From Baker Street to Vancouver in The Real Sherlock Holmes
Life, argued Oscar Wilde, imitates art.
While the idea—like most opinions—is debatable, there are times when it’s an absolute truism. Take, for example, the case of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation, the great detective Sherlock Holmes.
As the History Channel documentary The Real Sherlock Holmes makes clear, modern police work owes a huge debt to the fictional detective. In fact, it’s easy to trace a direct line from Holmes’ adventures to the methodology of modern-day crime scene investigation.
After all, the fictional Holmes used chemical analysis, microscopic inspection, personality profiling, disguises, footprints, ballistics, handwriting and typography analysis, as well as photographic evidence to solve crimes—long before real police departments ever did.
But it wasn’t just the science of Sherlock Holmes that inspired more than 100 years of law enforcement professionals, it was also his keen powers of deduction.
In a telephone interview with the Georgia Straight, Vancouverite Ian Laverty, one of the documentary’s featured experts, heartily endorses Holmes’ influence. “He got smart people thinking through what’s going on, and doing the mental analysis to figure out what the evidence means,” Laverty says.
An innovator in geographic profiling, Laverty is president of Environmental Criminology Research Inc. Founded with business partner Kim Rossmo—a former Vancouver policeman who pioneered the fledgling science and first raised the alarm about a serial killer in the Downtown Eastside missing women case—ECRI produces a software program called Rigel, which analyzes geographical patterns in multiple-crime offenders. This data can then be used to point investigators towards a suspect’s location.
While the algorithm which runs the program appears incredibly complicated, Laverty explains that it really just comes down to a simple principle: criminals—like most people—don’t like to leave their comfort zones.
“Because we’re all lazy at heart, we hate to go any further or do any more than we have to,” Laverty explains. “All the computer software does is it goes to a giant grid of a whole area and says okay, if I lived here, how much effort would it cost me to go to all these locations? Then it just inverts that and says alright, the place with the lowest effort is the most likely location for this offender’s home.”
It’s a no-nonsense concept that works for hundreds of municipal, state, and federal police agencies across the world. In fact, Rigel has been so successful there’s now even a military version, which has seen use in Iraq and Afghanistan, helping to suppress IEDs, snipers, kidnappings, and other types of insurgency.
The creative process which spawned Rigel serves as a perfect example of Holmes’ famed deductive reasoning, something that was ingrained early on in both Laverty and Rossmo. While students at the University of Saskatchewan, both men independently bought the same pair of books, The Annotated Sherlock Holmes. “His set came without the box,” Laverty recalls, “and for decades afterwards he would bug me—‘Do you want to sell me that box?’—eventually, I did.”
It’s obvious that Laverty’s enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes is something that’s shared by many, many people. In continuous print since his first publication, Holmes is said to be the first fictional character to become more famous than his creator, and he’s also one of the most adapted fictional characters in history, with more than 250 filmed depictions—including two recent Robert Downey Jr. movies, as well as the current British and American TV series featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller, respectively.
As director Gary Lang takes us from Britain to Canada to the United States, The Real Sherlock Holmes provides a wealth of expert testimony, from criminal investigators to scientists to authors. All of them speak to the importance of Holmes’ legacy, underlining one very important point: that Holmes has truly changed the face of police work.
“Most of us who have any interest in this field have read Sherlock Holmes religiously, from beginning to end,” says Laverty. “He was very responsible for everybody realizing that an analytical turn-of-mind is as important as the physical evidence.”
The Real Sherlock Holmes airs on the History Channel, on Friday (September 28, 9:00pm)