Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Booth & Brennan And The Norwood Builder

bones-dreamAs part of my “post-Christmas confection” of taking Sherlock Holmes cases and modern procedurals I’ve decided to combine the characters and methods from Bones with the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure Of The Norwood Builder story from The Return Of Sherlock Holmes. This was actually the story that that cause me to develop this idea – to the degree that I did develop it – and the pairing is made for what will become obvious reasons.

For reasons about as logical as they are in most of the cases that Booth and Brennan confront FBI Agent Sealey Booth and his partner/lover/baby mama Dr. Temperance Brennan are sent to investigate the murder of Jonas Oldacre, a retired builder. The local police have already arrested John McFarlane, a young lawyer for the crime. McFarlane has everything needed to be guilty. He had the opportunity – he was at the victim’s home on the night that the crime was committed – he had motive – Oldacre had asked him to draw up a will for the builder which left everything to McFarlane – and he brought the weapon – MacFarlane’s walking stick with blood on it (hey, in the 1890s people carried walking sticks, and it’s important to the plot). Oldacre’s safe was found open, his papers rifled through, MacFarlane’s bloodied cane was found in the room, there were drag marks across the carpet through the French doors to a pile of building timbers that Oldacre found on the property. The wood pile has been on fire and Oldacre’s housekeeper reported smelling “burning flesh” from the fire. When Booth and Brennan arrive they find the FBI “Bluejackets” (the nameless and faceless – and usually lineless – FBI crime scene techs who are always there when Booth and Brennan get to a crime scene) are going through the ashes of the woodpile. They’ve already found Oldacre’s trouser buttons.

And stop. Because this is where Doyle’s story fall flat on its coccyx. Not to blow the whole story but there’s no body in the woodpile. Or at least not a human body; at the end of the story Holmes assumes that the perpetrator used a couple of rabbits to provide the smell of burning flesh which the housekeeper reported. The assumption on Doyle’s part is apparently that the heat of the fire would totally consume the rabbit corpses and everyone would assume that a human corpse would also be burned, not just beyond recognition but totally to ash. The problem is that the heat of a wood fire would not be sufficient to totally destroy a human body; modern crematoriums usually operate at between 1600 and 1800 degrees F. If it was hot enough to so totally destroy the body that you wouldn’t know it was rabbits, it would probably be enough to destroy the trouser buttons, So even the “Blujackets” would recognise the difference between a rabbit carcass and 54 year-old man with or without trouser buttons. Which in turn means that not only is there no proof that MacFarlane killed Oldacre but no evidence that Oldacre was even dead. And yet Holmes spends most of the story despairing over whether or not he will be able to clear MacFarlane until the real villain – Oldacre himself – makes a crucial mistake.

To be fair, the producers of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series recognised the absurdity of the rabbits and substitutes in the body of a tramp that Oldacre murdered because he was the same size and weight as the builder. So, to make this go on a bit longer, let’s do that and turn Booth, Brennan and the Jeffersonian crew loose on that.

The body is taken back to the Jeffersonian. Dr. Camille Saroyan doesn’t have much to do although she can probably get enough tissue for DNA comparison with the blood on the walking stick. This causes a bit of a problem in setting up the timeline. For the purpose of the story MacFarlane has to leave the house late at night – the story says around midnight – because his reason for not taking his hat and walking stick and exiting the front door is so as not to disturb Oldacre’s housekeeper. If the tramp is going to be killed with the walking stick, Oldacre has to lure him to the house, kill him, plant him in the woodpile and start the fire after MacFarlane has left at midnight. If he kills the tramp ahead of time and hides the body in the woodpile until needed he has to get blood for the walking stick.

Meanwhile, Brennan and whichever “squintern” is working this week are stripping the flesh from the bones. Assuming that Oldacre killed the tramp after MacFarlane left she should be able to determine the height and relative strength of the person who dealt the killing blow. On the other hand if the tramp was killed beforehand she’d be able to determine by blood in the shattered bone that the blow delivered by MacFarlane’s cane was not the killing blow. Moreover she’d also be able to determine that the tramp wasn’t standing when the blow from the walking stick was struck.

The big break in the case would of course come from Angela Montenegro, the artist who does the facial reconstructions on her whizbang computer set-up. It will take her about as much time as it took me to read the original story and figure out that this would make an interesting (?) piece for my blog to come up with a face that was most definitely not Jonas Oldacre and that no one, not MacFarlane, not MacFarlane’s mother and not Oldacre’s housekeeper would recognise as Oldacre. With the evidence from Cam, Tempie and Angie, there is no way an even half-way competent prosecutor would have issued an arrest warrant for John MacFarlane.

Of course, in the story the big break in the case comes when Lestrade comes to gloat to Holmes about a new bit of evidence in the case, MacFarlane’s bloody thumb print near the hat rack near the front door where MacFarlane’s hat was hanging. Holmes realises that the print hadn’t been there when he first viewed the crime scene, and determines that someone used a wax impression on sealing wax to make a wax “positive” mould of the print.. He sets out to measure the length of the ground floor of the house and of the top floor and determines that there is a hidden room in the house. He literally smokes Oldacre out by having some constables burn some straw and shout fire, forcing Oldacre to escape the “burning” house. On our modern reality of course, the FBI “Bluejackets” and the local cops would have photographed every blood stain and taken finger prints in the murder scene, and probably in the front hall as well, so they would know that there wasn’t a fingerprint where one suddenly appeared. A modern criminal probably wouldn’t have made this sort of error. And in truth I doubt that today Oldacre would have stuck around his house after framing MacFarlane. Since Oldacre’s motive in trying to frame MacFarlane was not just to get revenge on the young man’s parents but to also to escape with his money and avoid paying his creditors it would make sense for him to flee immediately when it wouldn’t have in the days when one travelled on foot, on horseback or bicycle, or in some sort of wagon or carriage. Now if he’d transferred his funds in the way that he did in the story – mailing checks to a fictitious identity, it would make him a bit harder to trace, but why do that when the funds can be transferred to a numbered off-shore account and then moved around some more electronically. In short, I’m not absolutely sure Booth would have arrested Oldacre. That would be for more talented writers than I to figure out.

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 .