“The Only Certainty Is That We Could Use a Drink” – Sherlock Holmes & Sam Spade as Exemplars of Two Eras of Science by Keith Pille

Sherlock Holmes is old news in 2018, but stop a moment and consider him when he was new. You know, in the late 1880s, when Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four were being printed serially, followed by the stories that would be collected as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and the subsequent anthologies. Who was this weirdo, this uptight, fact-obsessed, crime-fighting cokehead? And why were people increasingly nuts about him? The first two serially-printed novels were modest successes, with the short stories really catching fire. This was not the first detective fiction to find print, but it was the first to go supernova. And literary/cultural sensations reflect their times.

Clearly a fascination with crime was in the air in London (and America) in the 1880s. The Jack the Ripper murders occurred in fall of 1888, roughly contemporaneously with the early Holmes materials. Setting aside the facts of those murders themselves, the frenzy over them shows a public mania for sensational crime, and a media apparatus primed and ready to stoke it. I don’t propose a formal connection between the rise of Holmes and Rippermania, other than the fact that fascination with violent crime was in the air and that this was no doubt part of why the reading public latched on to the acerbic detective.

But crime wasn’t the only thing in the air then. Science was, too. Doyle repeatedly goes out of his way in the early Holmes books to establish that Holmes is a scientist, or at least well-acquainted with the latest scientific trends (and note, by the way, that Watson is also a doctor, certainly a science-adjacent profession). Chemistry, in particular, is put forward as a specialty of Holmes’. Consider Watson’s inventory of Holmes’ knowledge, as put forward early in A Study in Scarlet:

  1. Knowledge of Literature – nil.
  2. Knowledge of Philosophy – nil.
  3. Knowledge of Astronomy – nil.
  4. Knowledge of Politics – Feeble.
  5. Knowledge of Botany – Variable. Well up in belladonnaopiumand poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
  6. Knowledge of Geology – Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks, has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of Londonhe had received them.
  7. Knowledge of Chemistry – Profound.
  8. Knowledge of Anatomy – Accurate, but unsystematic.
  9. Knowledge of Sensational Literature– Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
  10. Plays the violin well.
  11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman.
  12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law

This list is somewhat refuted by later stories, where Holmes displays a fondness for dropping apropos quotes that doesn’t jibe well with total ignorance of literature. But the big thing is that Holmes’ knowledge of chemistry (which, it will shortly become important to note, was so tightly intertwined with physics at this point in the history of science as to be nearly the same discipline) is profound. And Doyle reiterates Holmes’ status as a cutting-edge chemist over and over; one of the most common interstitial scenes in Holmes stories is the detective performing some kind of chemical analysis for fun (others being Holmes falling into a violin-scraping depression jag and Holmes going on a coke bender).

So Holmes is a scientist. Holmesian deduction is largely about solving crimes through applying systematic knowledge (or what Doyle thinks is systematic knowledge; you run into phrenology and all sorts of other 19thcentury pseudoscience in Holmes) to evidence. And like I said, this is reflective of the times. In the 1880s, and in the entire back half of the 19thcentury, science was in the air.


Indeed, as the 19thcentury wound to a close, there was a palpable, widespread feeling among educated elites in Europe and America that the frontiers of science were about to be closed. The scientific paradigm operative at the end of the 19th century had begun with Isaac Newton in the mid 17th century, when Newton simultaneously proposed the basic laws by which all motion in observable scales is governed, and developed the new forms of mathematics necessary to describe these laws. Progress continued in an accretive fashion for two centuries. Over the course of the 19th century, Michael Faraday experimentally laid out the behavior of electricity and magnetism. After the Civil War, James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz provided a solid mathematical representation of Faraday’s qualitative results. Each step forward in this progression brought the everyday-observable world under more and more complete categorization.

The consensus was that everything that could be revealed by science had been. As Nobel prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman describes it:

By the late 1890s, physicists thought they had it all together. All of electricity, all of magnetism, all of light, all of mechanics, all moving things, as well as cosmology and gravity — all were understood by a few simple equations. … Had I been teaching back in 1890, I might have been tempted to send my physics students home, advising them to find a more interesting major. All the big questions had been answered. Those issues that were not well understood … well, everyone believed that sooner or later they would yield to the power of the Newton-Maxwell theoretical juggernaut. Physics had been neatly wrapped up in a box and tied with a bow.

Or, as Albert Michelson, who helped establish the speed of light, said in 1894: “It seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established […] the future truths of physical science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” The strong sense among the educated class, to which Arthur Conan Doyle and a great portion of his readers belonged, was that almost everything that could be known was known, and that proper mathematical application of the theories of the day could describe all reality as soon as a few details were worked out. And I’m setting aside the impact of Darwin, but we should remember that he was revolutionizing biology in the same period.

This scientific paradigm was rigorous, systematic, rigid, and mechanistic. Within it, everything was certain and knowable. All of creation literally functioned like clockwork, with all matter moving inexorably along the only path allowed by nature. Given appropriate knowledge of the initial conditions, in Newtonian physics the exact state of the entire universe and everything in it was theoretically calculable at any given point in time, with enough background information. Any knowledge was attainable with zero uncertainty within the system. With the right evidence, a properly scientific mind could deduce any truth.

