Ричард Хо Сквозь увеличительное стекло: роль науки в детективной литературе XIX века

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Oliver Wendell Holmes

One of the most interesting instances of fact intersecting fiction can be found in Chapter 2 of A Study in Scarlet. In justifying his ignorance of the Copernican Theory to Watson, Holmes launches into an illustrative explanation of his conception of the human mind:

I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones. (Conan Doyle 15)

According to an article by Robert A. Moss, the brain-attic simile is remarkably similar to a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, which describes the brain as “an attic where old furniture, bric-a-brac and other odds and ends are stored away; and, in order to make room for more things, some of those previously stored must be discarded” (Moss 93). Conan Doyle was a great admirer of the real-life Holmes, who was a writer of popular poems and essays and professor of anatomy and physiology at Harvard Medical School from 1847-1882 - the fact that Conan Doyle’s most famous character shares a name with his creator’s literary hero is no accident. Moss originally stumbled across the O.W. Holmes quote while reading a review of The Merck Manual in The New England Journal of Medicine. The article was written by M. Hauser, and cites Loewenberg’s Medical Diagnosis and Symptomatology as another instance in which the quote appears. Moss notes that “there is no question that the two Holmes dicta, those of Oliver and Sherlock, are too similar for chance,” and endeavors to find the “chain of circumstances” that connects them (Moss 93). Though he ultimately fails in his attempts to trace the quote to its original source, he draws on the available evidence - much as Holmes himself would have done - and creates a hypothesis: “Keeping in mind Doyle’s admiration for O.W. Holmes, I suggest that Doyle simply put Oliver’s brain-attic simile into Sherlock’s mouth, inserting it into Watson’s text at an appropriate point” (Moss 93).
In any case, the use of the brain-attic simile in A Study in Scarlet reflects a conscious effort on the part of the author, through the invocation of contemporary scientific theories, to imbue his story with a greater degree of credibility.

Gaspard Monge

Many writers have discussed the prevalent role of mathematics in Poe’s Dupin stories, citing the long-winded treatise on mathematical study and analysis in the introduction of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” as an example. A quick exercise in inductive reconstruction produces a chain of causes which explains this curious preoccupation with mathematics. As Dupin might say, “the larger links of the chain run thus”: mathematics, West Point, École Polytechnique, Parisian politics, Gaspard Monge.

The Dupin tales are set in France during an era of intense political turmoil. The periodic revolutions and constant political turnover aside, France was still considered the foremost nation in the world in mathematics - and indeed, mathematics and politics were inextricably linked, for “a great many of the most distinguished French mathematicians of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were eminent political figures as well” (Irwin 188). Among these prominent mathematician/politicians was Gaspard Monge, the “foremost French geometer of his day” as well as “a staunch republican and Bonapartist” (Irwin 188). In the unstable political atmosphere of nineteenth century France, Monge contributed to the establishment of the École Polytechnique, one of the foremost institutions of higher learning in that nation. In 1830, Poe enrolled as a cadet at the West Point Military Academy. At that point, the school’s curriculum had recently undergone a drastic overhaul - it was remodeled after the École Polytechnique, which emphasized practical applications of mathematics over theoretical ones (Irwin 196). It was here that Poe became indoctrinated in the principles of practical and analytical mathematics. “To judge, then, from the curriculum at West Point in Poe’s day, it seems fairly certain that his course of studies there would have indelibly linked in his mind the subject of mathematics with contemporary French politics” (Irwin 197-8).

Scientific disciplines

There are many mentions of specific scientific skills throughout both “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and A Study in Scarlet. Here are a few examples:


Defined as the study of handwriting, graphology is one “one of [Sherlock] Holmes's least understood talents” (Trapp 20). Holmes’s analysis of the writing of the word “Rache” on the wall of the crime scene is a prime example of this skill. Though he was able to determine that the word was not written by a German (“a real German invariably prints in the Latin character, so that we may safely say that this was not written by one, but by a clumsy imitator who overdid his part” (Conan Doyle 36)), the use of graphology in crime detection was still not widespread at the time of Conan Doyle, and Holmes kept its use to a minimum. “Although it is an old science, dating back before Christ, only a few papers had been written, and recognition of it had not spread very far... So he had little to work with, and cannot be blamed for refusing to use a science that was still a child” (Trapp 20-1).


