Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us About Crime by Val McDermid is a sprawling history of forensic science that utilizes first-hand accounts and interviews from experts in the field, and is the perfect reference guide for anyone interested in forensics. Forensics is nominated for the 2016 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.
One night, when she was still a journalist just beginning her writing career, Val McDermid was awakened and told to board an airplane for Ireland, where an overnight fire at the Stardust disco had left 48 young people dead and over 240 injured. The young reporter met up with colleagues in London before flying to Dublin.
“A double whisky was set in front of me,” she writes. “Even in those hard-drinking newspaper days, I wasn’t accustomed to starting my day that way. ‘Drink it,’ one of my colleagues insisted. ‘Trust me, you’re going to need it before today’s over.’ He was right.”
One of the world’s most respected mystery writers, Val McDermid was haunted by her coverage of the disaster and fascinated by the work that went into discovering how it had happened. Now, decades later, she examines it and other investigations in her newest foray back into nonfiction, Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime—an extended version of her previously published Forensics: The Anatomy of a Crime.
McDermid hasn’t lost her journalistic touch: she’s obviously good at interviewing, and steps back at just the right time to allow the experts to speak. And speak they do in over 300 pages that cover everything from fingerprinting to forensic psychology to blood spatter to toxicology; and their voices bring an immediacy to the narrative that makes it all the more real.
She knows all these people already, of course—they’re the experts she consults when researching her novels, which are always darkly and realistically clear about the violence being perpetrated—and so she knows exactly how they can help the reader understand the arcane mysteries of their various crafts. She owes the experts not only the knowledge she’s gained, but also the very existence of one of her characters: psychological profiler Tony Hill came out of her study of forensic science.
As her publisher notes, “The dead talk—to the right listener.” Here McDermid carefully reconstructs the history of each forensic method and how progress was made, often through mistakes. Arsenic in the ground, for example, seeps into a buried body and has thrown a false positive for poison. But, those mistakes are checked by the need to offer proof positive in court; one of the reasons that crime science evidence is effective today is because of the need for it to pass the “strict credibility tests of the courtroom where very few holds are barred on the witness stand.”
As a mystery novelist myself, I found the book easy to use: chapters are grouped by area of expertise—the scene itself, fire scene investigation, entomology, pathology, toxicology, fingerprinting, blood spatter and DNA, facial reconstruction, digital forensics, forensic psychology, and the courtroom—and it does answer some primary questions:
- How is evidence collected from a crime scene?
- What exactly happens at an autopsy?
- What techniques do experts use, and in which situations?
- How far can forensic evidence be trusted, and how is it used in court?
While it didn’t feel that she was covering any particularly new ground in terms of specific information, it was helpful to have the data assembled with expert interviews, examples, and backstories all in one place.
McDermid contends that every violent death has two primary sources: the crime scene itself and the dead body. As one crime specialist puts it, the crime scene is the silent witness to what happened there, and it is the starting point for the investigators as they build their cases. The evidence can be something examined in the lab—like a microscopic DNA sample—or something odd observed by a profiler, as happened when the mother of a missing child kept pushing away another of her children while being interviewed.
Some of McDermid’s novels deal with serial killers, so it’s not surprising that she addresses the issue here—the statistics are uncomfortable, especially in the past, where numbers of victims could be amazingly high. One doctor was believed to have killed 210 of his patients, and a rapist was held responsible for 40 victims.
While the present and evolving state of the science is fascinating (and surely would make any intelligent rogue think twice about committing a crime!), it’s the summary of forensics’ history that’s truly compelling, at least for me. Police in the past faced frequently insurmountable difficulties when a criminal could literally slip off into the darkness and disappear: it wasn’t that said criminal left no traces behind—we know they did, thanks to the principle first articulated by Locard, who’s given a nod in the book—but simply because police didn’t know the traces were there, or what to do with them when they were found.
McDermid goes, of course, for the most famous of unsolved cases by way of illustration, discussing the scene of the first Jack the Ripper murder in London in 1888: no obvious motive and no obvious suspect in the bloody slaying of Mary Nichols. The body offered evidence about the murder weapon and the perpetrator’s state of mind, but none of it pointed in any decisive direction.
Had the detectives had the skills and technology of a modern forensic investigator, the processing scene would almost certainly have led them to follow Holmes “scarlet thread of murder” inexorably to the man who killed those Whitechapel women in the dead of night. But without the most basic of scientific resources, the police were fumbling in the dark.
But history moves forward, and as forensics developed, so did its ability to extract facts from crime scenes, weapons, and bullets. In one case, a bullet was traced forensically back to a specific gun, when a woman summoned the Bow Street Runners to her house where a robbery occurred; her butler had apparently been wounded in the struggle with the burglar. The gun itself pointed to the real culprit—and, yes, the butler did it.
Some interesting sidelights: 85% of the crime experts reviewed in this book are women, and McDermid’s writing style is to use the feminine pronoun when gender is undetermined. This is in contrast to most forensic volumes that emphasize the male side of this historically masculine endeavor, and it made the book more accessible—to this reader, at least. Interestingly, when I first began reading her novels, I wasn’t clear as to whether McDermid was a woman or a man, so she seems to have created a voice that doesn’t draw attention to her gender—and yet she supports it in ways that matter.
Overall, a great book to have on your shelf, whether you’re a crime novelist, a mystery reader…or just want to find out where the TV shows featuring forensics get it right—and where they get it wrong.
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Jeannette de Beauvoir is a lifelong mystery reader and the author, most recently, of Deadly Jewels from St. Martins/Minotaur, which features WWII murders, neo-Nazis, diamonds conceived in a concentration camp, and a little romance, all of it against the dramatic backdrop of Montréal.