A biography of a little-known but influential forensic scientist told through the crimes that he helped solve.
Documentary producer Dawson (Journalism/Univ. of Texas; Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City, 2017) tells the story of detective and chemist Oscar Heinrich (1881-1953), “the most famous criminalist you’ve likely never heard of,” the man who helped found modern forensic science through his pioneering work solving infamous cases. Though Heinrich had little use for the media, which he viewed as a tool, Dawson’s chapters all have fun Sherlock Holmes–esque titles, including “The Case of the Baker’s Handwriting,” “The Case of the Star’s Fingerprints,” and “The Case of the Calculating Chemist.” In each, the author tells vivid details of a wide variety of infamous crimes—e.g., those alleged of Fatty Arbuckle—not revealing all the secrets or indulging in conspiracy theories but still developing suspense and, most importantly, reporting the scene clearly with both the history accepted at the time and revisionist reflection. While many true-crime books suffer from stale prose, Dawson’s writing is remarkable in that it never uses the crutch of false suspense but also doesn’t skimp on valuable details. The author explains Heinrich’s deductive reasoning matter-of-factly, succinctly, and with the proper respectful attention to the victims while acknowledging the complex hubris of such an adept detective. When he heard of his nickname, the “American Sherlock,” Heinrich is reported as saying, “Not Sherlock Holmes….Holmes acted on hunches. And hunches play no part in my crime laboratory.” Readers see the development of each crime through victim and suspect profiles that read as objectively as Heinrich’s methods. We come to respect him, his scientific brain, and his integrity despite his mistakes. How do detectives understand what pieces relate to one another? Heinrich taught them how.
An entertaining, absorbing combination of biography and true crime.