A couple of months ago, I visited Edinburgh, Scotland, and had a glorious time exploring the local geology. One of my favorite non-geological sights in the city was the National Library of Scotland. Like the John Rylands Library in Manchester, it is not a public library, but rather one in which you can “register” to become a Reader and then do serious research, gaining access to original texts, rare manuscripts, illustrated maps, and so on. The National Library of Scotland had a wonderful exhibition, open to us non-Readers, featuring light-up displays with accoutrements associated with several famous authors, including one of my particular favorites, Isabella L. Bird, as well as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It occurred to me that I’d never actually read anything by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Back home, one day I came across this commentary on Sherlock Holmes as a forensic geologist, and all the pieces clicked together. Geology, Scotland, and Holmes—I had to sample one of those stories!
I decided to read “A Study in Scarlet” (published 1887, full text here, thank you Project Gutenberg), which is not only the first Holmes story that Doyle wrote, but also the one referenced in the context of geology. In it, Watson after meeting Holmes notes down his knowledge of geology as “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 London he had received them.” Like Andrew Alden, author of the commentary I mentioned above, I was taken by Doyle’s choice of Utah as the setting for the story behind the London murder that is unraveled by Holmes in A Study in Scarlet. His characterization of Mormons and their culture in the early settling of Utah is, um, colorful, but so is his depiction of the wide fertile valleys the settlers were so grateful to find, and the bitter steep canyons that surrounded the area. I waited for more geology to take an active role in the story, but alas.
The story itself is amusing and captivating, with a clever mystery to solve that is, happily, all explained in the end. It’s not a mystery that the reader is seriously meant to be able to solve independently, as some crucial bits of information are later revealed as being in Holmes’s possession and not available to the reader; but it is still entertaining to watch Holmes work, and above all to see what a strange, quirky, and moody character he was. (In 1891, Doyle wrote to his mother, “I think of slaying Holmes … and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.”) I also learned a new word: jarvey (British slang for a cabdriver).
Overall, what perhaps connects Holmes most strongly to geology is his emphasis on reasoning “analytically”, by which he means working backward from evidence to deduce how things came to be the way they are now. This is equally useful in solving crimes and in understanding the long slow evolution of the rocks and structures we see around us today.