It’s no accident that Doyle created Sherlock Holmes in this milieu. The scientific crime-fighter, was 100% a creation of his time. All of those evil stepfathers who wore disguises to trick their stepdaughters out of marrying (and what was it with Doyle and the stepfather-romantically-fooling-his-stepdaughter trope?) couldn’t help themselves because of the laws of nature; and Holmes couldn’t help but unmask them, both because he knew those laws and because he was stuck on the mechanistic tracks of classical physics, too.


The tidy bow of the late-19th-century physics/chemistry package unraveled completely when scientists worked to nail down the last few loose ends just before and around the turn of the 20th century. Max Planck tried to answer some questions about the nature of light and opened the door to quantum mechanics. Albert Einstein, working in similar loose ends, introduced special and general relativity.

The details of these theories and the inquiries that led to them are fascinating, but also well beyond the brief of this essay; the important thing is to note that they utterly smashed both the sense that all of physical science had been discovered and, indeed the boundaries and underlying beliefs science as it had stood in 1890. Where the scientific paradigm that gave birth to Holmes was rigid, mechanistic, and allowed for no uncertainty, quantum mechanics argued (and proved experimentally) that uncertainty was baked into reality at a fundamental level. Things might appear mechanistic on everyday scales, but in truth reality was ruled by probability and chance (Einstein’s discomfort with this truth led to his famous remark about god playing dice with the universe).

This upsetting of the apple cart took place in an ongoing fashion in the first few decades of the 20thcentury, overlapping with the initial public popularity of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes and the scientific paradigm he emblemized were both done at about the same time, in the troubled decades after the First World War.

In one of those parallels that both scream that there’s some correlation while resisting a firm causal relationship, society changed in that same timespan. The war, in particular, smashed the previous status quo (now there’s a controversial statement). As the 1910s progressed into the 20s and then the 30s, truths that had once seemed eternal were discarded. Rectitude was replaced with (perceived) frivolity, certainties with doubt.

And about that last one. If we want to think about the archetype of the detective that became dominant in the middle third of the 20thcentury, Hammett’s Sam Spade serves as a solid exemplar. Like Holmes, Spade (and Hammett’s other hard-boiled, unsystemic detective, the Continental) was a creation of magazine stories, with the realities of sales dictating that the stories must reflect a reality appealing to a large readership. Spade moves through a world of uncertainty and doubt. Alliances, motives, perceived facts, even the actual nature of a job are fluid and constantly changing. Spade’s certain of a few things (usually that he shouldn’t trust anybody and could use a drink) but beyond that little circle of certainty, all is a disorienting sea of contingency. Spade and his 20th century peers aren’t using their systematic knowledge of natural science to shrewdly ferret out the truth; they’re holding on for their lives in the face of chaos. Holmes works separately from the police, but his cases usually resolve with a tidy arrest. Spade’s cases wind up with conclusions that are narratively satisfying but not tightly bound within the orderly legal system. If Holmes was walking through a crystalline palace of regular facts from which regular patterns could be inferred from a powerful-enough brain, Spade and co. stumbled through an ever-changing fog.

Hammett, in fact, positioned Spade as an explicit rejection of the Holmes model: “For your private detective does not—or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague—want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.” Before getting into the detective game, Holmes had been a dilettantish upper-class science student; Spade was a soldier, staring chaos in the face.

I don’t presume that Hammett was writing in response to things he read in advanced physics journals or anything like that. But like I said, fiction and art reflect their times (on the art side, a fascinating process parallel to this plays out in 20th century painting; but again, that’s another essay). World War 1’s destruction of the existing social order (and of a terrifying percentage of the members of that order) was probably the biggest factor in the rise of murky uncertainty as the 20th century progressed; but the collapse of the dominance of the Newtonian physical paradigm has to have been a factor as well, even if an indirect one. Einstein himself was made nervous by it. If it bugged him, what were ordinary people to think? And Einstein was a major public figure.

On several levels, our shaky 21st century existence sits in the shadow of the eruption of uncertainty in the early 20th century. For one thing, the scientific revolution tied into this led directly to nuclear weapons and indirectly to climate change, the twin swords hanging constantly over our heads. For another, the ever-shifting culture we move through bears a much stronger resemblance to the foggy world of Sam Spade than the highly-ordered society of Sherlock Holmes. It’s not a coincidence that noir-ish detectives have never really gone out of style since their introduction, while periodic attempts to update Holmes into the modern context always have a whiff of dramatic stunt to them.

The mechanistic world of certainties that Holmes and Watson navigated, using science to thwart wrongdoers, is gone and never coming back. We’re left in an unsettled world where nothing is certain, except that we shouldn’t trust anybody, and could usually use a drink.

Keith Pille is a cultural historian and general-purpose jabroni who lives in an old house in Minneapolis with his wife and an adorable special-needs dog. He plays guitar like a master, but faster.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close