Let’s say you’re writing a story. Perhaps it’s a mystery, or suspense, or just plain old horror, and a character is killed. It’s extremely likely that this character’s death will alert the police, or the police will be involved at some point in the near future. And let’s say, for arguments sake, that you want this piece of fiction grounded in reality to some degree. So then, it would be safe to say that the authorities are going to examine this dead body of yours. If we’re all on the same page at this point, then you’re going to need to know a little bit about forensics.
Val McDermid, Scottish author of mysteries, many of which feature her character Dr. Tony Hill, knows a thing or two about forensics. It makes a lot of sense that if you’re dealing with this kind of stuff in your fiction, then you need to be a little informed. Or a lot informed. Regardless of the degree of information you’re willing to include, it helps to have that information at your fingertips. McDermid has done just that, with a handy tome called Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us About Crime.
The thing about this book is that it gives you a decent amount of information without overloading you with a bunch of technical jargon. Based around the simple premise that “every contact leaves a trace” (Edmond Locard), the introduction of forensics changed the very face of criminal investigations forever. Sure, there’s a ton of science here, but you knew that going in. McDermid makes the science easy to digest by focusing on the history of the different divisions of forensics. She goes through the crime scene, fingerprinting, anthropology, blood splatter—all sciences that have been used in investigations for years—as well as breaking down more modern concepts such as Digital Forensics and Facial Reconstruction. She writes about how investigators work with fire scenes, and how those creepy crawly bugs and other critters factor in the crime scene in the Entomology chapter. All of this is written in an easy-to-read, very digestible format that’s just as compelling as the subject matter.
Even if you’re not a writer, the subject matter alone makes this a must-read book. McDermid uses personal stories of police officers involved in crime scenes, including investigations of the deaths of other police officers, to give the examples the gravitas they deserve. All too often, the stereotypical forensic expert we see in the films or read about in books is just another bored scientist who see dead bodies as another thing to file, a clinical dissection piece. In reality, these scientists know these dead bodies were much more than, that they were someone’s loved one, that they were people with lives and dreams, and it’s that drive to find those that did them harm and bring them to justice that makes them put on the gloves and go through all the evidence they can find. Just as “every contact leaves a trace”, there’s no way you can read this book and not be affected by the information inside.
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