J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

How Sherlock Changed the World: The Literary Godfather of All CSIs

We think of Sherlock Holmes stories as classic mysteries, but they were practically science fiction when they were first released.  Such was the state of forensic science at the time—it simply did not exist.  Various forensic fans pay their respects to the consulting detective in the two-part, one-night special How Sherlock Changed the World (trailer here), which premieres this Tuesday on most PBS stations nationwide.

The first Holmes story came out during the Jack the Ripper investigation, when most of London had concluded most of the city’s coppers were just a pack of dumb thugs—and not without justification.  Crime scenes were not preserved and nobody bothered to give them the once-over for telling information.  Instead, it was round-up the usuals and beat out a confession—a strategy doomed to fail with a serial killer.

The fact that the fictional Holmes served as a catalyst for smarter investigative techniques makes perfect sense, considering how science fiction has always inspired technological breakthroughs.  In the early segments, producer-director Paul Bernays and his expert witnesses make a strong case for Sherlock’s influence on the pioneers of forensic investigation, particularly Edmond Locard, a French Holmes fan who assembled the first legitimate crime lab in 1910.

Eventually, HSCTW settles into a familiar pattern, introducing an investigative avenue prefigured in Doyle’s stories (like toxicology, ballistics, and hair and fiber analysis) and then demonstrating real world applications from the case files of its talking heads, including the sometimes controversial Dr. Henry Lee, probably best known for his work on the notorious “Woodchipper Murder.” Initially a bit of a revelation, the Sherlock tribute largely becomes reasonably diverting comfort viewing for true crime fans.

Obviously, HSCTW was shrewdly programmed to stoke viewer enthusiasm for the upcoming third season of PBS’s Sherlock.  We do indeed see clips from the Cumberbatch show, but most of the points are illustrated with original recreations of Holmes at work.  Granted, clearances can be tricky, but the HSCTW cast lacks the distinctive presence of the many classic screen Holmeses, such as Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Jeremy Brett, Patrick Macnee, Tom Baker, Christopher Plummer, or even Ronald Howard.

HSCTW is television viewers can safely dip in and out of.  Nonetheless, it makes a compelling case on behalf of the contributions made to criminal justice by Holmes, as well as his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle.  In fact, it leads one to believe Doyle’s stock is rather undervalued given his post-Sherlock endeavors.  While it has a fair amount of filler, How Sherlock Changed the World also provides some intriguing cultural history.  Recommended as a pleasant distraction for Holmes and CSI fans eagerly anticipating the new season of Sherlock, it airs this Tuesday (12/17) on most PBS affiliates nationwide.

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