Runners-up: Alphonse Bertillon

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 2, 2013

The case for considering Alphonse Bertillon in an examination of great detectives, and the reason for excluding him from my eventual final nine, are both neatly expressed in a passage from The Hound of the Baskervilles:

‘I came to you, Mr. Holmes, because I recognize that I am myself an unpractical man, and because I am suddenly confronted with a most serious and extraordinary problem. Recognising, as I do, that you are the second highest expert in Europe—’

‘Indeed, sir! May I inquire who has the honour to be first?’ asked Holmes, with some asperity.

‘To the man of precisely scientific mind the work of Monsieur Bertillon must always appeal strongly.’

‘Then had you better not consult him?’

‘I said, sir, to the precisely scientific mind. But as a practical man of affairs it is acknowledged that you stand alone.’

Just so: among the broad universe of criminology, Alphonse Bertillon is absolutely a major figure, but, within criminology’s more practical sphere, i.e. detection, Bertillon cannot be ranked with either Sherlock Holmes or his real-life counterparts because Bertillon was not a practicing detective.

Even so, one encounters Bertillon’s name consistently in studying the early history of detection, and with good reason. Bertillon was more a theorist, or perhaps a technician, but as such he was unquestionably an important influence on the profession.

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