Val McDermid is one of the most popular crime fiction writers today. Her 27 novels have sold 11 million copies worldwide, according to her website, and have won several crime fiction awards. Now she has written a nonfiction book about criminal forensics as a sort of paean to all those experts whose work has informed hers over the years. “The stories these scientists have to tell us … are among the most fascinating you will ever hear,” she declares, and she tell us plenty of them.
She organizes the book into 12 chapters, each of which represents a different aspect of crime scene investigation. Much as an investigator would, she starts by approaching the crime scene itself, discussing how it’s cordoned off, who takes charge, the CSI’s position in the chain of command and how the scientist works his or her way through the case. Frequently she introduces us to an investigator who becomes our guide.
Throughout the book she portrays forensic scientists not as emotionless Sherlock Holmes types (although she evokes him repeatedly) but as human beings who care about what they do and are troubled by what they see. Along the way she examines topics of forensic science such as pathology, toxicology and fingerprinting, fleshing out the historical and technical aspects, always telling vivid stories.
We meet a collection of sympathetic characters, including fire investigator Niamh Nic Daeid, blood spatter specialist Val Tomlinson, anthropologist Sue Black and several others, all of whom are bright and dedicated professionals. We also meet some not-so-nice characters — criminals past and present whom forensic specialists have helped to apprehend. And we hear about Dr. Buck Ruxton, who in 1935 murdered his wife and maid, mutilated their bodies (including cutting off their fingertips), and threw the parts in a stream. He was convicted based on two key pieces of forensic evidence: the identification of a species of maggot on the body, which narrowed the timeframe, and a photographic reconstruction of the victims’ faces.
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Such stories make the book quite readable, and McDermid’s deep dives into history and science add substance. She does a commendable job of explaining some up-to-date issues, such the use of mega-data in digital forensics and the latest controversies about forensic DNA.
Yet certain weaknesses prevent this from being the go-to book for those who wish to learn about forensics. The author has a tolerance for cliche: “truth is stranger than fiction,” she tells us; a female fingerprint expert shows a “steely intelligence,” a CSI team “came to the rescue.” She concludes a smart section about how experts are beginning to question the validity of traditional fingerprint evidence by comparing it to a “greedy grandfather … unaware that the times they are a'changin.’”
Historical inaccuracies pepper the book. At one point McDermid says that in the late 19th century Alfred Bertillon invented a system of biometric identification that was accurate to a factor of one in 286 million. Actually he claimed an accuracy of one in 4 million. She lists several “firsts” that actually weren’t, such as her claim that that Frenchman Edmond Locard opened the world’s first crime investigation laboratory in 1910. Actually his professor, Alexandre Lacassagne, did that decades earlier.
The cumulative effect of careless writing and fact-checking is to undermine the book’s credibility. Furthermore, after reading Forensics one would come to the conclusion that, despite the occasional problems and missteps, forensic science is basically healthy and that “the people who do it are, frankly, awesome.” Events of the past several years show otherwise, however.
In a widely-cited 2009 report, the American National Academy of Sciences portrayed forensic work as fundamentally flawed, saying that with the exception of DNA evidence most of the forensic tools, such as hair comparison and blood-spatter analysis, are more like traditional beliefs that have never been statistically tested. One of the most troubling areas is arson investigation, which McDermid portrays uncritically in her book. Over the last couple of decades, research has revealed that many of the traditional signs of arson routinely occur in accidental fires, which has led to an unknown number of wrongful convictions.
That’s not to say “Forensics” isn’t enjoyable. Readers who aren’t squeamish will be entertained and intrigued. It will certainly please readers of McDermid’s novels, who will want to have her take on the subject. But readers seeking an authoritative book on a rapidly emerging and controversial field should look elsewhere.
Douglas Starr reviewed this book for The Washington Post.