Fascinating PBS special shows ‘How Sherlock Changed the World’

The Examiner 17th December 2013

The Examiner
17th December, 2013

How Sherlock Changed the World

In today’s world, we’ve been so inundated with coroner-related dramas, especially the Law & Order and CSI TV series that we think evidence over interrogation. The PBS two-hour documentary “How Sherlock Changed the World” shows us it wasn’t always so.

While today’s world has the so-called “CSI-effect,” Victorian police procedure was originally detached from science. England, and later, the world was changed by Conan Doyle’s private detective who was, like the author, very much a man of science.

Holmes, we are told, “He was the first CSI.” Narrated by Andrew Lincoln, star of “The Walking Dead,” this documentary looks at how Holmes became the catalyst for the first forensic criminal lab and predicted many of the methods used today.

Doyle’s character even helped Doyle absolve a man accused of a crime and led Doyle to change the British justice system. While the dramatized excerpts are not always as thrilling as the actual exploits of real scientists and the actors don’t stand up well, particularly when compared to the snippets we see of the BBC Masterpiece series “Sherlock” with the pre-Star Trek Benedict Cumberbatch and the pre-Hobbit Martin Freeman, this two-hour special is filled with fascinating facts.

As it turns out, the British police of the 1880s were just as likely to trample on the crime scene evidence as to coerce confessions from the usual suspects. That likely prevented the capture of London’s most notorious serial killer–Jack the Ripper. Those crimes came to light in 1888 and ended abruptly (if we disregard the later Whitechapel murders in 1889). Holmes first appeared in 1887, when “A Study in Scarlet” was published in “Beeton’s Christmas Annual.”

Holmes transformed crime scene investigation by being the first to protect crime scenes from contamination and the first to search for minute details–from specks of dust and dirt, to footprints and fingerprints, to what we now know as ballistics. Because of Holmes, the first crime lab was established–but not in England, in France.

Holmes wasn’t always right but he continues to inspire forensic scientists–male and female. The documentary includes statements by forensic podiatrist Wesley Vernon, forensic scientists Kimberlee Sue Moran and Henry Lee among others. We learn how their Sherlockian logic helped solved some real crimes. A favorite quote emerges: “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” (From “Sign of Four”).

This special is a must-see for Sherlock Holmes and CSI fans.