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

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Literary analysis of A Study in Scarlet

“Your merits should be publicly recognized. You should publish an account of the

case. If you won’t, I will for you.”

John Watson MD, A Study in Scarlet

Over the years, Sherlock Holmes has emerged as the model of the fictional heroic scientist. With his practical application of observation and deduction to the noble cause of detection, he provides the perfect counter-point to the early Victorian aversion to science, and proof that “science is not the begetter of monsters or of fantastic heresies; it is a normal instrument routinely applied in the moral crises of everyday life” (Van Dover 38-9). Indeed, morality seems to play a significant role in Holmes’s motivation - while Poe’s hero was spurred on by the desire for pure and abstract truth, Conan Doyle’s hero is driven by the desire to reveal wrong and do what is right. In effect, Holmes “proclaimed a new moral dimension of scientific approach;” in his efforts to unravel crime, he “devotes himself to restoring moral intelligibility to his world” (Van Dover 40).

And yet, Sherlock Holmes owes a large part of his popularity to his personal imperfections and peculiarities, his “memorably eccentric character” (Van Dover 47). He has a cranky side which reveals itself whenever the discussion turns towards his inferior colleagues in the detective business, such as Gregson and Lestrade. “Gregson,” he proclaims, “is the smartest of the Scotland Yarders... he and Lestrade are the pick of a bad lot” (Conan Doyle 24).

His disdain for the inadequacies of these detectives can be interpreted as a sign of arrogance - but in the case of Holmes, the self-confidence is certainly justified. His skill is unparalleled, and he laments the lack of truly perplexing challenges for his abilities:

No man lives or has ever lived who has brought the same amount of study and of natural talent to the detection of crime which I have done. And what is the result? There is no crime to detect, or, at most, some bungling villainy with a motive so transparent that even a Scotland Yard official can see through it. (Conan Doyle 22)

Conan Doyle even goes so far as to insert a criticism of Dupin into Holmes’s tirade against incompetence. When Watson innocently remarks that, “You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin,” and “I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories,” Holmes proceeds to refute the comparison:

Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.
(Conan Doyle 21)

However, it should be noted that the criticism contains no actual remarks on Dupin’s technique itself - Holmes merely takes issue with his “superficial” application of induction to impress his friend. Indeed, the passage seems to convey a tone of playful teasing. While the methods of the two detectives were certainly distinct – Dupin’s use of induction and creative intuition versus Holmes’s use of empirical observation and deduction - Conan Doyle evidently respected Poe’s creation, as well as his position as a trailblazer in the genre of detective literature.

The eccentric character of Sherlock Holmes has other unique manifestations. Though he is not a “withdrawn, nocturnal creature like Poe’s Dupin,” he certainly has moments of personal isolation and reflection (Van Dover 47). His laboratory is his safe haven, a place where he can explore the unlimited possibilities of his scientific tendencies. And yet, Holmes is not a man singularly possessed by science. And, as many critics have noted, the two most visible signs of Holmes’s unusual habits are his addiction to cocaine and his love of the violin:

Within the walls of his famous suite at 221B Baker Street, he balances his laboratory bench with Bohemian furnishings, his precise methodology with negligent habits... Holmes’s Bohemian habits concretize him as an individual - he is not simply a type of the scientist - and they argue that even an extreme advocate of the empirical scientific method... need not be consumed by the pursuit of his profession. (Van Dover 48)

These decidedly unscientific habits provide a sort of equalizing influence, making Holmes a more realistic and human character. The violin provides proof that “artistic impulse... coexists with Holmes’s scientific character” (Van Dover 48).

