American Sherlock

by Kate Winkler Dawson

“By 1933, Oscar Heinrich had unraveled countless violent crimes that seemed too puzzling to crack. His notoriety was impressive, but his record was not unblemished. His work over the past decade and his growing reputation for solving so-called impossible cases gave many police officers and jurors confidence in his formidable abilities. But he had also made serious miscalculations in cases along the way and his occasional aloofness on the stand sometimes stood in the way of getting the convictions he so fervently pursued. The idea of solving crimes with forensic science was still such a new concept, and he was constantly fighting the perception that his techniques were ‘unproven,’ ‘untrustworthy,’ or ‘unreliable.'”

Ratings & Reviews

Book Grade: A

Mysteries are some of my favorite books, and years ago, when CSI was on the air, I loved the series for the way it broke down the mysteries by explaining the science behind the evidence. American Sherlock is part Holmes-ian detective story and part history of criminal investigation, and blends together to tell the story of a fascinating man obsessed with solving mysteries through the evidence available to him. Oscar Heinrich was a unique man (who, sadly, I only heard of when reading this book), and Winkler Dawson does a lovely job of telling his story, but the cases that Heinrich is assigned are the real stars. Whether they be murderous allegations against a top-notch movie star, the mysterious abduction and death of a local priest, or the puzzling death of an entrepreneurial inventor, the cases (and the evidence associated with them) are highlighted throughout the book as Oscar’s methods unfold. I found myself compulsively Googling the different cases that were highlighted in American Sherlock so that I could learn more about the actors in the various mysteries. Winkler Dawson painted such vivid pictures of the different figures that I was drawn into the story from the start and remained wholly obsessed through the very last case.

Given that this is nonfiction, there are lots of historical details and true tidbits from the cases – I so appreciated this and loved that I was able to piece together a bit at a time as the evidence was discussed. Oscar is an odd character, to say the least, and he is frequently misunderstood or wrapped up in his ego, but I found him to be a fascinating figure – one who today might be diagnosed with OCD or on the autism spectrum, but in his time was maligned for his oddities.

Overall, American Sherlock is the fascinating true story of how forensic science in America was advanced through the efforts of one very dedicated man, and how the unique methods that he innovated are still relevant today.

Bonus: Kate Winkler Dawson’s website has dozens of photos of the evidence and figures featured throughout the book. For fans of true crime, this is a treasure trove of supplemental information.

Movie Rating: PG

American Sherlock is nonfiction and focuses on historic mysteries (including murders), so it can be a bit detailed at times. While it is not gory or gruesome, there is some graphic detail about murder victims or bodies that are examined as part of various investigations. This is not gratuitous, but rather, well suited to the cases highlighted in the book given the emphasis on the scientific discoveries of Heinrich, and the advancements that he made in the field of forensics as a whole.

There was no unsuitable language, but there is one scene that details possible ways that an actress was sexually assaulted. The descriptions are graphic, and definitely suitable for a more mature reader, but comparing it to modern film or suspense novels, there is nothing terribly inappropriate.

All in all, this book is ideal for an older or more mature reader, and is perfect for fans of true crime, criminal history, criminal justice, and forensic science.

Would I Buy This for My Library: Yes

American Sherlock may not be a typical teen library selection, but it is an ideal adult crossover nonfiction choice. It is jam packed with information – forensic science, history, and criminal justice, among other topics – and is an easy read given that it is broken up by mysteries. Yes, Oscar Heinrich is the focus, and he is undoubtedly an odd man with an unwavering focus on examining evidence, but he is also a compelling figure who pushes the limits of accepted science, and is willing to risk his reputation and career on what he believes is a strong analysis of crime scene clues. I realize that this book may not fly off the shelves, but I know that in my library, at least, there is a group of teens who are fascinated by forensic science and criminology texts; this is the perfect addition to the library for those students!

Summary:

American Sherlock features Oscar Heinrich, arguably, one of America’s greatest forensic science pioneers that you have never heard of. The brilliant, innovative scientist who doggedly found new ways to solve mysteries, unravel crimes, and get to the bottom of a murder remains a largely unknown figure in trial history. His laser focus (and often off-putting approaches) allowed him to simultaneously be the leader in forensic science and a confusing witness in the courtroom. Taking readers through multiple cases – and an endless number of Heinrich’s forensic innovations – Winkler Dawson has a story that is part true crime and part CSI.

Whether it be solving the case of the Great Train Heist or examining evidence for Fatty Arbuckle’s murder trial, Oscar Heinrich took on some of the most notorious mysteries, working to solve them all with precise science. Ideas that were novel at the time – blood spatter analysis, bullet striation patterning, and microscopic soil analysis – are worked out in Oscar’s lab where he kept precise records. This early father of forensic science was not afraid of asking hard questions and allowed the evidence to speak for itself.

The combination of history, science, biography, and true crime make for a story that is both memorable and compelling. American Sherlock is the fascinating true story of one man who revolutionized the field of forensic science with methods that are still used – and relied on in court – today.

Book Talk Questions:

  1. What evidence does Heinrich use to help solve the Great Train Robbery?
  2. What personal problem seems to plague Oscar Heinrich through most of his life? What does he tell his sons about this when they are adults?
  3. Oscar has a number of rivalries with other scientists and courtroom experts. Explain why he struggles with these individuals and why he questions their judgement on what the evidence says.
  4. One of Heinrich’s earliest cases involved the disappearance of a San Francisco priest. Explain how he helped to solve this and what evidence he used that was incredibly novel for his day.
  5. Why do you think the David Lamson was so controversial? What did Heinrich say about Lamson’s guilt? What did the jury find? What eventually happened to David Lamson?

A Perfect Read for Fans Of…

  • The Devil in the Windy City by Erik Larson
  • Death in the Air by Kate Winkler Dawson
  • The Science of Sherlock Homes by E.J. Wagner
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