Though the study of encryption is never really discussed in either tale, many critics have pointed to the incoherent screams of the ourang-outang in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” as an example of “the propensity of language to obscure truth” (Beegel 5). More specifically:

The ourang-outang’s language-no-language seems to represent an area of human mental activity that defies expression, and affective experience beyond linguistic construction and hence beyond the borders of rational comprehension... For Poe and Dupin alike, the use of language is an extended exercise in cryptography, each utterance containing a hidden meaning, or perhaps no meaning at all. (Beegel 6)


The official definition of ichnology is the study of plant and animal traces - but in the realm of criminal detection, it can be used to describe one of Sherlock Holmes’s most useful skills: the study of footprints. “There is no branch of science which is so important and so much neglected as the art of tracing footsteps. Happily, I have always laid great stress upon it, and much practice has made it second nature to me” (Conan Doyle 123-4).

Dupin makes a reference to stereotomy, which is defined as the science or art of cutting solids (often stones) into figures or sections. The use of stereotomy in Poe’s tale is significant, for it mirror’s Dupin’s philosophy of reasoning:

As an analytical science it is, like atomism and positivism, founded on the assumption that the nature of the whole can be discovered by dividing it into its component parts and studying each part by itself. This is, of course, precisely Dupin’s procedure, who always breaks problems down into a series of logical steps and examines each piece of evidence closely. (Martin 37-8)


Holmes’s study of rocks and soil allows him to determine geographic locations based on the properties of the ground. As Watson observes in his list of Holmes’s abilities, “After walks [he] has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them” (Conan Doyle 16).

Dupin’s methodology

“The mental features discoursed of as the analytical are, in themselves, but

little susceptible of analysis. We appreciate them only in their effects.”

Narrator, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue"

In order to better understand the role of science in Poe’s writing, an examination of his detective’s beliefs and methods is necessary. As readers, we are given numerous indications throughout “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” that Dupin is scientifically inclined. As his various acts of observation and analysis illustrate, “he practices the classical scientific method of analysis; that is, he formulates hypotheses and then tests them empirically by predicting and verifying each of the narrator's reactions in turn” (Martin 37). More specifically, he utilizes a process which combines induction and deduction to determine a chain of reasoning.

A central aspect of this methodology is the emphasis on starting with the end result and reasoning backward to determine the causes, since the nature of criminal detection usually necessitates the recreation of a chain of events from the end result (the crime itself). As such, induction, or backward reasoning, is Dupin’s primary weapon:

Induction, the foundation of the modern scientific method, involves reasoning from a body of evidence to more general conclusions... Sir Francis Bacon is usually given credit for developing this technique, though Aristotle anticipated it, and important refinements in the method were later introduced by Bacon’s successors. Induction has also been referred to at times as reasoning a posteriori, “from what comes after,” or reasoning from effect to cause. (Nygaard 230-1)

Deductive reasoning, on the other hand, relies on the more conventional progression of events from past to present:

Deductive reasoning is generally defined to be reasoning from premises to specific conclusions according to the set rules of logic. If the premises are true and the proper rules of logic followed, then the conclusion is held to be certainly true. Deduction has also been called reasoning a priori, from first principles, and sometimes crudely characterized as reasoning from cause to effect. (Nygaard 230)

In the course of the story’s unraveling, Dupin utilizes both. Perhaps the most illustrative example of Dupin’s inductive reasoning is the incident at the beginning of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in which he seemingly reads the mind of the narrator. Based on the process of induction, he is able to trace the course of the narrator’s thoughts, from a point fifteen minutes in the past to the present moment, when he interrupts the narrator’s train of thought with the words, “He is a very little fellow, that’s true, and would do better for the Theatre des Varietes” (Poe 402).

We will first retrace the course of your meditations, from the moment in which I spoke to you until that of the rencontre with the fruiterer in question. The larger links of the chain run thus - Chantilly, Orion, Dr. Nichol, Epicurus, Stereotomy, the street stones, the fruiterer...

We had been talking of horses, if I remember aright, just before leaving the Rue C--. This was the last subject we discussed. As we crossed into this street, a fruiterer, with a large basket upon his head, brushing quickly past us, thrust you upon a pile of paving-stones collected at a spot where the causeway is undergoing repair...

