Certain Qualities Essential to an Investigating Officer–Hans Gross, 1883

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Hans Gross, 1847-1915


Most Sherlockians, whether they know it or not, are acquainted with the work of Austrian Examiner Justice Hans Gross. In his influential Manual for the Examining Justice (1882), he details the case of a man who committed suicide using a method similar to that employed by Maria Gibson in “The Problem of Thor Bridge.” As Holmes realized quite early in his career that there is (in the words of Solomon) “nothing new under the sun,” (quoted in STUD), it is quite likely that he not only read Gross’ book (we can infer from his quotes from Goethe that Holmes was fluent in German), but that it stuck with him enough that his suspicions were aroused the day he stood on the bridge with Watson and saw that small chip.

This makes me wonder if the young Sherlock Holmes drew inspiration from Gross’ writing in other ways, too. Read this selection from the latter’s Manual and see if it doesn’t sound….familiar.

“It goes without saying that an Investigating Officer should be endowed with all those qualities which every man would desire to possess–indefatigable zeal and application, self-denial and perseverance, swiftness to read men and a thorough knowledge of human nature, education and an agreeable manner, an iron constitution, and encyclopedic knowledge. Still, there are some special qualities whose importance is frequently overlooked to which attention may be peculiarly and forcibly directed.

“First and above all an Investigating Officer must possess an abundant store of energy; nothing is more deplorable than a crawling, lazy, and sleepy Investigating Officer. Such a man is more fit to be a gentleman-at-large than an Investigating Officer. He who recognizes that he is wanting in energy can but turn to another branch of the legal profession, for he will never make a good investigator. Again the Investigating Officer must be energetic not only in special circumstances, as when, for example, he finds himself face to face with an accused person who is hotheaded, refractory, and aggressive, or when the work takes him away from office and he proceeds to record a deposition or make an arrest without having his staff or office to aid him but energy must always be displayed when he tackles a difficult, complicated, or obscure case. It is truly painful to examine a report which shows the Investigating Officer has only fallen to his work with timidity, hesitation and nervousness, just touching it, so to speak, with the tips of his fingers; but there is satisfaction in observing that a case has been attacked energetically and grasped with animation and vigour. The want of special cleverness and long practice can often be compensating by getting a good grip on the case, but want of energy can be compensated by nothing. Those incomparable words of Goethe, true for all men, are above all true for the criminal expert,

“Strike not thoughtlessly a nest of wasps,

But if you strike, strike hard.”

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The eminently quotable Goethe (Encyclopedia Britannica)


The Investigating Officer must have a high grace of real self-denying power. It is not enough that he is a clever reckoner, a fine speculator, a careful weigher of facts, and possesses a good business head, he must be self-denying, unostentatious, and perfectly honest, resigning at the outset all thoughts of magnificent public success. The happy-go-lucky apprehension of the policeman, the effective summing up of the judge, the clever conduct of the case by a counsel, all meet with acknowledgement, astonishment, and admiration from the public, but such triumphs are not for the Investigative Officer. If the latter be working well, those few people who have had an opportunity of really studying the case as it goes along will discover his unceasing and untiring work from the documents on record and will form some correct idea of the brain work, power of combination, and extensive knowledge which the Investigative Officer has employed. The Investigative Officer will be held responsible for the smallest and most pardonable mistake, while his care and his merits are seldom acknowledged. Let him be conscious of having done his duty in the only possible way. Beyond this we can only say, “Virtue is its own reward.”


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STUD, Richard Gutschmidt


“But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession–or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.”

“The only unofficial detective?” I asked, raising my eyebrows.

“The only unofficial consulting detective,” he answered. “I am the last and highest court of appeal in detection. When Gregson or Lestrade or Athelney Jones are out of their depths–which, by the way, is their normal state–the matter is laid before me. I examine the data, as an expert and pronounce a specialist’s opinion. I claim no credit in such cases. My name figures in no newspaper. The work itself, the pleasure of finding a field for my peculiar powers, is my highest reward.”  (STUD)

Back to Herr Gross:

