Wednesday, June 5, 2013

52. Homicide

“We must look for consistency. Where there is a want of it we must suspect deception.”
“The Problem of Thor Bridge”

In today’s world, depictions of the investigation of crime (in books, film, and television) are dominated by the procedural, a genre that has met with much popular success. There is something captivating about the pursuit, in often microscopic detail, of the means, motive and opportunity for some gruesome act of nefarious intent. Perhaps the attraction lies in the juxtaposition of the criminal with the intellectual pursuits (through, say, forensic science, or technology) that ultimately uncover the culprit. While the Holmes canon is certainly exemplary in its deployment of scientific and forensic techniques well in advance of popular knowledge or widespread usage, no Holmes tale comes quite as close to the procedural label as “The Problem of Thor Bridge.”

The procedural formula would not find its modern form until 1945’s V as in Victim by Lawrence Arthur Goldstone under the pseudonym, Lawrence Treat. That novel’s duo of moody, intuitive detective and canny medical technician owes much to the Holmes and Watson of “Thor Bridge” and the constant questioning back-and-forth that propels them toward their deductions. Another singular feature, common to both the procedural and to “Thor Bridge” is that it is fairly narrow in scope as a homicide investigation, though it is precisely this convention that Conan Doyle wishes to undermine.

Perhaps fearing that a lack of some great conspiracy, exotic origin, or hidden threat (nuances which had become, by the time “Thor Bridge” was published in 1922, if not clichés themselves, at least his stock-in-trade) would hinder the story’s reception, Conan Doyle devises a twist that brilliantly shatters reader assumptions while maintaining all of the intrigue that the procedural’s methodical pace builds upon. Holmes’s pronouncement on the case and detailed re-staging of the crime scene continue to linger with readers and fans, so much so that, as recently as 1998, Dr. Joseph A. Prahlow, Scarlett Long and Dr. Jeffrey Barnard published a detailed case note on “Thor Bridge” in The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. Even though Holmes himself expresses doubts about his methods in “Thor Bridge,” exclaiming “I fear, Watson…that you will not improve any reputation which I may have acquired by adding the case of the Thor Bridge mystery to your annals,” nothing, as readers not only of Holmes but of the genres of crime fiction inspired by the Holmes stories can attest, could be further from the truth.

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