There have been some criticisms regarding the absolute validity of the science that appears in the tales of Sherlock Holmes. Many critics point out that the references to Holmes’s scientific skills - his ability to trace footsteps, his ability to distinguish between tobacco ashes - exist without any real discussion of their implementation:

These scientific achievements exist more as assertions than as practices. Conan Doyle does not... devote pages of technical dissertation to the original and verifiable methods of his scientific detective. Rather, he contents himself with Holmes’s allusions to laboratories and monographs, claims to scientific exactness, and occasional exercises with the magnifying lens and the tape measure. (Van Dover 42)

Additionally, many of Holmes’s conclusions are often “only pseudo-scientific - as when Holmes deduces intelligence from hat size” (Van Dover). And yet, these same critics point out that for the purposes of Conan Doyle’s writing - which, by all accounts, is directed towards the entertainment of the audience - the casual references to science are enough. “In fiction, though not in lectures to working men, a ‘general sense’ of the power of the scientist is sufficient” (Van Dover 42). The focus of detective literature remains on the unraveling of crime - though science is the primary tool of detectives like Holmes, it need not be the primary focus of the story. Regardless of the specificity of his scientific achievements, Holmes has successfully broken down the barriers imposed by Victor Frankenstein and Henry Jekyll, and has emerged as “the heroic anti-type of the anti-heroic type of the scientist in nineteenth century literature” (Van Dover 49).

Philosophy of composition
“The Philosophy of Composition” was Poe’s attempt to illuminate the creative process behind the composition of one of his most beloved poems, “The Raven.” The essay'’ exposition of Poe’s inductive process is enlightening, and somewhat surprising. Just as Dupin began with the final result - the crime - and worked backwards to establish the chain of causality, Poe began with the final word – “Nevermore” - and worked backwards to fill in the rest of the poem. According to Poe, all creative writing, whether it be poetry or fiction, must begin with the resolution, and proceed from that point to shape everything to come before:

Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the denouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention. (1373)

The benefits of this philosophy are clear. Once an ending is established, the beginning and the middle of the narrative can be crafted in subtle ways to lead logically to the final result. The tone of the beginning and middle parts can be easily maintained once an idea for the end is established. The actions of characters can be carefully planned, with consequences that build to an already established climax. Relevant pretexts and backgrounds can be mapped and implemented with an eye towards word and page economy. All of these and more are benefits of writing inductively.

In writing this essay, Poe wished to portray the process of writing as a scientific one, complete with method and a logical sequence of cause and effect. “It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referrible either to accident or intuition - that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem” (1374-5). Just as Dupin’s chain of logic was absolute and strictly defined, each step involved in the composition of the poem was “forced upon me in the progress of the construction” (1379). Like Dupin’s conclusions, the inevitability of the result left no room for doubt.

The process of creating "The Raven" involved a series of steps. At each step, Poe made a decision that affected the course of the poem in a fundamental way.
Length 100 lines

Desired Effect Beauty

Tone Sadness

Refrain “Nevermore”

Pretext A talking raven, the death of a lover

Rhythm Trochaic

Metre Octameter acatalectic, alternating with heptameter catalectic, ending with

tetrameter catalectic

Locale The lover’s chamber
Since the essence of Poe’s inductions are best conveyed in his own words, below you will find a few relevant excerpts from his essay:

Regarding the choice of "Nevermore” as the refrain: “The length, the province, and the tone, being thus determined, I betook myself to ordinary induction , with the view of obtaining some artistic piquancy which might serve me as a key-note in the construction of the poem - some pivot upon which the whole structure might turn... That such a close, to have force, must be sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis, admitted no doubt: and these considerations inevitably led me to the long o as the most sonorous vowel, in connection with r as the most producible consonant” (1377-8).

Regarding the choice of the raven as the speaker of the refrain (which brings to mind Dupin’s induction of the existence of the ourang-outang): “I did not fail to perceive that this difficulty arose solely from the pre-assumption that the word was to be so continuously or monotonously spoken by a human being” (1378).

Regarding the choice of pretext: “I asked myself – ‘Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?’ Death - was the obvious reply. ‘And when,’ I said, ‘is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?’ ‘When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world - and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover’” (1378-9).

Regarding the choice of locale (which brings to mind the use of physical enclosure in “The Murders of the Rue Morgue): “... a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident: - it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place” (1381).

Closing the case

“What result, then, has ensued? What impression have I made upon your fancy?”

