What is the first thing you do when you arrive on the scene of a crime? Do you take witness testimony? Do you map out the crime scene or take pictures? Do you collect evidence? All of these actions are important steps in solving a crime. However, it is not always the most obvious details that are key to solving the crime. Sometimes, it is the least obvious or seemingly insignificant details that are of utmost importance.
In “Clues: Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes,” Carlo Ginzburg discusses the comparison drawn by Enrico Castelnuovo regarding Morelli’s method of paintings to particular artists and Holmes way of solving crimes. Italian art historian Giovanni Morelli was first to suggest copied paintings could be distinguished from original paintings based upon the most trivial details of the painter’s school rather than the easily imitated obvious characteristics of a particular painter’s style. Similarly, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s protagonist Sherlock Holmes is renowned and characterized by his ability to detect clues unnoticed by others to solve the crime. For example, in the case on “The Cardboard Box in which two non-identical severed ears were delivered to an unmarried woman,” Holmes observes the features of the woman’s ears and notes the similarities between her ears and one of the severed ears. Thus, Holmes concludes the woman is related to one of the individuals whose ear was severed.
Ginzburg goes on to assert the common connection between Morelli and Holmes is the use of symptomatology. Symptomatology involves the use of superficial symptoms or signs to diagnose disease, since the disease itself cannot be directly observed. However, these signs are symptoms are often difficult to find for the untrained eye. Thus, in Morelli’s case, the signs were features of paintings which were then utilized to distinguish or “diagnose” paintings as original works of art by the artist. Holmes case, the signs were clues which were then applied to solving the crime or “diagnosing” how and why the crime occurred.
Do you, Detective, think seemingly irrelevant or minor details play a significant role in solving a crime? If you don’t suggest you at least review Holmes success in solving crimes as a result of paying attention to even the tiniest details. Although Holmes is a fictional character, much of the methodology employed by forensic scientists and detectives as depicted in the stories was true to the time. That being said, it is plausible Holmes method of using distinctive clues was truly essential to solving crimes. If you still don’t think such clues are key to solving a crime, I suggest you put yourself in Holmes shoes for your next case. Use clues that appear insignificant to draw conclusions about the crime.
Holmes was 19th century detective, so what do his methods mean for you as a 21st century detective? As Holmes did in the case of “The Cardboard Box,” you should pay attention to physical features of victims and witnesses. Additionally, you should take note of the behavior and tone/language of witnesses. As far as physical evidence goes, you should be very attentive to collect any and all sources of hair, blood, fibers, etc. from victims and crime scenes. Such evidence can then of course be processed with modern forensic technology, such as DNA fingerprinting with polymerase chain reaction (PCR), to identify potential suspects or other victims. Special attention should also be paid to the victims and/or suspects past and present activities, health conditions, violations of law, etc. Any evidence that seems out of place, such as an unsubscribed prescription should also be collected or archived with pictures. Once the evidence has been collected and the witness testimony taken, you can link together these “signs” or clues to “diagnose” or solve your case symptomatically. There is much more you can do to use even the most irrelevant details or clues to solve a crime, but this is a start to get you to become more like Holmes and utilize a symptomatic approach to solving crimes.