Book Review: American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI
BY MATT ELLIS
With seven Law and Orders, four CSIs, and crime thrillers ranking among the top-selling genres of fiction, it is no mystery that America has an addiction to police procedurals and court drama. Networks and publishers have made an industry out of true crime re-creation and documentaries for those with a more discerning bloodlust that want to know that the murder and mayhem they consume is the real deal. In this environment, it should come as no surprise that Kate Winkler Dawson’s newest book, American Sherlock, with its equal parts biography, true crime facts, forensics science history, and social commentary, is primed to be a shotgun blast of mass appeal into the face of the nonfiction marketplace.
At first blush, American Sherlock is a biography about Edward Oscar Heinrich, a man Dawson identifies in the prologue as “a forensic scientist and criminalist from the first half of the twentieth century, a man who changed how crimes were solved before forensics became the foundation of most criminal cases – America’s Sherlock Holmes.”
Dawson tackles Heinrich’s illustrious career by walking the reader through his most famous cases. The chosen series of vignettes reads like the lead plots of the best crime fiction—a Hollywood mogul accused of sexual assault and manslaughter; a devout husband charged with the murder of his wife; a manhunt after a boy finds a body part; and quite possibly the last great American train robbery. That’s not all, but you get the idea.
With her succinct and vivid prose, Dawson places the reader inside the scene of each crime and inside the minds of the key participants, maximizing the immersive experience and effortlessly delivering complicated details, plot twists and all:
Allene’s blood had been transferred to almost every corner of her small home. The pathologist, the undertaker, officers, and countless neighbors had all shuffled through the scene, along with David Lamson and the real estate agent. There were large pools of blood in the bathroom, splashes in the hallway, red footprints leading to both bedrooms, sprays containing hundreds of droplets on each bathroom wall, and smears wiped on doorknobs. Reconstructing the scene would be arduous, even for more experienced detectives.
Dawson goes beyond gruesome details to provide the relevant historical context necessary to shatter popular misconceptions of the time period and expose external forces that complicated each case. For example, most of the key events occurred during what is widely referred to as the Roaring Twenties, a golden era. Dawson dispels all romantic notions of Gatsby-esque socials and speakeasys full of fast jazz and Charleston-dancing flappers. This was a time period of widespread poverty; crime was up and employment was down. “And it was a tumultuous era – the homicide rate in the 1920s, when Heinrich’s most interesting work began, had increased by as much as almost 80 percent from the decade before, thanks to Prohibition,” Dawson writes. In another section, Dawson writes: “The conclusion of World War I in 1918 did not revitalize the economy as the government had promised. Soldiers returned home traumatized, angry, and often with little hope of finding jobs.”
In this book, Dawson stays true to her documentary producer and journalist sensibilities by conducting an exhaustive examination of court records, case files, newspaper coverage, personal correspondence, and estate property. Along with Heinrich’s achievements, Dawson lays bare a man who was prone to bouts of self-destructive egotism, depression, and an obsessive-compulsive personality that challenged both his professional and personal lives. Heinrich pioneered many breakthroughs still used today, but he also championed techniques that later proved to be unreliable and destructive. Throughout his career, this celebrated crime fighter carried a heavy burden of doubt about whether his work led to the convictions of innocent people or the release of criminals into society.
Dawson’s work goes beyond standard biography and true-crime fare to unpack social controversies of the era, some with alarming parallels to contemporary issues almost a century later. In every case, sensational and irresponsible journalism impacted the pursuit of justice. Media sources discredited experts, spun communities into a panic, and ruined the lives of suspects in the court of public opinion, regardless of a jury’s decision.
Dawson’s book is also timely in the wake of the Me Too movement—a stark reminder that our society hasn’t evolved as far as we might want to believe.
While women had won full voting rights the year before, sexual assaults in America were vastly underreported; when survivors did respond to the police, many times they were blamed for being culpable. The popularity of adventurous flappers with their sexuality on display left men scared of false accusations, while women and girls continued to be sexualized.
Each criminal case highlights the fragility of the American justice system with observations that still hold true today. Despite best intentions, investigative techniques and evidentiary facts used in the prosecution of a suspect could prove flawed or misleading years later. In the conclusion of American Sherlock, Dawson leaves us with a poignant warning in an age when communities are at odds with law enforcement and political leaders:
Investigations must start with honest, intelligent officers willing to do good detective work in the field. The public should question law enforcement without impeding its progress, and jurors shouldn’t be swayed by an expert’s reputation – they should evaluate if his theory makes sense. … All forensic science is fallible, even DNA testing. Americans can only hope that investigators will doggedly gather reliable evidence, clues that can get to the truth rather than settle on an outcome that will appease the public or free a guilty suspect.
Matt Ellis is a retired Army officer currently working as an intelligence and security expert in Guatemala. Over the years, he has served as a HUMINT officer, counterintelligence special agent, linguist, diplomat, musician, and Christmas tree trimmer (the machete kind). He was the story developer and staff screenwriter for Pacific Rim Media, and his short fiction has been published at Thought Catalog. He holds an MS in Information Security from the University of Maryland Global Campus and is studying Fiction at UCR Palm Desert’s Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Find him at www.letswriting.com.