Book Reviews

The Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking the Case with Science and Forensics by James O’Brien, Oxford University Press, New York, 2013.  xx + 175 pp. ISBN: 978-0-19-979496-6 (hardcover). $29.95.

Along with a review of a book on the history of chemistry, and to some extent forensics, this review covers a book on chemistry and forensics in literature. Not just any literature, but the famous series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring Sherlock Holmes (and Dr. Watson). The Holmes “Canon” is comprised of sixty stories and all involve some aspect of science. Doyle was the author of other works besides the Holmes Canon, but the latter is the most famous with many “fan clubs” worldwide.

In this book, the Canon is described in the Introduction. Chapter one presents a biography of Doyle who was trained and practiced as a physician. Chapter two presents “biographies” of the main characters, especially Holmes, Watson, and the arch enemy Moriarty.

Chapter three presents Holmes as a pioneer in forensic science. Poe may have invented the detective story but Doyle created the forerunner of the modern detective, especially in powers of deduction. Holmes employs several forensic techniques before they were adopted by distinguished crime agencies. Included are Bertillon measurements, fingerprints, footprints, handwriting, printed documents, and cryptology. Application of some of these methods to solving modern, “real” crimes is described (e.g., the Zodiac Killer and the Lindbergh baby kidnapper).

The book hits its stride in chapter four where Holmes’ expertise in chemistry (he fancied himself as a chemist) is discussed. Although Watson’s evaluation of Holmes’ chemical expertise evolved over the course of the stories, Holmes showed his knowledge of coal tar derivatives and dyes, chemical poisons, and other chemicals. None other than Isaac Asimov criticized Holmes’ chemical expertise, but O’Brien shows that this criticism was unfounded.

Chapter five covers other sciences and technical issues including math, probability, geometry, anatomy, botany, physics, optics, astronomy, geology, and meteorology. Chapter six covers ratings of the Holmes stories, from best to worst. An appendix covers scientific scams that Doyle may or may not have been involved in, followed by references and an index.

The author, Professor of Chemistry Emeritus at Missouri State University, has previously given a presentation on Holmes at a symposium at an ACS meeting which was published as an ACS Symposium Series book1. In addition, on the topic of Holmes and chemistry, the Journal of Chemical Education announced a virtual online issue titled The Chemical Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

Whether or not you are a Holmes fan, this book will be an enjoyable read. If you have not read Holmes previously, you may be induced to read at least some of the stories. If you have read them, you may be inspired to read them again with even more enjoyment. The book is also recommended to those interested in forensic science and the history of chemistry2.

Bob Buntrock
Orono, ME

1. O, Brien, J. F.; Sherlock Holmes: the Eccentric Chemist. In Chemistry and Science Fiction; Stocker, J. H., Ed.; American Chemical Society: Washington, DC, 1998; pp. 105-125.


The Case of the Poisonous Socks: Tales from Chemistry by William H. Brock. RSC Publishing: Cambridge, UK, 2011. vii + 348 pp. ISBN: 978-1-84973-324-3 (paper). £19.99.

Those who attended the CINF Luncheon at the ACS Meeting in Philadelphia on Aug. 21, 2012, heard a preview of this book. The author, William Brock, was the speaker and presented several very entertaining stories about chemists in history. I don’t recall how many of them are in the book, but he began with the title headliner. Over 150 years of chemical history are covered in forty two chapters, essays on both chemical topics and the chemists involved. Brock has retired from the University of Leicester (UK) and has presented these and other essays in journals and magazines as well as oral presentations. The emphasis is on European chemists, organizations, and education, but the impact on US chemical history is also presented. The chemists featured range from Justus Liebig and William Ramsay to C. K. Ingold and C. P. Snow including several women. An excellent, lighter read, with many stories, both familiar and novel, a great job of fleshing out the personalities of many chemists in the history of chemistry.

Bob Buntrock
Orono, ME