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SEDIMENTARY, MY DEAR WATSON

FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m recycling this wonderfully non-Canonical title from a David Bressan blog in Scientific American. It’s too good to resist for my reflections on Sherlock Holmes and his geologic endeavors, successful and, in one case, possibly questionable.

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“A Study in Scarlet,” by A. Conan Doyle, Beeton’s Christmas Annual, Ward Lock, 1887.

Dr. John H. Watson, publishing under his literary agent’s name, A. Conan Doyle, introduced the world to the exploits of his friend Sherlock Holmes in “A Study in Scarlet,” 1887. In this tale, Watson says of his new friend, “He said that he would acquire no knowledge which did not bear upon his subject,” that subject being deduction.

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Image from “A Study in Scarlet.”

In recounting Holmes‘ profound knowledge of practical geology, Watson describes the world’s first forensic geologist. In ensuing chronicles, a fair number of culprits are betrayed by a splash of mud on their trousers or a trace of earth on their footwear.

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These days, the British Geological Society has a Forensic Geoscience Group, composed of people who exercise their talents for the police, environmental agencies and humanitarian organizations. Appropriately, the FGG has taken as patron in their logo the world’s first consulting detective.

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In “The Adventure of the Three Students,” for example, Holmes identifies a culprit who sneaked into a tutor’s rooms for a peek at the contents of a coming exam.

As described by Watson, in the tutor’s bedroom “Holmes turned away, and stooped suddenly to the floor.”

“ ‘Halloa! What’s this?’ said he.”

“It was a small pyramid of black, putty-like stuff, exactly like the one upon the table of the study.”

Mr. Gilchrist, the student culprit, had given himself away by his athletic prowess: Holmes explains, “I may add that I walked out to the athletic grounds this morning, saw that tenacious black clay as used in the jumping-pit, and carried away a specimen of it, together with some of the fine tan or sawdust which is strewn over it to prevent the athlete from slipping. Have I told the truth, Mr. Gilchrist?”

“The student had drawn himself erect. ‘Yes, sir, it is true,’ said he.”

Yet, in “The Five Orange Pips,” Holmes himself may have displayed feet of clay. Claiming to identify the geology of Horsham, he is quoted by Watson as saying, “That clay and chalk mixture which I see upon your toe-caps is quite distinctive.”

This geologic claim generates a lengthy footnote in The Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Four Novels and the Fifty-Six Short Stories Complete (2 Volume Set) edited by William S. Baring-Gould.

The analysis is wonderfully typical of Sherlockian scholarship: “This conversation … seems to reveal a hiatus in Holmes’ otherwise encyclopaedic knowledge… or it suggests either that Watson’s notes were at fault when he mentions Horsham, or that Openshaw [the potential culprit] did not tell Holmes the whole truth about his movements.”

“The (geological) map,” the footnote continues, “shows that Horsham stands on what are known as the Tunbridge Weald Sands (at the top of the Hastings Beds) and is closely surrounded on three sides by Weald Clay. Apart from material deposited by builders or from some similar artificial source, it would have been quite impossible for Openshaw to get chalk on his toe-caps in or around Horsham. Sand and clay, perhaps; chalk and clay, no.”

The rest of the footnote describes a nearby area with Lower Greensand Gault Clay, Upper Greensand (a very narrow strip) and chalk.

Three possibilities are suggested, including one at the fault of Watson: 1) “For ‘Horsham” read, for example, ‘Dorking….‘ 2) Openshaw had acquired the chalk on a previous journey and had simply omitted to clean his boots…. 3) Openshaw broke his journey at Dorking to keep an appointment which he did not disclose to Holmes.”

“Our preference is for solution 1), since Holmes would certainly have detected the deception implicit in 3).” Possibility 2) had been eliminated by Openshaw’s tidy nature.

In summary, then, Holmes is vindicated. His feet are not of clay. He remains the greatest consulting geologist. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016It

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