The Science of Sherlock Holmes cover
The Science of Sherlock Holmes

From Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, the Real Forensics Behind the Great Detective’s Greatest Cases

by E. J. Wagner

2007 Edgar® Award Winner
2007 Anthony award nominee

Published by John Wiley & Sons

ISBN 0-471-64879-5 (hardcover), 0-470-12823-2 (paperback), 978-0-471-78374-9 (E-Book)
ISBN 1-118-04012-0 NOOKbook from Barnes & Noble
ASIN B000VHTCZ6 in a Kindle Edition from
ASIN B0044TJZL8 in a downloadable audiobook from Audible, Inc. (ASIN B0045XUSQY from

Also available in Italian, Korean, German, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and French.

Available from various bookstores and on-line booksellers worldwide.


Everyone loves a mystery, and mystery-lovers are fascinated by Sherlock Holmes and forensic science.  The Science of Sherlock Holmes is an objective, comprehensive, and entertaining exploration of Sherlock Holmes’s contributions to forensic science.  As described in Wiley’s Winter 2006 catalog - “From autopsies to zoology: how Holmes eliminated the impossible” - this book uses the legendary adventures of Sherlock Holmes as a jumping-off point to discuss the growth of forensic science during the 19th and early 20th century.  The book explores the emergence of science from superstition, how forensic autopsies evolved from anatomical dissection, and the huge advances in blood chemistry and poison detection during the Victorian era.  Delving into the early use of fingerprints, photography and trace evidence, it demonstrates how fact followed fiction in developing techniques of crime scene investigation.  The Science of Sherlock Holmes presents sardonic new insights into landmark criminal cases that influenced the forensic world, including the 1849 Parkman/Webster dismemberment at Harvard Medical College, the slaughter of Jessie M’pherson in 1862 Scotland and the sanguinary cases of Lizzie Borden and Jack the Ripper.  The book includes rare period illustrations.

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Book information contained here (links for frames-challenged browsers):

2007 Edgar® Award
from the Dust jacket:
   Book description
   Author profile
   Praise for The Science of Sherlock Holmes
Reviews of The Science of Sherlock Holmes
Sample chapter, table of contents, and index
Future events
Past events
Second thoughts (errata, etc.)

E.J. and 2007 Edgar®
E. J. with Edgar®
and her tech support husband, W. R. Wagner
(photo by Stephen Power)

2007 Edgar® Award

On April 26, 2007, the Mystery Writers of America announced the winners of the 2007 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction, television and film published or produced in 2006. The Science of Sherlock Holmes won an Edgar® for the Best Critical/Biographical book category. See more about the 2007 Edgar® Awards on the Mystery Writers of America Edgar® Awards web site.

Dust jacket - Book description

The Science of Sherlock Holmes is a wild ride in a hansom cab through medicine, law, pathology, toxicology, anatomy, blood chemistry and the emergence of real-life forensic science during the 19th and 20th centuries along the road paved by Sherlock Holmes.

From a “well-marked print of a thumb” on a whitewashed wall in “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,” to the trajectory and impact of a bullet in the “The Reigate Squires,” author E. J. Wagner uses the Great Detective’s remarkable adventures as springboards into the real-life forensics behind them.

You’ll meet scientists, investigators, and medical experts, such as the larger-than-life Eugène Vidocq of the Paris Sûreté, the determined detective Henry Goddard of London’s Bow Street Runners, the fingerprint expert Sir Francis Galton, and the brilliant but arrogant pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury. You’ll explore the ancient myths and bizarre folklore that were challenged by the evolving field of forensics—including the belief that hair and nails grow after death, and the idea that the skull’s size and shape determine personality—and examine the role that brain fever, Black Dogs, and vampires played in criminal history.

Real-life Holmesian mysteries abound throughout the book. What happened to Dr. George Parkman, wealthy physician and philanthropist, last seen entering the Harvard College of Medicine in 1849? The trial included some of the first expert testimony on handwriting analysis on record—some of it foreshadowing what Holmes said of printed evidence years later in The Hound of the Baskervilles, “But this is my special hobby, and the differences are equally obvious.”

What was the secret of well-known bridge expert and handsome man-about-town, Joseph Browne Elwell, found shot to death in his library in 1920? The chief medical examiner examined the entrance wound in “Holmesian fashion with a magnifying glass,” Wagner tells us, explaining the process used to determine if the victim died by accident, murder, or suicide.

Would Elizabeth Barlow still have married Kenneth Barlow if the body of her husband’s first wife had been examined with the same Sherlockian care that Elizabeth’s ultimately was? “It would be a sharp-eyed coroner, indeed, who could distinguish the two little dark punctures,” Holmes says with dark prescience in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” in 1892.