“Another quality demanded at any price from the Investigating Officer is absolute accuracy. We do not mean by this that he must set out details in the official records exactly as they have been seen or said, for it goes without saying that this will be so done. The quality indicated consists in not being content with mere evidence of third parties of hear-say when it is possible for him to ascertain the truth with his own eyes or by more minute investigation. This is to say no more than that the Investigating Officer should be accurate in his work, in the sense of being ‘exact,’ as that word is used in its highest scientific signification. Indeed the high degree of perfection to which all science have to-day attained is entirely due to ‘exact’ work; and if we compare a recent scientific work, whatever the subject, with an analogous book written some decades ago, we will notice a great difference between them arising almost wholly from the fact that the work of to-day is more exact than that of yesterday. Naturally in all inquiries a certain amount of imagination is necessary; but a comparison between two scientists of our time will always be to the advantage of one whose work is the most exact: the brilliant and fruitful ideas of the scientist which astonish the world being often far from sudden and happy inspirations but the outcome of exact research. In close observation of facts, in searching for their remotest causes, in making unwearied comparisons, in instituting disagreeable experiments, in short, in attempting to elucidate a problem, the Investigating Officer will observe it under so many aspects and passing through so many phases that new ideas will spontaneously come to him which, if found to be accurate and skillfully utilised, will certainly give positive results. Since ‘exactness,’ or accuracy of work, is of so much important in all branches of research, this accuracy must also be applied to the work of the Investigating Officer. But what is to be understood by accurate work? It consists in not trusting to others but attending to the business oneself, and even in mistrusting oneself and going through the case again and again. By so proceeding, one will certainly bring about an accurate piece of work. A thousand mistakes of every description would be avoided if people did not base their conclusions upon premises furnished by others, take as established fact what is only possibility, or as a constantly recurring incident what has been observed only once. True it is that in his work the Investigating Officer can see but a trifling portion of the facts nor can he repeat his observations. He is obliged largely to trust to what others tell him and it is just here that the difficulty and insufficiency of his work lie. But this inconvenience can to a certain extent be remedied,; on the one hand by wherever possible making sure of things for himself instead of accepting what others tell him; and on the other hand by trying to give a more exact form to the statements of others, by comparison, experiment, and demonstration, for the purpose of testing the veracity of the deponent’s observation and obtaining from him something exact, or at least more exact than before. In endeavouring to verify the facts for himself, the Investigating Officer must personally examine localities, make measurements and comparisons, and so form his own opinion. If a small matter which can only be established by accurate investigation is in question, data furnished accidentally must not be relied upon but only ascertained facts and investigations specially carried out.”

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Sidney Paget, DEVI



“One experiment served to show me the line of his investigation. He had bought a lamp which was the duplicate of the one which had burned in the room of Mortimer Tregennis on the morning of the tragedy. This he filled with the same oil as that used at the vicarage, and he carefully timed the period which it would take to be exhausted. Another experiment which he made was of a more unpleasant nature, and one which I am not likely ever to forget.”  (DEVI)


However, as Gross points out, no matter how closely you investigate a case, it’s still possible to find yourself on the wrong track:

“…it is mankind’s nature to cling to points of support which have but little solidity; one hears of a circumstance (often but incidentally referred to by a witness) and it is easily disposed on its verification to base an argument upon it. Perhaps this argument is not without merit and, giving satisfaction, another and yet another argument is made to cling to it. The case grows interesting and a successful result is in sight. All the points yet gathered together are most minutely and carefully gone into, but meanwhile the re-verification of the primary fact on which the whole structure is based has been neglected. Carried away by zeal and the desire to bring the case to some conclusion, the Investigating Officer has proceeded too fast and without the calm and prudence requisite to such inquiries, and so all his work has been in vain. There is but one way to avoid this, to proceed ‘steadily,’ be it at a walk, at a trot, or at the charge; but in such inquiries a halt must from time to time be made and instead of going forward he must look back. He will then examine one by one the different points of the inquiry, taking them up in order from the beginning, he will analyse each acquired result even of the smallest factor of those apparently of the least importance, and when this analysis is carried to its furthest limits, will carefully verify each of these factors from the point of view of its source, genuineness, and corroboration. If the accuracy of the elements be established, they may then be carefully placed one with another and the result obtained examined as if viewed for the first time. The case will then generally assume quite another complexion, for at the outset the sequence was not so well known; and if it has a different aspect from the first each matter is so revised, the question has to be asked whether it is in proper adjustment with the whole argument which has been formulated and whether there is any mistake to rectify. If the whole result is defective, the Investigating Officer must have sufficient self-denial to confess, ‘my calculation is false, I must begin all over again.'”

While Holmes did not exactly solve the mystery behind “The Adventure of the Yellow Face,” he did at least keep Gross’ principles in mind. After a fashion.

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Sidney Paget, YELL

“What do you think of my theory?”

“It is all surmise.”

“But at least it covers the facts. When new facts come to our knowledge which cannot be covered by it, it will be time enough to reconsider it. We can do nothing more until we have a message from our friend at Norbury.”  (YELL)

In our next Hans Gross feature, we’ll see what the brilliant man of 221B might have read about an Investigative Officer’s interpersonal skills……





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One response to “Certain Qualities Essential to an Investigating Officer–Hans Gross, 1883

  1. Jim McArthur

    I believe that it is very likely that Holmes read Gross, and was greatly influenced by him. Indeed, he quite likely may have mentioned Herr Gross’s ideas to his friend and chronicler, Dr Watson. Dare I go so far as to speculate that Watson may even have mentioned Gross to his literary agent. . . the chap with the interest in Spiritualism?