Stranger Than Fiction

August 2020

"Summery" Offenses

By Dean Jobb

A forgotten American pioneer of forensic investigation, small towns with a big crime problem, the science behind the devious ways Shakespeare killed off his characters, plus everything you didn’t know about Sherlock Holmes—a roundup of recent true crime titles perfect for summer reading.

As avid Sherlock Holmes fans know, Arthur Conan Doyle based his iconic detective on a real-life doctor—his former Edinburgh University medical instructor Joseph Bell, who had an uncanny knack for sizing up patients based on lightning-fast deductions. But who knew that Conan Doyle’s son, Adrian, went to great lengths in the 1940s to deny the connection, apparently out of fear of a legal claim from Bell’s descendants? Or that Conan Doyle himself belatedly acknowledged another model, Edinburgh police surgeon Dr. Henry Littlejohn?

Sherlock-UnlockedLondon-based author Daniel Smith explores these and scores of other surprising and obscure tidbits about Holmes and his creator in Sherlock Unlocked: Little-known Facts About the World’s Greatest Detective (Michael O’Mara Books). It’s not only an escapist summer read for anyone who thinks they know everything about the Great Detective—these snippets are perfect for would-be Sherlockians looking for a quick introduction to all things Holmes.

Many have become part of Holmes lore. The war wound of his sidekick Dr. John Watson, which Conan Doyle apparently forgot was supposed to be in the shoulder and moved to the leg in a subsequent story. How close the author came to giving his characters the wince-inducing names Sherrinford Holmes and Dr. Ormond Sacker. And Holmes’s instantly recognizable deerstalker hat and oversized calabash pipe? An illustrator and an actor who portrayed the detective invented these trademark flourishes, not Conan Doyle.

But even readers familiar with Conan Doyle’s career and the Holmes canon will be delighted with the new finds Smith has uncovered. Holmes was first portrayed on film in 1900 in Sherlock Holmes Baffled, a silent movie rediscovered in 1968. We all know Holmes was smart—and not easily baffled – but what was his IQ? A London academic who studied the character’s cases and deductions pegged it in the 190-range, far above mere mortals such as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. And if you were wondering how many homicides or attempted murders Holmes investigated, the answer is thirty-seven—and along the way, he bagged four blackmailers, two counterfeiters, and more than a dozen thieves and robbers. Surprisingly, in at least one out of every six Holmes stories, the mystery to be solved involves no crime at all.

Smith knows his Sherlock. He’s the author of How to Think Like Sherlock and his last book, The Ardlamont Mystery: The Real-Life Story Behind the Creation of Sherlock Holmes, recounted a Scottish murder case Bell and Littlejohn joined forces to investigate in 1893. He presents this delightful collection of back stories, coincidences, and other Holmes minutiae—no doubt drawn in part from research for his previous books—with style and wit.


Death-by-ShakespeareWhen it comes to body counts in classic literature, it’s tough to beat the Bard. The swordplay, poisonings, and suicides that drive the plots of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet are only a taste of the mayhem William Shakespeare first brought to the stage four centuries ago. By British science writer Kathryn Harkup’s count, he devised an astounding seventy-four different ways to kill off characters in his thirty-nine plays. In Death By Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts (Bloomsbury Sigma), she reveals the origins of the playwright’s bloodlust and explores whether these ingenious means of dispensing with his unwanted creations have a basis in science.

Shakespeare was fifty-two when he died, something akin to winning the lottery in Elizabethan times. The average life expectancy was brutishly short—in the poorest, filthiest, and most dangerous neighborhoods of London, residents were lucky if they survived to celebrate their twenty-fifth birthday. A host of untreatable diseases and plagues and other epidemics made death a grim fact of life. Criminals were hanged at the rate of three a day in England and Wales, with rowdy crowds assembling to watch the show. Frequent wars and a penchant for street fights swelled the death toll. A surprising number of Shakespeare’s fellow playwrights died young, including Christopher Marlowe, who was fatally stabbed in a scuffle.

Harkup dives into Shakespeare’s deadly times with an eye for detail and anecdote and a scientist’s detachment from the gruesome details of the fate in store for so many in the days before antibiotics and vaccines. She also explores the tricks Elizabethan producers used to present murder scenes on stage (sheep’s blood looks more realistic than a cow’s, for those taking notes). The Bard often took the easy way out and stipulated that executions occur off stage, with a fake severed head brought before the audience to prove the deed had been done.

One of Harkup’s previous books, A Is for Arsenic, explored the science behind the poisons Agatha Christie deployed as murder weapons in her crime novels and stories. Shakespeare’s knowledge of poisons was far more primitive than Christie’s (she had worked in a hospital dispensary during the First World War), and it shows in his plays. He appears to have invented the toxin “hebona” to kill Hamlet’s father, the Danish king, though this may be a misspelling of henbane, part of a plant family that includes deadly nightshade. Bizarrely, the lethal agent is administered through the king’s ear—“a particularly poor choice for application,” Harkup notes, since most poisons must be ingested or inhaled to kill.

