*I received a free ARC of this book, with thanks to the author and Icon Books. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: A gripping historical true crime narrative that reads like the best of Conan Doyle himself (Karen Abbott, author of The Ghosts of Eden Park), American Sherlock recounts the riveting true story of the birth of modern criminal investigation.
Berkeley, California, 1933. In a lab filled with curiosities–beakers, microscopes, Bunsen burners, and hundreds upon hundreds of books–sat an investigator who would go on to crack at least two thousand cases in his forty-year career. Known as the American Sherlock Holmes, Edward Oscar Heinrich was one of America’s greatest–and first–forensic scientists, with an uncanny knack for finding clues, establishing evidence, and deducing answers with a skill that seemed almost supernatural.
Heinrich was one of the nation’s first expert witnesses, working in a time when the turmoil of Prohibition led to sensationalized crime reporting and only a small, systematic study of evidence. However with his brilliance, and commanding presence in both the courtroom and at crime scenes, Heinrich spearheaded the invention of a myriad of new forensic tools that police still use today, including blood spatter analysis, ballistics, lie-detector tests, and the use of fingerprints as courtroom evidence. His work, though not without its serious–some would say fatal–flaws, changed the course of American criminal investigation.
Based on years of research and thousands of never-before-published primary source materials, American Sherlock captures the life of the man who pioneered the science our legal system now relies upon–as well as the limits of those techniques and the very human experts who wield them.
This book details the life – personal and professional – of Edward Oscar Heinrich, who pioneered many of the forensic scientific techniques that are still used in criminal investigations today (and some that are not!).
His personal life was shadowed early on by the tragic death of his father, which combined with his own innate personality traits to make him suffer badly from financial anxiety for the rest of his life. This compulsion drove him to keep meticulous records, which certainly must have come in handy when it came to compiling this account.
This could, therefore, have been a dry totalling of his daily accounts and scientific experiments, laced with his personal letters in which he bemoans his finances and the existence of his scientific competitors. However, the cases which Kate Winkler Dawson presents here form the larger part of the narrative and are interesting enough to satisfy fans of classic Christie-like mysteries or more modern CSI show fans alike: an actress who dies after an apparent liaison with one of the most popular movie stars of the time; a husband accused of killing his adored wife; a missing priest; a train robbery turned massacre… Dawson presents each case as if she were there as a witness, then shows us the techniques Heinrich applied to its solution.
It seems that Heinrich dabbled in a bit of everything when it came to investigating crimes – much like the titular fictional detective, who specialised in everything from soil and tobacco to poisons and penmanship. Heinrich begins with analysing handwriting, then enthusiastically pursues fingerprint comparisons, blood pattern analysis, entomology, comparing bullet rifling marks, analysis of trace and particle evidence… if you’ve seen it on CSI, it is likely that Heinrich helped to kick-start it (with the rather large exception of DNA analysis, which was still quite a way in the future!).
Given this illustrious background, his expert reputation and the sensational nature of some of the cases presented here, I was shocked when a simple internet search brought up so little information about E. O. Heinrich other than a few scattered and sparse mentions in articles, and a very bare-bones Wikipedia article (about six sentences!). Kate Winkler Dawson’s work here does justice in bringing to greater attention a remarkable man.
The extent of the author’s research is clearly evident, as a large final portion of the book is given over to references and other resources used in the compilation of this volume. Yet with all of this wealth of data, she has managed to create an entertaining story, as well as a compelling historical insight into the conception of forensic science in the US.
In 2016, I discovered Oscar Heinrich hidden in a short article that lauded one of his most famous cases, the Siskiyou train robbery of 1923. Astonished that no contemporary author had penned a book about him, I requested that UC Berkeley open his collection for research. Michels agreed, and after more than a year of waiting, I began to immerse myself in the bizarre world of Oscar Heinrich, the most famous criminalist you’ve likely never heard of.– Kate Winkler Dawson, American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics and the Birth of American CSI