This programme actually aired a few weeks ago but I saw it for the first time last night. It was an interesting reminder of just how ahead of his time Doyle was with regard to forensic techniques.
We take it for granted now that a fictional detective will use scientific methods to dissect a crime scene – or at least have them at his/her disposal. Finger printing, ballistics, testing of blood samples, protecting a crime scene, sending things off to the lab – it’s all a vital part of modern-day policing and gives crime writers a rich crop of ideas to work with. But when Doyle was writing, these methods weren’t even in existence. It is difficult for us to appreciate now how revolutionary Holmes’ methods were and how imaginative Doyle was to have invented them. It is even more difficult to fully comprehend how the techniques used for the first time by a fictional character have actually influenced the development of real-life criminal investigation and forensics.
The Sherlock Holmes stories inspired many people who went on to become pioneers and world renowned experts in the field of CSI. Frenchman Edmund Locard for example, who was a avid reader of Holmes and went on to built the world’s first forensics laboratory in 1910 – 23 years after Doyle sat Holmes in front of his test tubes looking for traces of blood etc. The documentary also mentions Holmes devotee Dr Henry Lee who used blood evidence to free a wrongly accused woman in Florida, and Hans Gross who wrote one of the most important books about forensics using Holmes’ methods.
It was as if Doyle could see into the future, creating a character who was the first to use techniques we all take for granted today like examining a bullet trajectory as evidence and using science to detect poisons. When Holmes argued with police about the importance of protecting the scene and lay on the floor with his magnifying glass looking for trace evidence, he was about 120 years ahead of his time. And rather than the world’s best crystal ball, all Doyle used to create these ideas was inspiration from his professor at Edinburgh University – surgeon Joseph Bell. Bell was able to ‘read’ a dead body, working out the person’s profession, state of mind etc from just the evidence in front of him. Doyle took this one step further and saw how such skills could be beneficial in the solving of crimes. Now all he had to do was come up with some interesting crimes and an interesting detective to solve them.
What I found frustrating about the programme was that it seemed to have more references to BBC Sherlock than the original works of Doyle. Almost as if it needed a bit of Benedict to ‘sex things up’. Even the title ‘Sherlock’ rather than ‘Holmes’ or ‘Sherlock Holmes’ seemed to be a nod to the BBC show.
The lines became blurred between what was Doyle and what was Moffat. The music was BBC Sherlock as were some of the clips which were actually used as examples of Holmes’ method. In my opinion, this was wrong and unnecessary. The period reconstructions they created using Doyle’s original text were great and the programme didn’t need ‘jazzing up’ with the modern versions.
Couldn’t they have let Doyle have his moment? – take centre stage without Moffat and Gatiss joining in? I do worry that the genius of Doyle is getting mixed up and overshadowed by the creativity of the Hartswood team. Is the tidal-wave of BBC Sherlock sweeping aside one of our greatest literary figures and the astounding works he created? Or is it carrying him along into a new era? I can’t decide but have an uneasy feeling it’s the former.