Monday, January 12, 2009

The Human Element - Learning Genealogy from Fictional Detectives

'It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.' Sherlock Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia

'Data! data! data!' he cried impatiently. 'I can't make bricks without clay.' Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure Of The Copper Beeches

Emily A. Croom has an article in the January/February 2009 issue of Family Chronicle, "Research Advice From Literary Sleuths" (p. 33). Since I am a mystery reader, this is one of the articles I looked at first this month!

The advice she presents from fictional detectives is clear and to the point (although she doesn't cite her sources). Even the most unemotional fictional detective can be 'human' though. I've just been reading Imprint Of The Raj: How fingerprinting was born in colonial India by Chandak Sengoopta who points out that Sherlock Holmes once had examined fingerprint evidence with a wary eye, but later appeared to take its value for granted. (I do recommend Sengoopta's book, by the way. Excellent read!)

I have some favourite fictional quotations of my own. This one, I think, sums up why we don't always take the long research path - why we sometimes jump to conclusions or ignore vital or contradictory evidence.

'It's because you don't get your mind cluttered up with the human element that you see these things so quickly,' he said. 'You see everything in terms of A and B. It makes all the difference.'
Mr. Campion, the most gentle of men, made no comment at all.
Detective Inspector Stanislaus Oates in The Border-Line Case

But then isn't that one of the reasons we do genealogy and family history? Because we are most often passionate about the clues to our human past we find in our ancestors' everyday lives, their foibles and mistakes, their joys and their triumphs. Now if we could only focus some of our passion and energy into examining genealogical hypotheses and cleaning up citations!


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (Charleston, South Carolina, USA: BiblioBazaar LLC, 2007)

"It is a capital mistake...." A Scandal in Bohemia, p.13 (First published, 1891, The Strand Magazine)
"Data! data! data!...." The Adventure Of The Copper Beeches, p. 289 (First published, 1892, The Strand Magazine.

Preview at Google Book Search:
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Wikipedia:

The Borderline Case by Margery Allingham in Modern Short Story Classics of Suspense (The Readers Digest Association (Canada) Ltd., 1968)

"It's because....", p. 21

Originally published in Mr Campion: Criminologist (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1937) See The Margery Allingham Society, Bibliography:

No comments: