Biography, Book Club, History, Nonfiction, STEM, True Crime

American Sherlock by Kate Winkler Dawson

Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI

When a member of Nonfiction Book Club put this book forth for voting I admittedly did not want it to get voted through to an actual selection. When it was, I dreaded reading it, but was quite pleasantly surprised.

Synopsis

From the publisher marketing:
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.

Review

While Nonfiction Book Club is still on hiatus, I have plenty of books to still review that I didn’t get to during my missing reading year of 2021 so I’ll be filling in non-new release weeks with old Nonfiction Book Club selections!

When it came to this book, I was extremely hesitant. We had read Kate’s first book, Death in the Air as our second book club selection and I was not a big fan of the narrative structure. It took me almost a year to finish reading it and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to reading another one of her books. However, I must report that I was pleasantly surprised and impressed with American Sherlock. While I still think it is a good idea not to read multiple books by the same author in book club, I was glad to have made an exception in this instance.

Where Death in the Air was a bit disorganized in it’s structure, the narrative in American Sherlock is much more organized. Beginning with a biography of Heinrich’s early life, it follows with some of Heinrich’s more sensational or well known cases that he consulted on. Accompanying each case is a background on the technique implemented to solve the case. In addition to Heinrich, the recurring presence of his own Watson, his confidant John Boynton Kaiser. Kaiser often acted as a sounding board for Heinrich and often kept him grounded.

While it can get a touch repetitive (Kate focuses on his insecurities quite a bit), I understood Heinrich’s frustrations. As a trial witness he was frequently uncharismatic and the juries lacked basic scientific understanding. He didn’t sensationalize anything and frequently found himself lamenting the inclusion of his rival investigators for the defense who were far more likely to sensationalize the evidence to win over the jury.

I enjoyed the science and true crime side of things. I did not, however, have any sympathy or empathy for Heinrich himself. He comes across as an egoist who has no compassion for his family, or even his best friend Kaiser. As with Death in the Air, I think Kate tried to do too much here. I would have enjoyed the book more if it were more of a true crime narrative, focusing more on the crimes and the science used to solve them than the man himself.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.

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