Through numerous cases, including celebrated ones such as those of Jack the Ripper and Lizzie Borden, the author traces the influence of the coolly analytical Holmes on the gradual emergence of forensic science from the grip of superstition. You’ll find yourself turning pages of The Science of Sherlock Holmes as eagerly as you would of any Holmes mystery.

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Dust jacket - Author profile

E. J. WAGNER is a crime historian, a lecturer, a teller of suspense stories for adults, and the moderator of the annual Forensic Forum at the Museum of Long Island Natural Sciences at Stony Brook University, New York. Her work has been published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The New York Times and The Lancet.  (Additional information about the author is available elsewhere on this web site, and in web interviews by Laura James, Esq. and Dr. Anil Aggrawal.)

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Dust jacket - Praise for The Science of Sherlock Holmes

“Holmes is, first, a great detective, but he has also proven to be a great scientist, whether dabbling with poisons, tobacco ash or tire marks. Wagner explores this fascinating aspect of his career by showing how his investigations were grounded in the cutting-edge science of his day, especially the emerging field of forensics. … Utterly compelling.”—Otto Penzler, member of the Baker Street Irregulars and proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop

“E. J. Wagner demonstrates that without the work of Sherlock Holmes and his contemporaries, the CSI teams would be twiddling their collective thumbs. Her accounts of Victorian crimes make Watson’s tales pale! Highly recommended for students of the Master Detective.”—Leslie S. Klinger, Editor, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes

“In this thrilling book, E. J. Wagner has combined her considerable strengths in three disciplines to produce a work as compelling and blood-curdling as the best commercial fiction. This is CSI in foggy old London Town. Chilling, grim fun.”—John Westermann, author of Exit Wounds and Sweet Deal

“A fabulously interesting read. The book traces the birth of the forensic sciences to the ingenuity of Sherlock Holmes. A wonderful blend of history, mystery, and whodunit.”—Andre Moenssens, Douglas Stripp Professor of Law Emeritus, University of Missouri at Kansas City, and coauthor of Scientific Evidence in Criminal Cases

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Reviews of The Science of Sherlock Holmes
(Extracts with links, most recent first)

(Review of Spanish translation, La ciencia de Sherlock Holmes, published by Editorial Planeta) “Con un estilo ameno y entretenido, digno de las novelas que tienen a Holmes como protagonista, la autora nos ayuda a comprender la base sobre la que se sustenta la criminolog’a moderna.” [With a lively and entertaining style, worthy of novels with Holmes as protagonist, the author helps us understand the basis upon which underpins modern criminology.]—Migel Ágel Gómez Juárez in Me gustan los libros (blog) (15-February-2010)

“This book deservedly won an Edgar and should be on the shelves of anyone interested in Holmses’s methods or the history of criminal investigation. … E J Wagner’s knowledge and love of the Holmes stories shines through and her writing paints a vivid and atmospheric picture of the London Holmes knew.”—Catherine Cooke in The Sherlock Holmes Journal published by The Sherlock Holmes Society of London (Summer 2008)

“… de cet ouvrage, que tout holmésien, ainsi que tout personne s’intéressant à la police scientifique, se doit de posséder dans sa bibliothèque.” [… a book, that any holmésien (Sherlockian), and any person interested in forensic science, must have in their library]—Stephen Almaseanu in QuinCahier, the magazine of the Société Sherlock Holmes de France (Issue 2, March 2008)

Korean Science of Sherlock Holmes cover (Review of Korean translation published by Han Seung Publishers) “This book gives a fascinating account of how a new science … emerged.”—Lee Hwan-hee in the Arts & Living section of The Korea Times (17 August 2007)

(Review of Italian translation, La Scienza di Sherlock Holmes, published by Bollati Boringhieri) “… questo è un libro a tutto tondo. Ancora una frase fatta per dire che l’autrice passa con sorprendente abilità dai testi di Doyle alla realtà e viceversa, offrendoci uno spaccato evolutivo della scienza per combattere il crimine di cui si è servito ampiamente il nostro Holmes.”—Fabio Lotti in the Rubriche section of Sherlock Magazine (Italian) (6 July 2007)

(Review of Italian translation, La Scienza di Sherlock Holmes, published by Bollati Boringhieri) “… Geniale.”—Dario Olivero, in Spettacolli & Coltura section of la (14 June 2007)

“[A]n engaging work that describes the real forensic science behind the great detective’s most celebrated cases … [including some] important instance[s] when Jewish history intersected with … forensic science… . [A] lively read and a thorough work of nonfiction.”—Juliet Lapidos in “Beyond Baker Street: The Legacy of Holmes” in the “Fast Forward” section of The Jewish Daily Forward (25 May 2007)

