The dead talk - to the right listener. They can tell us all about themselves: where they came from, how they lived, how they died, and, of course, who killed them. Forensic scientists can unlock the mysteries of the past and help serve justice using the messages left by a corpse, a crime scene, or the faintest of human traces. Forensics draws on interviews with some of these top-level professionals, groundbreaking research, and Val McDermid's own original interviews and firsthand experience on scene with top forensic scientists. Along the way McDermid discovers how maggots collected from a corpse can help determine one's time of death; how a DNA trace a millionth the size of a grain of salt can be used to convict a killer; and how a team of young Argentine scientists led by a maverick American anthropologist were able to uncover the victims of a genocide. It's a journey that will take McDermid to war zones, fire scenes, and autopsy suites and bring her into contact with both extraordinary bravery and wickedness as she traces the history of forensics from its earliest beginnings to the cutting-edge science of the modern day.
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Fictional forensic science has a huge fan base and lots of shows to choose from - television shows like the CSI (2000-present) and NCIS (2003-present) franchises, and "Bones" (2005-2015). Television series make forensic science look glamorous and easy, with crimes solved in 42 minutes by attractive but often socially inept polymaths, adept at finding obscure bone caches, performing facial reconstruction, and then running familial DNA analysis after the next commercial.
Val McDermid's "Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA, and More Tell Us About Crime" (2015) shows that in real life, each area is a separate discipline, developed over centuries of careful scientific research. Sometimes inspiration by very well trained scientists leads to key advances, like polymerase chain reaction developed by Kary Banks Mullis, PhD - but no matter how brilliant the development seems, it's still peer reviewed and validated. That's why the pseudoscience of phrenology (taking skull measurements to determine if someone is a criminal), in vogue for 30 years in the 19th century, was discredited. McDermid addresses more modern forensic fads that come and go, and takes a piercing look at criminal profiling. It's not a crime panacea. She debunks the story that profiling identified George Metesky, the Mad Bomber - good old fashioned detective work (ironically, by a ConEd employee, not law enforcement) identified Metesky, who happened to mostly fit a profile.
McDermid discusses the centuries' long development of forensics, including the very first forensic handbook, Song Ci's "The Washing Away of Wrongs" (~1247) and the investigation of the murder of Julius Caesar (44 BCE). More modern crimes are included. No book on murder investigations and forensics would be complete without Jack the Ripper (1888-1891), and McDermid addresses it briefly - but she includes detailed discussions of less well known serial crimes, like former fire investigator John Orr's arson spree that probably lasted decades, and took at least 4 lives - and took multiple sciences to solve.
What I found really fascinating about this book was the application of the science to the law. It's interspersed throughout the book, but especially in the last chapter, "The Courtroom." McDermid's Scottish, and for the most part, she's writing about the law of the United Kingdom. It's not the same as the United States - for example, double jeopardy has apparently been abolished in the UK, and the Crown (prosecutors) can appeal a "Not Guilty" verdict. The science is the same, but how it's used is not. The stakes are higher in the US. When the prosecution looses, that's it. Experts are, with few court appointed exceptions, hired to benefit the side that retains them. Experts aren't advocates per se, but if their testimony isn't helpful, the side that hired them doesn't produce the analysis or have them testify. It makes for a good adversarial system, but not for good science.
This is another book that made me wish Audible had a true table of contents. Here it is, with thanks to the Buffalo, NY Public Library System. The first Audible chapter is an introduction, followed by 1. The Crime Scene; 2. Fire Scene Investigation; 3. Entomology; 4. Pathology; 5. Toxicology; 6. Fingerprinting; 7. Blood Spatter and DNA; 8. Anthropology; 9. Facial Reconstruction; 10. Digital Forensics; 11. Forensic Psychology; 12. The Courtroom.
Sarah Barron's narrated with a Scottish brogue. That, together with the British English phrases, made the listen more fun than an American English narration - at least for this Californian.
The title of the review is the UK phrase for a line up.
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- Cynthia "Always moving. Always listening. Always learning. "After all this time?" "Always.""
This book is a lot of fun. Easy to listen to, brilliantly narrated by a Scotswoman who can switch effortlessly and instantly between multiple other accents. As other reviewers have said, a lot of the material is stuff that you’ll have encountered in other books and on TV, but this book puts it nicely into a neatly packaged overview of all the different aspects of forensics, illuminated with lots of great crime stories which show how forensics contributed to solving the crime.
The first eleven chapters look at the different aspects and branches of forensics; In each case there was some stuff I knew and some other material that was new for me. For example, in ‘the Crime Scene’ I learnt that there usually isn’t just one, but several crime scenes. There’s the scene of the murder, the suspect’s vehicle, the suspect’s house etc.
In ‘Fingerprinting’ I learned that a fingerprint isn’t proof of guilt, it’s a subjective piece of evidence where you’re comparing the print with the print of a suspect and looking for similarities. The context is critical and many injustices have been perpetrated when juries have been convinced that a fingerprint is a guarantee of the suspect’s guilt.
And in ‘Forensic Psychology’ it was interesting to learn how a science that once had great credibility and kudos (psychological profiling predicts the characteristics of a perpetrator based on the evidence found at the crime scene) had a massive fall from grace after it misled a police force who hounded a suspect because he matched the profile, when the real perpetrator was overlooked despite fairly clear-cut physical evidence (a shoe-print). Psychological profiling is still part of the armoury of the investigating team, but is now used with much more caution.
The final chapter deals with the courtroom, where we are disappointed to see how all the painstaking work of dedicated scientists is subjected to the adversarial legal system, where two sides, the defence and the prosecution, are hell-bent on either clearing or convicting their client and aren’t interested in establishing the truth, only in winning the case. They will often go to great lengths to discredit and humiliate expert witnesses in pursuit of this goal.
It’s a good book – a proper ‘page-turner’. One of those where you really want to carry on listening but you have to stop to get on with some aspect of daily life.