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Book Review: Forensics

May 11, 2016

23214337Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime
by Val McDermid
Grove Press
(Library Book)

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even the squeamish parts. Chapter by chapter, McDermid explains the history and modern application of different aspects of forensic science. Each facet of forensics gets a chapter explaining how it works, what it can help prove, and tracing its development from the first uses, to modern applications at crime scenes. Fingerprinting, forensic pathology, DNA testing, forensic psychology, even cybercrime get their due. McDermid presents interviews with experts in the field, as well as retellings of past crimes, to do a terrific job of showing the science in action, and creating a narrative voice that was as engrossing as any crime novel.

Ordinarily, I feel conflicted about forensics, because I’m both fascinated by the science and exceedingly squeamish. Yes, I admit there were a few passages that I read haltingly and flinchingly. (The chapters on entomology and forensic pathology had several shuddery moments each. Bugs and putrefaction, yikes!) I admit I skimmed a few paragraphs when things got a little too… squishy. Overall, though, the combination of history, interview and great, clear writing served to help me focus on all the interesting things I was learning about the development of the science and legal procedures, and the people who have made discoveries, or made their careers in this field.

In particular, I was interested in learning how forensic psychology and profiling really work. I see them used as plot aspects on the various crime dramas I watch, but hadn’t really understood what that meant in practice until now.

Among the things I didn’t know:

The original meaning for the Greek word “autopsy,” was “to see for one’s self.”

Charles Norris set up the first organized medical examiner system in 1918,  in New York City.

Rigor mortis progresses from head to feet.

There are 800 bones in a young child’s skeleton. They fuse with age, down to 206 in an adult.

As part of their training, medical students at Leeds University in the 1960’s were encouraged to experiment with drugs and monitor their effects on themselves and their classmates. This did not end well, for at least one medical student, Harold Francis Shipman, who went on to become addicted. And also do lots of murdering.

A Virtual Autopsy simulator has been developed in Switzerland, using CT and MRI technology to make a 3-D computer graphic model. So, less cutting the corpse, and more opportunity for better magnification and clarity of imaging of trauma and other trace evidence.

A serial killer can usually be found living with a triangle formed by the sites of his first three murders. Related: geographical profiling is an aspect of forensic psychology.

Part of me wants to insist on getting copies of this book for the libraries where I work, because both schools have strong criminal justice programs. I could see this as a good, clear resource to help students understand different career paths using the science of forensics. The only hesitation I have is the fact that McDermid’s research, writing and collection of expertise are chiefly drawn from the way the legal and forensic systems function in the UK. As someone who watches and reads as much BritCrime as I do American, I didn’t find this an obstacle, but I wonder if a more American-centric student might find parts of the book confusing. One solution would be to seek out a part two, ideally from McDermid herself, or from an American mystery writer with their own cadre of American experts. (Figuring out what American mystery writer could tackle this project with the same deft clarity makes an interesting daydream.)

Gratuitous picture of my favorite medical examiner, Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard, played on NCIS by David McCallum

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