...You stepped upon one of the loose fragments, slipped, slightly strained your ankle, appeared vexed or sulky, muttered a few words, turned to look at the pile, and then proceeded in silence... You kept your eyes upon the ground - glancing, with a petulant expression, at the holes and ruts in the pavement, (so that I saw you were still thinking of the stones,)...

... until we reached the little alley called Lamartine, which has been paved, by way of experiment, with the overlapping and riveted blocks. Here your countenance brightened up, and, perceiving your lips move, I could not doubt that you murmured the word ‘stereotomy,’ a term very affectedly applied to this species of pavement...

... I knew that you could not say to yourself ‘stereotomy’ without being brought to think of atomies, and thus of the theories of Epicurus; and since, when we discussed this subject not very long ago, I mentioned to you how singularly, yet with how little notice, the vague guesses of that noble Greek had met with confirmation in the late nebular cosmogony, I felt that you could not avoid casting your eyes upward to the great nebula in Orion, and I certainly expected that you would do so...

... You did look up; and I was now assured that I had correctly followed your steps. But in that bitter tirade upon Chantilly, which appeared in yesterday’s “Musee,” the satirist, making some disgraceful allusions to the cobbler’s change of name upon assuming the buskin, quoted a Latin line about which we have often conversed. I mean the line: Perdidit antiquum litera prima sonum. I had told you that this was in reference to Orion, formerly written Urion; and, from certain pungencies connected with this explanation, I was aware that you could not have forgotten it...

... It was clear, therefore, that you would not fail to combine the two ideas of Orion and Chantilly. That you did combine them I saw by the character of the smile which passed over your lips. You thought of the poor cobbler’s immolation. So far, you had been stooping in your gait; but now I saw you draw yourself up to your full height. I was then sure that you reflected upon the diminutive figure of Chantilly. At this point I interrupted your meditations to remark that as, in fact, he was a very little fellow - that Chantilly - he would do better at the Theatre des Varietes” (Poe 403-4).

Dupin utilizes the same process in solving the mystery for which the tale was named: “In solving the mystery of the murders, Dupin proceeds backward from the crime itself, from the confused evidence of the witnesses and the mutilated bodies in the Rue Morgue, to try to reconstruct what had occurred” (Nygaard 231). One aspect of the mystery that gives him an unusual amount of trouble is the problem of the window. The fact that the windows in the room are firmly shut, allowing for absolutely no mode of escape, clashes directly with the witness's assertion that voices were heard just prior to the discovery of the murders. In order to reconcile this seeming paradox, Dupin again defers to inductive reasoning:

I proceeded to think thus - a posteriori. The murderers did escape from one of these windows. This being so, they could not have re-fastened the sashes from the inside, as they were found fastened; -the consideration which put a stop, through its obviousness, to the scrutiny of the police in this quarter. Yet the sashes were fastened. They must, then, have the power of fastening themselves. there was no escape from this conclusion. I stepped to the unobstructed casement, withdrew the nail with some difficulty, and attempted to raise the sash. It resisted all my efforts, as I had anticipated. A concealed spring must, I now knew, exist; and this corroboration of my idea convinced me that my premises, at least, were correct, however mysterious still appeared the circumstances attending the nails. A careful search soon brought to light the hidden spring. I pressed it, and, satisfied with the discovery, forbore to upraise the sash. (Poe 418)

By anchoring his chain of reasoning around the assumption that the murderers must have escaped, he is able to reason backwards to find the solution. In Dupin’s own words, “I had traced the secret to its ultimate result” (Poe 419). Near the end of the tale, Dupin reveals to the narrator his collection of evidence in an attempt to lead him along the same path of seasoning towards the solution. Here, the process utilized by Dupin is deductive, rather than inductive - he starts out with all the facts, and determines the solution based on their logical combination:

Keeping now steadily in mind the points to which I have drawn your attention - that peculiar voice, that unusual agility, and that startling absence of motive in a murder so singularly atrocious as this... If now, in addition to all these things, you have properly reflected upon the odd disorder of the chamber, we have gone so far as to combine the ideas of an agility astounding, a strength superhuman, a ferocity brutal, a butchery without motive, a grotesquerie in horror absolutely alien from humanity, and a voice foreign in tone to the ears of men of many nation, and devoid of all distinct or intelligible syllabification. What result, then, has ensued? (Poe 422-3)
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