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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Memory Mash-up: The Case of Sherlock Holmes and Fingerprints

The image of Sherlock Holmes in a deerstalker hat peering through his magnifying glass is iconic. But if your memory has him poring over fingerprints through the glass, you are mistaken: Your brain is constructing its own recollection that mashes up two iconic images: Holmes with his magnifying glass and detectives sleuthing out fingerprints. It’s much like the confabulation by many Americans who say they saw footage and photos of Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on a desk in the U.N. General Assembly. (It did take place, but there are no bona fide images of N.K. in the act.)
I got to thinking about the Holmes iconography while reading the June 8 installment of the New York Sunday Times weekly feature, Makers:

But recently—with the rise of DNA evidence—fingerprints have begun to seem like relics from the Sherlock Holmes era, noted Pagan Kennedy in Who Made Those Fingerprints?  
The article traced the origins of police finger printing to the late 1800s. Conan Doyle’s 56 Holmes tales (and 4 novels) began appearing in 1887 and ran until 1927. They covered the era from the 1880s until the dawn of World War I.

While Pagan did not directly attribute fingerprint analysis to Holmes, her mention of him was evocative, at least for me. But being a bit of a Baker Street irregular, I recalled the haziest of memories linking Holmes with fingerprints. So I bought the Kindle version of The Complete  Sherlock Holmes from Amazon and did several searches. The only hit with conviction implicated a hand print from the 1903 tale, The Norwood Builder.

The jury was in: the fictional detective spent a great deal of time ogling through his magnifier at footprints (animal and human), wheel prints, and powder and ink stains—but not at fingerprints. Cross-checking with the BBC’s Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett yielded similar results. Some other irregular besides me will have to tackle the Basil Rathbone movies—I’m forensically all in.
Holmes (and Khrushchev) aside, the moral of this exercise is generic and cautionary: more often than we’d care to admit, our memories can prove imperfect, even (no disrespect to Holmes) clueless.

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