Death By Shakespeare is a macabre but fascinating read, rich in historical context, scientific insight, and intriguing asides. There’s even a surprising story behind Yorick’s skull, the famous prop used in Hamlet: when pianist André Tchaikowsky died in 1982, he willed his skull to London’s Royal Shakespeare Company for use in the play.  


American-SherlockEdward Oscar Heinrich is “the most famous criminalist you’ve likely never heard of,” says Kate Winkler Dawson, who rescues this giant of forensic science from obscurity in American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI (G.P. Putnam’s Sons). Between 1910 and 1933 Heinrich investigated thousands of cases in his California laboratory, where he pioneered techniques for analyzing blood spatter, fingerprints, and ballistics evidence that have become routine today. He was “the nation’s first unique crime scene investigator,” Dawson writes, “one of America’s greatest forensic scientists.”

Dawson, a documentary producer, journalism professor, and author of Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City, discovered this little-known supersleuth by chance, through a brief account of one of his cases. She soon discovered a vast archive of Heinrich’s personal papers, case files, and other materials at the University of California, Berkley, which provided ample material and insights for this overdue biography. While he was often likened to Sherlock Holmes in news reports—giving Dawson her title—Heinrich was not always comfortable with the comparison. “Holmes acted on hunches,” he once protested. “And hunches play no part in my crime laboratory.” His mantra, she notes, matched that of another fictional detective, Hercule Poirot: “order and method.”

Heinrich, Dawson argues, was the prototype for today’s practitioners of CSI—“an expert with the instincts of a detective in the field, the analytical skills of a forensic scientist in the lab, and the ability to translate that knowledge to a general audience in a courtroom.” An early trauma seems to have given him a steely detachment from the horrific crime scenes he studied—when his father hanged himself, sixteen-year-old Heinrich coolly cut down the body as he waited for help to arrive. In the courtroom, one reporter would later note, he was “humorless, cold, quiet, statistical” and “as patient as Job.”

This is an engrossing must-read that doubles as a primer on the history of forensic detection. Dawson vividly recreates a handful of Heinrich’s most sensational cases—including his key role as a fingerprint expert when comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle stood trial in the early 1920s for manslaughter—to document his career, accomplishments, and formidable legacy. But she does not ignore her subject’s flaws or missteps (Heinrich’s credibility took a beating from Arbuckle’s lawyers) and she bookends her narrative with a 1933 murder case in which, despite his insistence a death was accidental, a jury almost convicted an innocent man of murder.


the-best-new-true-crime-stories-small-towns-662x1024“It is my belief,” Holmes informs Watson in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” as a train whisks them away from their familiar urban surroundings, “that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.” Just ask the producers of the television series Midsomer Murders, set in quaint English villages with sky-high murder rates; they have banked on this for years. And author and true crime anthologist Mitzi Szereto, too, has discovered that Holmes was right. When we think of small towns, “we imagine peaceful, close knit hamlets untainted by the dangers of the big city,” she writes in her introduction to The Best New True Crime Stories: Small Towns (Mango Publishing), but “sometimes the postcard image is tarnished by a dirty fingerprint.”

In Szereto’s latest collection (she also edited 2019’s The Best New True Crime Stories: Serial Killers), fifteen writers offer tales of murder and skullduggery committed in “the smiling and beautiful countryside.” The stories are set in obscure locations around the world, some in towns boasting only a few hundred inhabitants; all are off the beaten track. Never heard of Alger in Washington State, population 400? Szereto’s contribution to the anthology recounts how a twenty-eight-year-old resident went on a shooting rampage in 2008, killing six people. Good luck finding Posorja on a map of South America—the Ecuadorian town where in 2018 a mob of residents, distrustful of the authorities and enraged by false rumors and social-media exaggerations, took the law into their own hands and brutally murdered three suspects being held for a minor robbery. And if you know the way to Leighton Buzzard, ground zero in 1984 for a spate of terrifying home invasions and sexual assaults committed by a truly odious character who became known as “The Fox,” go to the head of the geography class.      

Most of the crimes recreated here were committed in recent decades, but fans of vintage true crime will find a smattering of forgotten cases dating from the 1880s to the 1940s. A writer who grew up in Alexander City, Alabama recalls the case of Rev. Willie Maxwell, the so-called “voodoo preacher” who murdered relatives to collect on life insurance policies (Casey Cep recounted the full story of the crimes and novelist Harper Lee’s fascination with the case in her brilliant 2019 book Furious Hours).

These well-researched, globe-trotting, bite-sized tales are perfect for a lazy summer afternoon – especially at a time when it’s much safer to travel through the pages of a book.


Dean Jobb is the author of Empire of Deception (Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada), the true tale of a brazen ponzi schemer in 1920s Chicago. His next book, set for release in July 2021, recreates the crimes of serial killer Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who terrorized Victorian Era London and murdered at least four people in the Chicago area in the 1880s. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb

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