“Le livre constitue … une introduction de qualité aux différents domaines de la police scientifique, et plus précisément à l’histoire de cette science … E.J. Wagner démontre, tout au long de son livre, une véritable connaissance du Canon, qu’elle cite fréquemment, et toujours à propos.”—Stephen Almaseanu in the archives of the web site of the Société Sherlock Holmes de France, to be continued in issue 2 of QuinCahier, the magazine for SSHF members (9 May 2007)

“[A] history of forensic science written in an absorbing way… . The book is … a mine of information on old cases. The author, through her fluent style, is able to conjure up images of bygone days… . If, like me, you enjoy books on both the history of forensic science and on Sherlock Holmes, then this is the one to read”—Roger J. Davis in Science & Justice July-September 2006 (available to members only), published March 2007 by the (UK) Forensic Science Society

“[One] of the year’s most unusual books, E.J. Wagner romps through the development of medical forensics in The Science of Sherlock Holmes …, a book you can enjoy without having read any of the 60 stories about the greatest-ever consulting detective.”—Peter Calamai, “The science of a good science book - Whether exploring caterpillars, geniuses or Sherlock Holmes, the year’s notable entries fused rigour and passion” in the Science and Technology section of the Toronto Star (31 December 2006)

“[A] fascinating read for anyone with a general interest in forensic history … an invaluable guide to Sherlockians [regarding] the scientific framework in which Sherlock Holmes worked. … What really makes The Science of Sherlock Holmes stand out is Wagner’s easy and engaging style.  The book reads like a series of highly entertaining and informative lectures making the subject matter accessible to both the layman and serious student alike. … An absolute must-have addition to the Sherlockian non-fiction shelf that is highly recommended to the general reader, Sherlockian and even, dare I say it, CSI fan.”—Charles V. Prepolec in Sherlock Magazine issue 68 (30 August 2006)

“This well-researched book will be appreciated … not just by devotees of Holmes … but by anyone interested in the Victorian beginnings of forensic science, and [by] those who have enjoyed the more recent portrayals of science in crime detection, such as CSI and Silent witness”—Andrew Mitton in the August 2006 issue of Chemistry World (accessible to RSC members only) published by the Royal Society for Chemistry (10 August 2006)

“Basically, The Science of Sherlock Holmes is a book on forensic science written for the non-specialist. … so engrossing that there is not a dull moment in the entire text. … a highly informative yet readable book on a subject that not many authors can write with confidence.” in the Popular Books section of the June 2006 issue of Anil Aggrawal's Internet Journal of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology (8 August 2006)

“The New York crime historian and author E. J. Wagner has pulled off a double triumph. … Wagner takes the reader on a fascinating tour of the development of medical forensics during the last two centuries. … masterful …”—Peter Calamai in the Books section of the Toronto Star. (2 July 2006)

“Every so often one comes across a book that one just has to recommend. … The Science of Sherlock Holmes is one of those books. … After enjoying this book you’ll want to add it to your shelf of reference books.”—Judith Freeman in the summer 2006 issue of The Serpentine Muse, published by The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes. (1 July 2006)

“… The Science of Sherlock Holmes … is a fine demonstration of how the Canon can be used to make a technical subject interesting, and it will be just as interesting to Sherlockians …”—Peter E. Blau in item “Jun 06 #2” of the June 2006 issue of Scuttlebutt from the Spermaceti Press. (29 June 2006)

The Science of Sherlock Holmes … [is] an instructive and delightful foray into the forensic depths.”—Martin Levin in his Shelf Life column in the BOOKS section of THE GLOBE AND MAIL (24 June 06, print edition page D13)

The Science of Sherlock Holmes … is a shining example of excellence, an A. … In Wagner’s quite capable hands, the science, the real mysteries, and the fiction are woven together seamlessly. Wagner fills her early history of forensic science with larger-than-life characters and bizarre murder cases … And she relays these stories in delightful prose … A huge bibliography of … classic true crime books adds even more value to this book… Anyone with the remotest interest in Holmes, true crime, history, or science would enjoy The Science of Sherlock Holmes.”—Laura James, Esquire in Clews The Historic True Crime Blog (13 June 2006)

The Science of Sherlock Holmes … is a first-rate introduction to forensic science. The coverage of specific cases … is accurate and to the point. … EJ Wagner tells a damned good story. I can strongly recommend The Science of Sherlock Holmes to all Sherlockians and to all interested in the development of detection in fact and fiction.”—Roger Johnson in issue 263 of The District Messenger, the newsletter of The Sherlock Holmes Society of London (12 June 2006)