C. Auguste Dupin, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

The observations have been made, the conclusions have been drawn. Through an investigation of the available evidence - using the inductions of Dupin and the deductions of Holmes - the facts have been laid bare. Science does indeed play a prominent role in the adventures of these fictional detectives. As for the true extent of that role? Unfortunately, the case on that may never be closed. For over a century, critics have questioned the validity of Poe’s cold, logic hero, given the author’s well-known tendencies toward the mystical and the imaginative. They’ve pointed out the holes and inadequacies in Sherlock Holmes’s knowledge of hard science. In short, they’ve challenged the credibility of these detectives as scientists.

And yet, the tools and skills employed by the two detectives are founded upon valid principles of logic and reason. The relationship between the distinct philosophies of Dupin and Holmes has even been compared to another pair of innovators from the annals of history:

Dupin described his approach as a combination of the skills of the poet and the mathematician, skills whose essential nature normally removes them from direct applicability in the practical world. Sherlock Holmes's debt to Dupin was certainly real, but in this respect it is like that of Aristotle, the great scientist, to Plato, another great poet-mathematician. The Platonic tradition in detection continued... Its method - ratiocination - remained the esoteric gift of particular geniuses. Holmes’s scientific method... was, like Aristotle’s, empirical, depending upon investigations into the matter of the mundane world and resulting in synthetic conclusions regarding the nature of that matter. (Van Dover 43-4)

Regardless of the extent to which science is elaborated upon in the writings of Poe and Conan Doyle, its presence in the philosophies of Dupin and Holmes is unmistakable, and undeniable. And despite any doubts that have been raised regarding the role of science in detective literature, the status of Dupin and Holmes as the archetypes of the scientifically-inclined detective-hero remains unchallenged.

Beegel, Susan F. “The Literary Histrio as Detective,” Massachusetts Studies in English, Amherst, MA, 1982, 8(3):1-8.

Conan Doyle, Arthur. A Study in Scarlet, Oxford University Press, 1999.

Engel, Leonard W. “Truth and Detection: Poe’s Tales of Ratiocination and His Use of the Enclosure,” Clues: A Journal of Detection, Bowling Green, OH, Fall-Winter 1982, 3(2):83-86.

Huxley, Thomas Henry. Darwiniana, Collected Works, Macmillan, London, 1893, p. 369.

Irwin, John T. “Reading Poe’s Mind: Politics, Mathematics, and the Association of Ideas in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’,” American Literary History, Cary, NC, Summer 1992, 4(2):187-206.

Jeffers, H. Paul. “You Have Been in Peshawar, I Perceive,” The Baker Street Journal: an Irregular Quarterly of Sherlockiana, Hanover, PA, June 1991, 41(2):82-84.

Martin, Terry J. “Detection, Imagination, and the Introduction to ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’” Modern Language Studies, Providence, RI, Fall 1989, 19(4):31-45.

Moss, Robert A. “Brains and Attics,” The Baker Street Journal: an Irregular Quarterly of Sherlockiana, Hanover, PA, June 1991, 41(2):93-95.

Nygaard, Loisa. “Winning the Game: Inductive Reasoning in Poe’s ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’” Studies in Romanticism, Boston, MA, Summer 1994, 33(2):223-54.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry, Tales, & Selected Essays, Literary Classics of the United States, New York, NY, 1984. pp. 397-431.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry, Tales, & Selected Essays, Literary Classics of the United States, New York, NY, 1984, pp. 1373-1385.

Trapp, David James. “Holmes the Graphologist,” The Baker Street Journal: an Irregular Quarterly of Sherlockiana, Hanover, PA, March 1981, 31(1):20-21.

Van Dover, J. K. “Huxley, Holmes, and the Scientific Detective,” The Baker Street Journal: an Irregular Quarterly of Sherlockiana, Hanover, PA, December 1988, 38(4):240-41.

Van Dover, J. K. “The Lens and the Violin: Sherlock Holmes and the Rescue of Science,” Clues: a Journal of Detection, Bowling Green, OH, Fall-Winter 1988, 9(2):37-51.

Please send any questions or comments to Richard Ho at


This essay has been excerpted from a paper of the same name, subtitled The Role of Science in Nineteenth Century Detective Literature, which Richard K. Ho wrote for Professor John Picker’s “Literature and Science in the 19th Century” seminar at Harvard University in the fall of 2001. Our thanks to Richard K. Ho for permission to publish his work.

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