Physician Arthur Conan Doyle takes a break from his practice to assist London police in tracking down Jack the Ripper in this debut novel and series starter.
September 1888. A twenty-nine-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle practices medicine by day and writes at night. His first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, although gaining critical and popular success, has only netted him twenty-five pounds. Embittered by the experience, he vows never to write another “crime story.” Then a messenger arrives with a mysterious summons from former Prime Minister William Gladstone, asking him to come to London immediately. Once there, he is offered one month’s employment to assist the Metropolitan Police as a “consultant” in their hunt for the serial killer soon to be known as Jack the Ripper. Doyle agrees on the stipulation his old professor of surgery, Professor Joseph Bell–Doyle’s inspiration for Sherlock Holmes–agrees to work with him. Bell agrees, and soon the two are joined by Miss Margaret Harkness, an author residing in the East End who knows how to use a Derringer and serves as their guide and companion. Pursuing leads through the dank alleys and courtyards of Whitechapel, they come upon the body of a savagely murdered fifth victim. Soon it becomes clear that the hunters have become the hunted when a knife-wielding figure approaches.
Forensics, Bertillon and Locard
Although the adventures of Sherlock Holmes have never been classified as Science Fiction, the scientific methods Holmes used to determine guilt or innocence did not exist at the time Doyle first shared his detective with the world. But, like many technologies first displayed in the Star Trek series, the fiction inspired the subsequent reality.
At the time the first Holmes tale, A Study in Scarlet published in 1887, crime investigation consisted primarily in gathering witness statements, establishing alibis, and extracting confessions, all of which were subject to human error or falsification. The widespread use of photography to record crime scenes and victims, which became commonplace shortly after Holmes first emerged, finally allowed for more objectivity in forensic investigation, and in this article, I’d like to introduce you to Alphonse Bertillon, the man who introduced the objective technique of photography into the pursuit of Justice.
Bertillon was a file clerk for the French Sûreté in Paris in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and was horrified at the absence of any logical filing system of photographs. There were no trained forensic photographers at the time so views of scenes and criminals varied with each photographer.
The first image is that of a murder scene. Bertillon developed the standard distances and insisted on what he called a “God’s eye view,” to guide the police in their search for a killer.
Photograph of a murder scene.
Public Domain, The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Bertillon also began the standard mug shot for criminals which allowed an investigator to quickly scan photos of known criminals to show witnesses. The collection soon became known as the “Rogues Gallery.”
Mug shots, or “Rogue’s Gallery.”
Public domain, New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Below is his own mug shot taken as an example for his lectures, along with anthropometric data which would accompany the photograph.
By Jebulon – Own work, stitching of archives of Service Regional d’Identité Judiciaire, Préfecture de Police, Paris., CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37546591
After taking tens of thousands of photographs Bertillon devised a classification system of various facial features that allowed sketch artists to quickly compose a likeness from a witness’s description. Called a “Portrait Parle”, or speaking picture, his system is still employed today by facial recognition systems.
It took another Frenchman, Edmond Locard, to use Holmes as his inspiration to create the world’s first Forensic laboratory in Lyon, France, 1910. Locard developed his Exchange Principle, “every contact leaves a trace,” and his success in cracking a case where the suspect had an impeccable alibi led to his experiment in forensic science becoming standard practice in police departments around the world.
The case in question involved the strangulation of a young woman and her lover was suspect, but four men swore he was playing cards with them at the time the murder must have occurred. Locard examined scrapings from beneath the man’s fingernails and compared them to the cosmetics the deceased woman used, and they matched perfectly. Confronted with this the man confessed, saying he had changed the time on his wall clock before playing cards so as to establish his alibi.
Locard became a famous writer and lecturer on forensics, and encouraged his students to read the Holmes Canon as examples of logical crime investigation. He once met Conan Doyle, and told him that his detective had changed the world of crime investigation.
Thank you, Bradley Harper and Paste Creative
About the author
Bradley Harper is a retired US Army Pathologist with over 37 years of worldwide military/medical experience, ultimately serving as a Colonel/Physician in the Pentagon. During his Army career, Harper performed some 200 autopsies, 20 of which were forensic.
Upon retiring from the Army, Harper earned an Associate’s Degree in Creative Writing from Full Sail University. He has been published in The Strand Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine and a short story he wrote involving Professor Moriarty in the Holmes tale of The Red Headed League (entitled The Red Herring League) won Honorable Mention in an international short fiction contest. A member of the Mystery Writers of America, Authors Guild, and Sisters in Crime, Harper is a regular contributor to the Sisters in Crime bi-monthly newsletter.
Harper’s first novel, A Knife in the Fog, involves a young Arthur Conan Doyle joining in the hunt for Jack the Ripper, and was a finalist for the 2019 Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America for Best First Novel by an American Author.
Queen’s Gambit, the upcoming sequel to A Knife in the Fog will be released in September 2019.