“No murder mystery this, but a seamless continuum of E.J.’s narrative spanning the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle as he wove real science into the fictional fabric of his characters. … Students of the history of forensic science will smile as they are treated to excerpts from The Century of the Detective by Jurgen Thorwald, and pearls from Alphonse Bertillion, Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Hans Gross, Edmond Locard, and even a fellow named Paul Kirk. … All in all, this book deserves a place on the crowded shelf of any criminalist curious about the beginnings of our profession.”—John N. Houde, author of Crime Lab: A Guide for Nonscientists, in 3rd quarter 2006 issue of CACnews, the newsletter of the California Association of Criminalists (5 June 2006)

“Wagner … has a wonderful way with words. … The book is extremely well researched and filled with all sorts of facts, skillfully interwoven with Holmes’ comments, information on old London, and detailed descriptions of the science of the times. … [The] book is highly recommended for mystery fans … , Sherlock Holmes fans, and … anyone with a sense of curiosity about the world around them. Keep this one in mind, not only for yourself but as a great holiday present for the mystery lover on your shopping list.”—Ellen Barcel in the Times Beacon Record Newspapers (25 May 2006)

“Every week or so I become so completely engrossed in a book that it becomes indispensible. My livre du jour is The Science of Sherlock Holmes, by E. J. Wagner, a fascinating look at forensic science at the time of Holmes, illuminated throughout with examples from both the Canon and real-life crimes.”—Douglas Johnston in A Study in Sherlock (blog) (18 April 2006)

“In her fascinating book, The Science of Sherlock Holmes, Wagner juxtaposes some of Holmes's famous cases with a number of real mysteries, and finds some surprising similarities. She sets Holmes's work in the context of the forensics of his time and proves that the detective's scientific mind was more than a mere work of fiction. … The Science of Sherlock Holmes will intrigue readers with incredible stories and amazing tales from the early days of forensic science.”—Michael Taube in The Christian Science Monitor (11 April 2006)

“This is a book for both fans of Sherlock Holmes and those interested in the development of forensic jurisprudence. … An impeccable bibliography provides the interested reader with other sources of information about criminal investigations, trials gone horribly wrong, innocents wrongly accused and executed, guilty parties who escaped justice, and a wealth of interesting facts up to the present day. … This is a really interesting book, and a must-have for Sherlockians and Kay Scarpetta fans alike. … It would be an excellent companion book to any historical mysteries, such as Anne Perry's and Elizabeth Peters' works.”—Karen Treanor in New Mystery Reader (April 2006)

“… A volume that stands out from the plethora of recent memoirs of contemporary scientific detectives. … The author avoids the technical details that mar so many other efforts in this genre, injecting life into her narrative by weaving in true crime cases that either influenced Holmes’s creator or may have been influenced by a published story from the Baker Street sleuth. … Wagner presents a balanced view of the history of forensic science that should appeal to a wide audience.”— Publishers Weekly (16 January 2006)

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Sample chapter, table of contents, and index

The table of contents, a sample chapter, and the index from The Science of Sherlock Holmes appear on Wiley’s web site.

Future events

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Past events

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La scienze di Sherlock Holmes cover

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Second thoughts (errata, etc.)
(Applies to both hardcover and paperback editions)

(16-December-2007) Due to an apparent re-organization of their web site, the URL for the Center for the History of Medicine, Harvard University Countway Library of Medicine (given on page 234) should be changed to

(The following have been corrected in English language paperback editions printed since September 2007)

(2-July-2006) John S. Cave was kind enough to write and tell me that he enjoyed my book. He also pointed out, in reference to the chapter on ballistics (Shots in the Dark), that the use of spiraling grooves (rifling) was possible for muzzle-loaded firearms. His information appears to be correct. However, it also appears (after some further research) that the use of rifling in handguns (the specific type of firearms discussed in Chapter 8) coincidentally did not occur until the same period during which breech-loaded small arms (rifles and pistols) were developed (see PISTOL in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica). The “corroborative detail” in some of my sources regarding how breech-loading enabled rifling appears to have been erroneous as well as superfluous to that discussion. - E. J.

(29-May-2006) I am grateful to Tudor Wyatt Johnston for a kind e-mail correcting my spelling of his grandfather’s name. Wyatt Galt Johnston, the eminent pathologist, whose research was discussed on page 38, was of Scottish descent, and so spelled his surname with a “t”. I erroneously omitted that distinguishing letter. Tudor Wyatt Johnston also said he enjoyed my book, and I am grateful for that as well. - E. J.

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