Sherlock Holmes, the movie, is upon us…well, almost gone by now and I’m still waffling about seeing it. I grew up with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes: very weird, very unaction-oriented and very British. The movie looks, um, a little different.
My waffling lead me to put the original Sherlock Holmes adventures on my Christmas list. While I’d grown up with WGBH’s Mystery‘s version, I’d never read the original stories.
Success! I unwrapped Mr. Holmes and all his adventurous stories, and started reading them on the ride home. I began, appropriately enough, with the very first Holmes story. Dr. Watson narrates most of the stories and was introducing himself in the opening to “A Study In Scarlet.” As an army doctor in the second Afghan war, he explained how he had to get himself to Candahar. The current events made me ponder and spelling made me laugh. I stopped at each of these revelations and had to share them.
Then, a mere six pages in, I got to the best part: Sherlock discovers the staple test of all whodunit shows, you know, the patented “Sherlock Holmes test.” Er, I mean the luminol spray or the “will the q-tip turn purple” game.
“Why, man, it is the most practical medio-legal discovery for years. Don’t you see that it gives us an infallible test for bloodstains? Come over here now!” [Sherlock Holmes] seized me by the coatsleeve in his eagerness, and drew me over to the table at which he had been working. “Let us have some fresh blood,” he said, digging a long bodkin into his finger, and drawing off the resulting drop of blood in a chemical pipette. “Now, I add this small quantity of blood to a litre of water. You perceive that the resulting mixture has the appearance of pure water. The proportion of blood cannot be more than one in a million. I have no doubt, however, that we shall be able to obtain the characteristic reaction.” As he spoke, he threw into the vessel a few white crystals, and then adds some drops of transparent fluid. In an instant the contents assumed a dull mahogany colour, and a brownish dust was precipitated to the bottom of the glass jar.”
People really should use bodkins and pipettes more often.
There is just as much magic and showmanship about the Sherlock test as there is in TV drama’s version of the forensic blood analyses. While mahogany isn’t nearly as cool as purple, black lights and clear sprays seem about as magical as crystals and transparent fluid.
Sherlock begins this experiment talking about “haemoglobin” and, in fact, the Kastle-Meyer test (discovered in 1903, 16 years after “A Study In Scarlet” was published) works because of the chemical interaction with hemoglobin. (Here’s some more general info on forensic blood analysis.)
I know that everybody knows that there’s a little Sherlock in detective characters, Detective Goren (Law & Order:Criminal Intent) and CSI Grissom (CSI) being the most obvious. But, for some reason, finding a techno music montage lab scene equivalent in a 19th century novel just made my day.