Readers of Sherlock Holmes may remember that fictional character had such a command of diverse sciences and skills that his assistant Watson was impelled to innumerate them. American Sherlock introduces readers to the life of Edward Oscar Heinrich, a real-life and self-taught polymath who was forced at an early age to distinguish himself professionally so that he might take care of his widowed mother. Beginning as a young pharmacist who learned his trade on his own — passing the examination to be certified, but never studying pharmacology in a formal setting — and moving through several other technical professions, he began assisting police in the investigation of crimes and created his own laboratory for the work. American Sherlock is a partial biography of Heinrich, but one focused on his case history, as his work investigating several lurid trials of the 1920s and 1930s saw the creation of several forensic tools that researchers now take for granted, like the study of blood splatter. In addition to this, there’s also the voyeuristic appeal of reading about those crimes themselves: in one, three brothers attempt the last great train robbery of the west (it goes….poorly). In another case, Heinrich investigates the strange death of a young woman in Fatty Arbuckle’s suites, a death that destroyed Arbuckle’s career despite his popularity. Readers interested in forensics or Prohibition-era crimes will find this of great interest.
Relatedly, I read Death’s Acre by Bill Bass, co-authored by Jon Jefferson. This is a history of Bass’s lifetime of work as a forensic anthropologist. Although a professor who teaches academically, Bass’s expertise in reading dead bodies — understanding the story that a body’s state of decay could tell police investigating a death — sees him assisting in cases throughout the United States. Forensic anthropology not only allows bodies far gone to be identified, using anatomical clues to distinguish not only men from women (shh, no one tell Kentaji Jackson), but to determine the race and approximate age of the deceased. Valuable clues could also be derived about whether the person had died at the location, how long they had lain there, and how they’d perished. Although Bass’s academic background gave him his start, he and his students also created a unique research facility that consisted of a fenced-in acre of Tennessee in which donated bodies were deliberately exposed under varying conditions so that the progress of decay, or factors related to decay, could be studied directly. This research gave investigators the ability to pin down how long a body had been decaying, for instance, by the insects or insect waste present upon it. If you were watching TV in the 2000s, you may have seen one or many of the forensic shows that were so popular back then, chiefly CSI. I remember CSI vividly because it was unique, and to my delight in reading this, I noticed that some of its cases were inspired by Bass’s own work. Forensic writers like Patricia Cornwell also drew from Bass’s research. Death’s Acre has great interest for those fascinated by forensics, but considering the subject matter (death and decay), readers should know that Bass doesn’t spare any grisly details.