In “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle published in 1892, Sherlock Holmes remarks on abuses of medical trust: “When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.”
It’s especially chilling when doctors and scientists weaponize the very expertise the public relies on. Science, of course, also plays a major role in bringing criminals to justice, and forthcoming books explore both sides of the equation.
The Holmes quote appears in the epigraph of Dean Jobb’s The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream (Algonquin, July), about a Victorian-era physician and serial killer thought to have murdered as many as 10 people, most often by poison. His crimes spanned the Atlantic, beginning in Canada and Chicago, and ending in London, and he’s believed to have killed for at least a decade before being brought to justice.
“Death occurred often and swiftly in Victorian times,” says Jobb, whose previous true crime books include 2015’s Empire of Deception. “Disease, epidemics, and poor sanitation exacted a terrible toll. Medical knowledge and surgical practices, while crude by today’s standards, gave doctors the power to save lives.” And also to take them: Cream, for the most part, targeted women, many of them sex workers, some seeking illegal abortions.
“A doctor turned murderer such as Cream could betray the trust of patients and use his medical training to conceal the evidence of his crimes,” Jobb says. “He could kill almost with impunity.”
Cream’s killing spree says “so much about its time, exposing how the sexism, hypocrisy, corruption, and primitive forensic science of the Victorian era allowed him to kill, again and again,” the author points out. “It’s a cautionary tale that resonates in our own times, as serial killers continue to prey on people relegated to the margins of society.”
In The Icepick Surgeon (Little, Brown, July), Sam Kean, whose previous science-centered books include 2017’s Caesar’s Last Breath, compiles stories of researchers who cross the line from experimental to criminal. Many of them, as with Cream’s crimes, reveal as much about the culture of the time as they do about the perpetrator, while also speaking to contemporary issues. “I chose stories whose lessons are still applicable today,” Kean says. “There are deep parallels to modern situations, and in many cases, we’re still dealing with the fallout.”
He chronicles, for instance, the so-called anatomy riots of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a response to the practice of grave robbing to provide cadavers for American medical schools. “In a way, you can see the scientists’ point of view,” Kean says. “They needed cadavers to learn anatomy. Otherwise, medicine would never advance. But in practice, they mostly robbed the graves of poor people and minorities. So those people finally rose up and began rioting and attacking hospitals. Sadly, we still see the same huge disparities in medicine today.”
Another tale is that of a Harvard medical professor who in 1849 murdered and dismembered a university trustee. His conviction, after a sensational trial, relied partially on the fact that the condition of the victim’s body betrayed an expert hand. The case, Kean writes, “provided a huge boost for forensic science in the United States, much like the O.J. Simpson trial familiarized laypeople with DNA evidence 150 years later.”
For goodness’ sake
In Written in Bone (Arcade, June), Sue Black shows the positive side of science, specifically forensics, delving into the practice’s application in criminal investigations. She also explains how each part of the human body tells scientists about the life of the person who once occupied it. “I wanted people to think about their own bodies and be able to understand all the little things about themselves that make them unique,” she says.
Black, a forensic anthropologist in the U.K., wrote about death and her forensics career in the 2019 memoir All That Remains. She structures her new book using the human skeleton as a road map, beginning with the head and working to the toes, and in each section outlines what a particular part reveals about a person’s appearance, life, and death, using real-life criminal investigations as examples.
Skeletal remains, Black says, paint a picture of physicality—age, sex, ethnicity, and height—but the bones also tell a bigger story. Forensic pathologists can detect signs of previous trauma, deafness, where the person grew up, whether they walked with a limp, and what their diet was like, among many other characteristics. “The list goes on and on,” she says. “Every single one surprises me every time. We are a combination of life stories.”
Black says she hopes to provide a “reality check” for those whose ideas of forensic science are informed by procedurals on television, and let readers in on the myriad ways our bones speak to pathologists after we die. “Much of what we see on our screens is entertainment, and forensic science is often wrapped up in almost mystical awe at what it’s able to achieve,” she notes. “This is unfortunately not always the case in real life, and much of the time we can’t come to any great conclusion because there simply isn’t one to be had.”
But sometimes, Black says, the findings are nothing short of miraculous, pointing to the inextricable link between science and criminal justice. “There are some marvelous moments where we’ve been able to turn an investigation around through the smallest fragment of bone.”
Clare Swanson, a frequent PW contributor and former news editor at the magazine, is a journalist and editor in New York.
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