Keep Watching (Reading?) the Skies

September 8, 2014

Summer is a great time for star-gazing, which got me to wondering about ties between crime fiction and astronomy. After a search, I've come to the conclusion those ties aren't very strong, for the most part. Fortunately, Conan Doyle led the way early on. In an article by Bradley E. Schaefer, Schaefer points out that Dr. Watson often points out some fact, such as the phase of the moon or the time of sunrise, which would allow the range of possible dates to be narrowed down (as in the Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb), although Watson's writings often contain apparently astronomical contradictions.

As for Doyle's famous sleuth, Dr. Watson feels that Holmes is seemingly ignorant of the field of astronomy and in A Study in Scarlet, remarks that Holmes was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and the composition of the solar system. Of course, the opposite is true — stories like "The Musgrave Ritual" had Holmes taking calculations of the sun's position so he can locate buried treasure, adding "It was unnecessary to make any allowance for personal equation, as the astronomers have dubbed it."

Three astronomers (real and fictional) wind up being named in the various Holmes stories, Copernicus, Mr. Frankland in the Hound of the Baskervilles—an amateur astronomer who used his telescope to spot Holmes's hideout in the moor—and the infamous Professor Moriarty, celebrated author of The Dynamics of an Asteroid. Schaefer goes on to discuss the topic of astronomy and the Holmes canon in great detail, so if you're an astronomy or Holmes fan, definitely check it out.

As far as other crime fiction works involving astronomy, this is where you readers may have to help, since I only found a few books with astronomy links:


  •  In Alex Brett's Cold Dark Matter, Morgan O'Brien is a research fraud investigator who delves into the murder of a young astronomer at the Franco-Canadian Telescope in Hawaii.

  •  Martin Long wrote the three-book Gaslight Mystery series featuring Wellington Cotter, a retired detective and amateur astronomer.

  •  Jim Nisbet wrote Dark Companion, which features Banerjhee Rolf, an Indian-American scientist and amateur astronomer, whose relationship with his seedy, drug-dealing neighbor and stoner girlfriend takes a bizarre turn and shatters Rolf's placid world until he becomes a fugitive from justice.

There are other books with passing references to astronomy, of course, one of the more notable and recent being Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played with Fire and its mention of Lisbeth Salander’s fascination with the obscure topic of spherical astronomy.

Still, it's a fairly small list, and I know there are probably others out there. Can you think of any?

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