835-1873). We now accept the detective stories as a good example of a literary genre focused on a genial amateur detective who devotes his talents to the service of society, but when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, the only amateur detectives were Auguste Dupin, by Edgar Allan Poe, and Monsieur Lecoq, another fictional character invented by Émile Gaboriau. But these two detectives did not possess the same characteristics of Sherlock Holmes, who was a real gentleman with a very human touch, and a sporty type.
Two attempts were made to dethrone Holmes.
The first attempt occurred when someone suggested that Holmes imitated the reasoning methods described by Hans Gross (an Austrian jurist, 1847-1915). But the most important book on Criminology written by Hans Gross was published in 1893 ( 3), while most of the Sherlock Holmes stories were published before that date, and many of the techniques included in Gross’ 1893 edition had already been long tested by Sherlock Holmes. So we can say with certainty that Sherlock Holmes is an original creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The second attempt to knock Holmes off his pedestal occurred in 1915, when Virginia Law Register published an article alleging that
“the marvelous exploits of Conan Doyle’s famous character have been surpassed. A new record in deductive ability has been established. The king of sleuths has been dethroned, and by a mere woman. Holmes can unravel a mystery with a footprint as a clue. Apparently this would be child’s play for a Miss Hatfield of Oregon. She can tell the speed of an auto by its tire marks on the pavement.” (4).
“Miss Hatfield of Oregon” was not present when the accident happened, but she “observed two black streaks upon the pavement,” and so she said that the car’s speed was “about 30 miles an hour.” But she did not break Holmes’ record; in fact, “the Supreme Court of Oregon ungallantly refuses to accept her testimony”, because “she did not see the vehicle in motion nor appear upon the scene until some time after the accident had happened.”
Besides,“ a variance in smoothness of either the tire or the pavement would produce different results. There was no testimony about any such conditions, or at least none of them were suggested to or mentioned by the witness. Consequently the foundation for expert testimony did not exist.”
And so Holmes remains the only one who knows how to find a solution for everything: he is one of the greatest geniuses of all time because his reasoning is flawless all the time.
Virginia Law Register put its money on an outsider, but Holmes is still the titleholder.
1) A. Conan Doyle, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1892.
2) The first edition of Criminal Man dates back to 1876: L’uomo delinquente studiato in rapporto alla medicina legale, del Prof. Cesare Lombroso, Milano, Ulrico Hoepli, 1876. In English: Criminal Man, According to the classification of Cesare Lombroso, New York & London, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1911.
3) Hans Gross, Handbuch fur Untersuchunsrichter, als System der Kriminalistik, Leuschner & Lubensky, 1893.
4) Virginia Law Register, September 1915, p. 395.