The Art of Detection: From Sherlock Holmes to Sam Spade

It was freedom, reckless and wonderful. It was the allure of faraway lands, the beckoning whisper of a beautiful woman, the thrill of a duel to the death.

It was the pulps. And to thirty million readers, it was their passport to grand adventure.

The most final and irreversible crime is murder. Murder is sometimes personal, often bloody, usually messy and almost always cause for investigation-and that includes the science of investigating a crime.

More than the subject of hit CSI television dramas, the science of forensics has evolved and improved over the years. (Forensic analysis has been documented at least as far back as the "Eureka" legend of Archimedes, 287-212 BC-even though, surprisingly, police only started using fingerprints for evidence in 1892 when Juan Vucetich solved a murder case in Argentina by cutting off a piece of a door with a bloody fingerprint on it.)

In the pages of famous (and sometimes infamous) detective novels, the heroes have captured the hearts of readers all over the world with realistic portrayals of deception and fatal retribution. They have also captured the minds of readers through intelligent investigation and equally realistic portrayals of the art and science of detection.

Undoubtedly the most famous literary detective is Sherlock Holmes. His creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, would have never been able to conjure up the master of deduction himself had it not been for his academic work as a student at the University of Edinburgh-first with Dr. Joseph Bell, who specialized in criminal psychology (after whom Holmes was modeled), and later with Professor Andrew Maclaglan, a forensic medicine expert, who taught Doyle how to observe the details and clues that led to the precise causes of death.

The same is true of Dashiell Hammett, creator of Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles. Hammett grew up on the mean streets of Philadelphia and worked as a private detective with the Baltimore and San Francisco branches of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency-and had the cuts and scars from scraps with criminals to prove it.

For his detective fiction, L. Ron Hubbard interviewed law enforcement officials, police officers and federal investigators. He even developed a long-term friendship with New York's chief medical examiner. The coroner shared his professional expertise with Hubbard and other members of the New York Chapter of the American Fiction Guild members over lunch, members who would, as Ron recounted, "go away from the luncheon the weirdest shades of green."

While Sherlock Holmes has been embedded in popular culture first by Basil Rathbone and then by Robert Downey Jr., and Sam Spade has been immortalized on the screen by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon-like the very first tough private eye, Race Williams-these detectives first found fame in the pages of the pulp fiction all-story magazines that serialized their stories to millions of Americans up through the 1930s and 1940s before the TV set took the world by storm.