Monday, December 26, 2011

A Christmas Confection–Sherlock Holmes vs. Crime Procedurals

sherlock holmes2I’m not able to do a “Twelve Days Of Christmas” this year (not that my attempts in recent years have been brought to completion) so I’ve decided to come up wit a sort of Christmas confection. Since I just bought a Kindle a couple of months ago (and I love it) I’ve been stocking it with a number of free books, including two books of Sherlock Holmes short stories. One of the stories got me to thinking about how well Holmes would fare in comparison with the crime-solvers on several of the current police procedurals the answer I fear is not very well although there are a few cases where Holmes would have never been called in.

The Adventure of Black Peter is one case where ordinary, real life police would have been ahead of the case before Holmes was even out of the city and the person that the police eventually (wrongly) arrested would never even have been a suspect. In that case a former sealing and whaling captain is found in a small cabin that he maintains on his country estate, impaled with a harpoon that the Victim kept there. On the table in the room are two glasses that had been filled with Rum. The police arrest a young man who breaks into the cabin the day after the killing in search of a tin box which has disappeared. Holmes determines that it is impossible for a man of the suspect’s size to have pushed the harpoon though the victim’s body, and that the murderer had to be a former sailor – because only a sailor would drink Rum when there was better liquor  available – and put an advertisement in the paper for a harpoonist because only a harpoonist would have had the strength to throw a harpoon through the body of a grown man.

Today of course Holmes would never have gotten out of London before the police would have had all o f the information they needed to make the arrest, and the “suspect” that they arrested in the story would never have been even looked at as a possible killer. Why? Because even the smallest police force would have dusted the harpoon and the glasses for fingerprints, and since this was obviously an unpremeditated killing there would have been finger prints. And sailors being sailors our mysterious harpoonist would most likely have been fingerprinted at some point during his life on a drunk and disorderly charge. Case solved without all of Holmes’s ratiocination.

On the other hand, if Holmes had to depend on today’s police in the Adventure of the Six Napoleons he – and they – would never have heard the story that led him to the recovery of the Borgia Pearl and the murderer of a Mafia member. Holmes becomes interested in the case when Inspector Lestrade poses him a problem about a “lunatic” who goes around smashing cheap plaster busts of Napoleon, one in a shop, one taken from a home burglary, and one in an burglary at the office of a doctor (in fact the same man whose how was broken into). A fourth bust is taken from another home where the body of a man, quickly identified as an Italian criminal and member of the Mafia (yes, that’s actually in the story) is found murdered on the house’s doorstep. Holmes determines that the bust is from a particular batch of six made at a particular factory on the same day. The prime suspect in the case, an Italian, nicknamed Beppo, who worked at the shop where the first bust was smashed, had previously worked at the factory and had been arrested on the same day that this particular batch of six had been made. Holmes,Watson and Lestrade learn where the other two busts are located, One in suburban London and one in the country, and stake out the suburban residence. Sure enough they catch the man after he broke into the house and smashed the bust. Holmes then contacted the owner of the sixth bust, bought it at a significant profit from the owner, smashed it and found the Borgia Pearl which the culprit had stolen and hidden in the bust just before he was arrested for another crime.

What would have happened today is that Holmes would never have heard of the case because Lestrade would probably never have heard of it. In the incident at the shop, the value of the busts wouldn’t have been sufficient for the police to have been involved while the first burglary wouldn’t have attracted much police attention because nothing was taken. The first home burglary would have raised a few flags as would the break in at the Doctor’s office. In the latter case the primary interest of the police would have been whether any drugs had been stolen, but since there weren’t the police would most likely have filed it and given it only a slightly higher priority than the home burglary. Either that or they would have wondered what the Doctor had been hiding in the busts of Napoleon. Suffice it to say that of the crimes committed only the murder at the site of the fourth burglary would have drawn the attention of a Police Inspector like Lestrade, and would therefore be told to Sherlock Holmes would have been the murder, and in that case the break-in might have been regarded as important but the smashed bust would have been just a curious incident, indicating that the robber had been disturbed before he had started robbing the place. Without knowing about the previous incidents with the cheap busts of Napoleon, no one – including Sherlock Holmes – would have been able to deduce who the killer was, and what his motive was. Beppo wouldn’t have been caught and he would have recovered the Borgia Pearl. All while Holmes, Lestrade and the whole police force were trying to figure out if the murdered man was simply a good Samaritan trying to stop the burglary and who was stabbed for his troubles or whether it was a case of a falling out amongst accomplices.

But these sorts of puzzle are relatively simple ones. In  first of these “confections” l’ll show you how one of Holmes’s cases would prove no match for the modern TV detective and his forensic anthropologist partner and lover, and how Conan Doyle made a huge mistake when he wrote the story. It will be called Bones and the .


Toby O'B said...

I don't know why this never occurred to me before, but I'll bet there was a writer for 'The Rockford Files' who was inspired by this story. Remember the one with William Daniels and the cormorant statues he kept smashing?

Toby O'B said...

Here's one to consider....

I just finished watching "The Abbey Grange" and it put me in mind of the 'Columbo' episode with Janet Leigh, but with different motivations when it came to the outcome of each case.